Flash Gordon

(1980) ** 1/2 Pg
115 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Mike Hodges. Cast: Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Topol, Max von Sydow, Ornella Muti.

/content/films/3784/1.jpgA clear byproduct of the runaway hit Star Wars, Dino De Laurentiis' Flash Gordon was designed as a splashy, serial-derived sci-fi adventure for the whole family (kinky overtones notwithstanding). Needless to say, Flash Gordon didn't tap the zetigeist as Star Wars did, but it has endured as a campy cult classic remembered for its over-the-top acting, design, and music by Queen.

Flash Gordon debuted in 1934 as the star of Alex Raymond's comic strip and, two years later, began headlining film serials (starring Buster Crabbe). As did Star Wars and as would Raiders of the Lost Ark, the 1980 Flash Gordon film takes a page from the serial adventures, replicating the rollercoaster plots and the action-packed spills and scrapes of the "cliffhanger" format. It was only natural that producer De Laurentiis would hire screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. (the key writer for the 1966 Batman series and film) to deliver an episodic script filled with outsized derring-do, deathtraps, and campy exchanges for heroes, villains, lovers, mad scientists and the like. Here, Flash (Sam J. Jones) is a New York Jets quarterback (hilariously wearing a "Flash" T-shirt) whose small plane—also holding travel writer Dale Arden (Melody Anderson)—crash-lands into the laboratory of Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol). Zarkov believes a recent wave of natural disasters derives from outer space and, needing assistance, shanghais Flash and Dale on a rocket ride to planet Mongo.

There, Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) easily apprehends our heroes and makes them his playthings (Flash for torture, Zarkov as mind-ray subject, Dale to be Empress of Mongo)...horrors! Luckily, Princess Aura (Ornella Muti) has taken a shine to muscular specimen Flash and thus saves him from certain death. As a world-destroying conqueror, Ming has earned the ire of neighboring kingdoms, who have pledged to defeat him and thereby win peace for the galaxy. After proving himself, Flash wins allies in Prince Barin of Arboria (James Bond-to-be Timothy Dalton) and Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed), leader of the Hawkmen of Sky City. Together, can they save Dale and take Mingo City? Does a Hawkman have wings? (Yes. Yes he does.)

Since it's B-grade camp (nowhere near as deadpan funny as Batman, for example), Flash Gordon would be merely bad if not for its highly-stylized excess in every area of production. De Laurentiis originally hoped that Federico Fellini would direct the film, which explains the film's surrealist ends, the little person on a leash that's named Fellini (naughty Dino!), and the wild, mostly fire-engine red production, costume, and set designs of Danilo Donati, who worked on a number of Fellini films. The special effects are equally wild and colorful, and the Queen music is, of course, prime camp, particularly "Flash's Theme," which director Mike Hodges (Get Carter) comically threads through the action scenes and thrill-a-minute climax. It's a bad sign that Jones' performance is almost entirely dubbed by another actor (though Jones chalks it up to a contract dispute and not artistic necessity), but bad acting is practically a requirement of the picture, one that Sydow nearly violates with his deliciously intimidating Ming.

No element of the film exemplifies its outrageous camp like the delightfully manic Blessed, whose work is hall-of-fame scenery chewing and, therefore, endlessly entertaining. I'm guessing nine out of ten people would rather watch the bearded, barrel-shaped Blessed—strapped to giant wings—bellow, "Impetuous boy! Oh well, who wants to live forever? Diiiive!" than watch Olivier deliver "To be or not to be..." Perhaps this spells the end of western civilization, but it's reason enough to give the inimitable weirdness of Flash Gordon a chance.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 6/15/2010

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Flash Gordon makes its Blu-ray debut in a nifty special edition from Universal. The picture quality here is excellent, with a clean print that comes across with its vibrant color intact, strong contrast and black level, and impressive detail; particularly for its age, Flash Gordon looks great, and certainly accurate to the filmmakers' intents. Due to source limitations, the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix doesn't make very dynamic use of the soundfield when it comes to effects. Though it's certainly serviceable and clear, it's a mainly front-heavy mix, with a notable exception: Queen's music brings all of the channels colorfully to life.

The DVD bonus features make a return appearance on Blu-ray, beginning with "Alex Ross, Renowned Comic Artist, on Flash Gordon" (13:27, SD). The title says it all, with Ross waxing enthusiastic about his favorite movie, what he sees in it, and the opportunity to do the DVD cover art.

"Writing a Classic: Screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr." (9:14, SD) finds the scribe (best known for TV's Batman) telling the story of how the movie came to be, why he approached the material as it did, and the various reactions he's gotten from the public.

"First Episode of the Flash Gordon 1936 Serial" (20:42, SD) would be more of an event if "Chapter One: Planet of Peril!" were presented in high-definition, but it's still a nice inclusion. If only the whole serial had been presented!

Rounding out the disc are the "Theatrical Trailer" (1:59, SD), Universal's My Scenes bookmarking feature, and BD-Live access.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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