Clearly inspired by 1960s Batmania, the hunka hunka burning camp that is Barbarella adapted French science-fiction comic books into gleefully oversexed cinematic pop art. Just a stone's throw from porn parody, the softcore space adventure opens with an infamous zero-gravity stripping sequence performed by Jane Fonda for then-husband Roger Vadim. It was the scene that launched a thousand puberties.
Answering a video call while still naked, space adventurer Barbarella accepts a mission from the President of Earth: find Dr. Durand Durand (Milo O'Shea of Romeo and Juliet) and secure the Positronic Ray, a dangerous weapon, in order to keep the intergalactic peace. Along the way, Barbarella rediscovers the joy of sex: sex in her culture of the future has devolved to popping a "exaltation transference pill" and touching palms, but the first new acquaintance she meets on her journey—Mark Hand (Ugo Tognazzi), the Catchman of planet Tau Ceti—sets her straight by reorienting her to good ol' fashioned intercourse. And so it goes: Barbarella sees the (strange) sights, meets new and exciting people, and has sex with them, until she at last accomplishes her mission.
Vadim's film is something of a relic, but it has extreme kitsch appeal. Everyone is in on the joke of Barbarella's high camp: it's so bad, it's good, with production design that's incredibly, colorfully weird. The bizarre sights and sounds include Barbarella's effeminate-male ship's computer Alphy, Marcel Marceau's satyr-styled Professor Ping, a psychedelic liquid creature called the Mathmos and most memorably, the blind ornithanthrope (a.k.a. "angel") Pygar (John Phillip Law)—a statuesque, loincloth-clad, winged blond.
There's plenty of flesh to go around in Barbarella, which is almost ready for Sexual Revolution prime-time. Barbarella mostly flaunts sexual liberation (she has sex often and mostly for her own pleasure), though at one point she is strapped into an "Excessive Machine" that threatens her with mechanical orgasm. Vadim also injects some questionable fetishism into the picture. Our heroine eventually gets the job done, but she's innocent to the point of ineptitude, a grown woman who talks like a little girl. Fonda seems to be doing her best Dorothy Gale, but who can blame her with lines like "Oh, if only you would!"? There's also the matter of Barbarella twice being bloodied and her clothes torn, as if Vadim is forcing Fonda into some public "role play" (for this, Fonda passed on both Bonnie and Clyde and Rosemary's Baby).
Still, Fonda could take comfort in the liberal leanings ("Why would anyone invent a weapon?") of the witty script by Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove...) and Vadim ("in collaboration with Claude Brule, Vittorio Bonicelli, Clement Biddle Wood, and Brian Degas/Tudor Gates"). Barbarella remains a camp classic, with its mad scientists and sexy aliens, its merrily stilted dubbed dialogue, and its wacky theme song ("Barbarella psychadella/There's a kind of cockle shell about you..."). Make star love, not star wars.