Retro Review - 'Flash Gordon'
FLASH! AHHHH!!! I remember watching Flash Gordon as a kid and just thinking: "Wow, this is probably the dumbest and most hilarious thing I've ever seen!". After probably fifteen years I finally decided to buy that ridiculous-looking Flash Gordon blu-ray that has been staring at me every time I sift through the bargain bin. I'm so glad I did too, because while this film is definitely cheesy, it's all the better for it and I actually have a bit of an appreciation for the craft on display and now completely understand why it has developed a pretty substantial cult following.
Flash Gordon is about a famous New York Jets football player (Sam J. Jones), who, along with a journalist named Dale Arden (Melody Anderson), board a small plane which is struck down by a meteorite. They land near a greenhouse where they meet Dr. Hans Zarkov (Chaim Topol) who believes the world's disasters are being caused by an unknown mystical force. Logically, they all board a home-made spaceship and blast off. They land on planet Mongo and are taken hostage by a powerful lord named Ming (Max Von Sydow). Here Flash must find a way to stop Ming and prevent the destruction of earth.
As a kid, watching this film was a delight and is probably the earliest time I can remember enjoying films for being "so bad that it's good". At that age, I took every film seriously, for some reason it hadn't crossed my mind that a director would create something otherwise. Well, over the course of fifteen years I learned a lot (I think), and have seen many, many so-bad-they're-good type movies. Then Flash Gordon came back around and I watched it again, beer in hand, anticipating that glorious onslaught of cringes you get while watching Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin or Tommy Wiseau's The Room. To my surprise, not a single cringe was elicited that night. This movie is a fist-pumping, semi-self aware '80s film to the core.
What's funny about this entry is that the first question I generally ask in a Retro Review is: how well does this film hold up today? Flash Gordon is a film that probably didn't even hold up when it was released back in 1980. This film looks like a parody of '70s and '80s sci-fi. It's something that is so obviously '70s-'80s era that it almost comes off as self-mocking, even though it IS an '80s film. Everything, I mean EVERYTHING is dated, yet it's all still cool to look at and you can tell that care was obviously put into many aspects of the film. I love the lava lamp-esque backdrops, green-screen sky battles and the hammy Saturday morning cartoon dialogue. The reason I laugh WITH this film and not AT it is because it fully embraces what it is. So, in the weirdest round-about way, I would say that yes, this film absolutely holds up. This is because not one single aspect of the film is trying to convince you that what you're seeing is real. While other older films tried to be state-of-the-art and over time you would eventually see their blemishes, Flash Gordon just strutted out there with nothing to hide from the start, blemishes be damned!
Another source of endless entertainment in this film is the absolutely baffling cast of characters. Being able to get Max Von Sydow in your film is one thing, but getting him to dress up like a relatively Asian-looking super-villain named Ming is an entirely different thing. I would have loved to see how the filmmakers pitched the hell out of this thing to Sydow. The film also stars Sam J. Jones as the titular character, and to this day Flash Gordon stands as the actor's only real recognizable role. This is surprising, were other filmmakers not impressed by the conviction in his acting as he uttered lines like: "Oh my God, this girl's really turning me on" or "No Vulton, it's a rational transaction! One life, for billions...". All jokes aside, I don't think this film would have worked as well without Sam J. Jones's presence, he has a dopey likability about him that is essential to this film's identity. Melody Anderson plays the journalist and Flash's love interest, and without her Flash might not have known that he only had fourteen hours left to save the earth. Then we have Timothy Dalton as Prince Barin and Brian Blessed as Prince Voltan. This was before Timothy Dalton had his short stent at James Bond and he's actually a pretty cool character here. Then we have the blindingly white grin and instantly recognizable laugh of Prince Voltan, which punctuates almost every line of dialogue Brian Blessed gets. Finally, to round out this ridiculous cast of characters, we have Chaim Topol as Hans Zarkov and Ornella Muti as the unbelievably horny Princess Aura.
I've said many things about Flash Gordon thus far, but you can't talk about this film and not at least mention the memorable score by Queen. Sure, it's basically the same song just heard at different points through out the entire run-time of the film, but boy is it effective. Every time I heard that familiar beat begin to fade in I would get an indescribable urge to break that beer bottle in my hand over my head, jump on the couch, rip my shirt off and scream: "F*** yeah!".
Another aspect of this film I admire is that it's constantly amusing, even by today's lofty standards. I was always eager to see what kind of eccentric characters they would introduce or what ludicrous action set-piece would unfold next. The sight of big, burly, bearded men with angel wings, flying against a bubbly neon sky whilst being shot down by steampunk-influenced airships is something that is permanently imprinted in my mind. Awesome.
Though this film is great in so many intentional and unintentional ways, it still gets docked points for a few things. Though Sam J. Jones is dumbly lovable in the lead role, he really doesn't have much character development whatsoever and his personality is one that is undeserving of hero-status. I also didn't like how little time was spent on earth before they all get swept up into space, you don't get a sense of how earth might be in relation to planet Mongo. I just wanted a bit of Flash's life on earth to show a bit of perspective between the two worlds.
All things considered, this is an amazing film to behold simply because it's completely earnest in its intentions of being a full-throttle blast of '80s cheese straight to the heart. There's also nothing else like it out there and that trait alone is worth a recommendation. I'll warn you though, if you haven't seen this and you're looking for something that's to be taken seriously, this is DEFINITELY not for you. That being said, this is one of the best blast-from-the-pasts I've seen recently and is worth experiencing if you know what you're walking into.