Julien Neaves, Editor
On December 5, 1980 space opera Flash Gordon flashed on to (sorry, couldn’t resist) cinema screens and blasted audiences with its brightly-coloured awesomeness. To celebrate its 40th anniversary we revisit the film that fully embraced its comic strip roots and then slathered delicious 80s cheese all over it.
Flash Gordon is based on the comic strip of the same name created by Alex Raymond in 1934 and which ran in newspapers up to 2003. Now that is out of this world. The film finds American footballer Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones), travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson), and quirky scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol) battling the forces of alien conqueror Emperor Ming the Merciless (veteran actor Max von Sydow) on the multi-cultural planet of Mongo. Do I need a spoiler alert for a four-decade old movie? I do? Seriously? Fine. With a planet-sized SPOILER ALERT here’s a retrospective review in four slices:
Slice #1: Flash – Ahhhhh! – Saviour of the Universe!
We can’t talk about Flash Gordon without talking about that awesome soundtrack by legendary rock band Queen. The Flash Theme alone is so high energy and full of ridiculous and overly descriptive lyrics that it will bore worm into your brain and have you singing along every time it plays.
Praise must also go to Howard Blake as his additional score pieces added to the epic scale and grandeur of this intergalactic adventure. An awesomely fun film deserves an awesomely fun soundtrack, and both Queen and Blake deliver.
Slice #2: So shiny!
In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope an effort was made to make parts of that galaxy far, far away look old and lived-in. Flash Gordon product designers were like, “Screw that! Make everything bright and colourful and shiny!” This film is just an assault of colour, with lots of deep reds and golds everywhere. But the comic strip was quite colourful, so if the intent was to mirror that, then mission accomplished.
The costuming is consistent with the garish set design and I enjoyed all the vivid and elaborate outfits. The ladies especially offered a lot of eye candy but my favourite was actually the gold and black of evil General Klytus. There is just something so primal and imposing about his look that it resonated with me as a child watching it and even as an adult revisiting it.
Another feather in the film’s cap is the world building. Sure some places are only name dropped and the sets for Arboria and the Hawkmen kingdom are pretty basic. But despite these limitations there is a sense of a wider world, and the glimpses that the audiences sees of the wonders of Mongo only pique the appetite to see more.
Slice #3: Defenders of the Earth
The best aspect of the film is the colourful characters, and I’m not talking about the costuming at this point. Jones is fun as the prototypical All American guy who eats danger for breakfast. Future James Bond Timothy Dalton is aptly cast as the suave but impetuous Prince Barin. And Brian Blessed is perfection as the larger-than-life Prince Vultan. What a laugh! Strangely I found Von Sydow a bit meh as Ming, and he seemed to be phoning it in somewhat. Ming is supposed to be this ultimate symbol of menace and destruction, but he mostly comes off a d—k here.
Now it is time to talk about the ladies. Flash Gordon does a great job in presenting strong female characters. Sure Dale gets held hostage and Ming forces her into a wedding, but she also tricks a slave girl, escapes confinement and blasts away guards like it’s nobody business.
And Ornella Muti as Princess Aura? Fuhgeddaboutit! Not only is she so incredibly gorgeous that your eyes might water, but she is the epitome of the empowered seductress. She lights up every moment on screen and it is no surprise that Klytus, Baron and Flash are so taken with her. I mean, Dale was cute and all but Aura was…
Slice #4: Camp Flash
I will readily admit that the plot of Flash Gordon is ridiculous. First you have Ming torturing Earth with natural disasters, which is understandable as he is an intergalactic d—k. And he explains to Zarkov if a planet sends a vessel to uncover the origin of the attacks he will know the planet is a threat and destroy it. This is exactly what happens, but for some reason Earth is placed on some arbitrary doomsday countdown for no other reason than the movie needs to happen, as the Pitch Meeting guy would say.
And then there’s the scene where Ming’s cronies suck out Zarkov’s memories. There is a long montage of his past, including inexplicable scenes of him seeing himself (aren’t memories supposed to be POV!), but these memories are never brought up again and does nothing to develop the pretty bland character. Here the film’s pacing drags, and the whole scene could have been cut down without losing anything.
Other than the Zarkov memory montage the film keeps a pretty brisk pace and leaves little time to get bored. Before you know it Flash is football fighting Ming’s guards, almost dead but not, playing death games on Arboria, fighting Baron to the death, getting blown up on the Hawkmen planet, almost dead but not again, leading the Hawkmen in sky battle, and then piercing Ming’s chest with the business end of a rocket.
Now the effects don’t hold up at all (they didn’t even hold up back then) but there is a campy, 50s Sci Fi charm to them. And three are three ultra cringe moments: Klytus’ eyes popping out after he dies, the Hawkmen spelling FLASH in formation, and the infamous Flash freeze frame victory jump. But all these moments made me laugh because they are in sync with the highly campy tone of the film.
So Flash Gordon held up a lot better than I expected, and I did have a blast watching it. And if you decide to revisit it then I think you will have a blast as well.
Julien’s Score: 7 out of 10
So what’s your favourite Flash Gordon moment? For more 80s Sci Fi you can check out Sommer’s review of The Hidden here. And for more than 100 Sci Fi reviews and lists you can check out our Sci Fi Fantastic archive here.
Julien “Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”.
I can also be found posting on Instagram as redmanwriter and talking about TV and movie stuff on Facebook at Movieville.