Universal // 1980 // 112 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // June 11th, 2010
Flash Gordon is, objectively speaking, a pretty awful movie. But remove your thinking cap for 110 minutes and watch it in good company and there are few experiences, I would argue, that can be as fun as drinking in Sam J. Jones' misadventures in a sci-fi fantasy world that has a production design just slightly more understated than the Biblical apocalypse as detailed in Revelation. Speaking of drinking, that would also enhance the viewing experience.
Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow) rules the universe and from time to time feels the need to obliterate a populated planet with "hot hail." Caught in his crosshairs this time? You got it, planet Earth. As catastrophe rains down, all-star Jets quarterback Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones), journalist Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) and paranoid scientist Hanz Zarkov (Topol) launch themselves into space with Zarkov's phallus-shaped rocket and get sucked into a black hole. They're eventually puked up at the doorstep of Ming's palace and almost immediately Flash is scheming a way to unite the people's of Ming's kingdom of Mongo in a good old-fashioned government overthrow.
Before he can become a hero of the people, Flash will have to overcome an onslaught of palace guards using his football skills, come back from the dead, climb out of a swamp cage, escape the clutches of a giant forest crab, defeat Timothy Dalton in a whipping contest, convince the pantywaist Hawkmen to grow a pair and fight, fly a rocket cycle through a cloud, commandeer a warship and, finally, ram it into the palace before Ming marries Dale. Because, as everyone knows, Mongo's divorce statutes are incredibly complex to circumvent.
Ridiculous and corny beyond belief, Flash Gordon still stands as one of my all-time favorite movie-watching memories. When I was young, my brother and I would just eat this up, wearing out our VHS tape with repeated viewings. Despite my love for it, I knew even then that it was cheesy and moronic, especially when compared to more serious sci-fi fantasy fare like Star Wars or Jabberjaw.
The story goes that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas sat around to write Raiders of the Lost Ark and they each took turns reeling off things they've always wanted to see in a movie. That turned into the greatest adventure film ever made. I suspect that something similar happened during the brainstorming sessions of Flash Gordon. Dino De Laurentiis and his crew drew up a checklist that looked something like this:
1. Planets that look like vaginas
2. A Muppet in a stump that blows snot on men's hands.
3. Brian Blessed with plastic wings strapped to his back.
4. A scene where eyeballs and a tongue simultaneously droop out of a man's gold mask.
5. My brother-in-law Phil in a goofy frog costume.
6. Timothy Dalton getting whipped repeatedly.
7. An impromptu football game. (This was probably a dare from someone in the room.)
8. A guy getting impaled with a rocket ship. (Another dare.)
So much crazy, all dressed up with outlandish costume design, bolstered by a bitching Queen soundtrack, and delivered by actors with the subtlety of a cement truck with its brake lines cut. All churned, stewed and sautéed into a tasty cobbler of camp.
Let's keep the good times rolling and take a gander at the players in this epic romp:
Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones)
Flash is the rarest of protagonists, a man who is both fully Alpha and fully Beta. He's tall, strong, blonde-haired and can whoop ass when called upon. But he's also a doormat, manipulated by Ming's daughter, laughed at by Mongo's residents over his naïve claims about peace, whipped almost immediately after he meets Dale for the first time and inexplicably refuses to push Ming to his death when he had the opportunity, even though he showed no restraint in impaling Klytus and dropping Ming would have saved countless Hawkmen lives. Emblematic of his humility, he wears shirts with his own name on them.
Dale Arden (Melody Anderson)
She took one look at Flash and claimed him for her own. Ah, whatever. Flash is a jellyfish, so good on her to lock him down. On the outside she's a modest-dressed journalist, but when zapped by a magic robot beam she will become a disoriented belly-dancer. She can also break out of Ming's palace and neutralize his royal guards with an assortment of cartwheels (?!) and stealth attacks. Of course, Ming's royal guards are about as effective guarding as Sam J. Jones is at line reading.
Hans Zarkov (Topol)
A disgraced scientist who built a greenhouse and worked with a chubby lab assistant whom he may or may not have had a playfully romantic relationship with, Zarkov was the only expert to foresee an extraterrestrial attack. His anti-alien rocket ship had a serious design flaw, though: it could only be operated when a red pedal was depressed, which was located opposite the flight controls. Thankfully Flash and Dale showed up, so he was all set, though he could have also used a mop handle, which, ironically, would have displayed more charisma than either of his two passengers. He would later go on to play a pivotal role in the overthrow of Ming thanks to...well, I can't remember what it was he did precisely, but he got to stand up there at the victory celebration, so it must have been something important.
Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton)
Barin ruled the forest world of Arboria and judging by his mustache and ill-fitting green tights, moonlit as Mongo's premiere adult film star. He's got a thing for Ming's daughter Aura, yet doesn't seem to mind that she openly flaunts her trips to her pleasure moon where she bangs other dudes. Barin finally signs on for Flash's freedom force when Flash rescues him from certain death. He is declared supreme ruler following Ming's downfall, ensuring decades of oppressive eco-friendly legislation for Mongo's citizens.
Princess Aura (Ornella Muti)
Ming's horny daughter is interested in any life form that has the potential for an erection. She spends her days dawdling around the palace dressed in as little as possible, dragging a dwarf by a leash.
Klytus (Peter Wyngarde)
Ming's second banana. He flies in a rocket shaped like a hornet and sleeps standing up.
Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed)
Leader of the Hawkmen, Prince Vultan has hated Ming from the get-go, yet summons the stones to attack him only when a real-life Ken doll begs him to. He is petrified of facing Ming's dreaded imperial fleet but as we see, that fleet consists of one ship that can be taken down by several dozen men flying around in their underwear.
Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow)
The man. Ming rules a vast space kingdom comprised of bird people and Robin Hood impersonators and walking condom wrappers. What he lacks for in proper defensive spending (his palace laser cannons boast the pinpoint accuracy of Dice-K), he makes up for in an unquenchable sexual appetite.
Here's the straight dope on the Blu-ray: Universal has put together one of the finest looking visual treatments for a catalog release I have ever seen. The 2.35:1 VC-1 1080p update is marvelous, sporting a stunning level of detail and, more importantly, flawless color work. Flash Gordon is, of course, packed with so many hues, your eyes will blister. The nutso production design is given its due respect with this high-def makeoever; one of the best this year, no doubt. The sound work isn't far behind, the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio doing what it has to do, namely pushing out that Queen soundtrack so it peels the paint in your mud room. Extras are recycled from the "Savior of the Universe Edition" DVD: interviews with Alex Ross gushing about his love for the film and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. amusingly and candidly recounting the writing process and the frist episode of the 1936 serial.
The movie is big, moronic fun and the technical upgrade is dramatic. Disappointing extras keep Universal from hitting the trifecta.
Not Guil...no, no, not the bore worms!!!!!!
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Bonus Episode