Judge Brett Cullum thinks NASA's next mission should be to tie-dye the universe.
Dale Arden: Flash! Flash, I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!
For some strange reason, members of Generation X (the current thirtysomethings) have a soft spot for the 1980 Dino De Laurentiis production of Flash Gordon. Was it the endless cable showings in the '80s, or simply the fact the movie is unabashedly goofy fun? Perhaps all the adulation comes from the fact nothing says 1980 better than Flash Gordon trapped in a lava lamp, fighting his way through Mongo, while jamming to Queen. It's hardly a serious science-fiction epic, but it's a true camp classic. De Laurentiis had visions of creating another Star Wars, but unfortunately he ended up replicating his own Barbarella more than anything else. The film is overproduced sexy, silly fun. It's guaranteed to bring a smile to your face the minute you hear the iconic opening strains of "FLASH! AH-HAAA!" sung by Queen. But will the latest Universal release of Flash Gordon: Saviour of the Universe Edition satisfy true believers?
Facts of the Case
When the earth comes under attack by a mysterious force that produces hot hail and moon fragments (flaming charcoal briquettes and dry ice), famous football player Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones, My Chauffeur) is skyjacked by Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol, Fiddler on the Roof). Zarkov is the kind of mad genius who can invent an intergalactic homemade rocket, but needs someone to put weight on a pedal as if he never heard of a well-placed cinder block. With innocent travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson, Dead & Buried) along for the ride, they end up hurled through the vortex of space (which is inexplicably tie-dyed) in a runaway rocket only to land on the psychedelic disco planet of Mongo. The gang has to face off with evil Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow, The Exorcist), who seems to be a man solely intent on bringing great cruelty to the universe. Psycho Ming has decided to annihilate Gordon's home planet out of sheer boredom. Can Flash's All-American good looks and values be enough to save the Earth? Aided by unhappy warring subjects like Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed, Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace) of the Hawkmen and Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton, License to Kill) of the Tree Planet, Flash Gordon becomes the savior of the universe. He stands for everyone one of us, he'll save every man, every woman, every child, he's a man named Flash.
Flash Gordon was misunderstood when it came out, mainly due to the timing and tastes in science fiction of the time. The box office wasn't terrible, with just over $27 million in domestic gross for 1980, but it certainly wasn't the colossal hit The Empire Strikes Back was in the same year. The film achieved exactly what it set out to do, but audiences weren't prepared for the tone and visual language of the film. Flash Gordon wasn't a serious science-fiction work, but rather a farcical rock opera with its tongue firmly planted in cheek. The main purpose was to replicate the tone and look of both the original comic book and the serial presentations of the story. It angled to be simply a sparkling good time. The special effects weren't designed to be groundbreaking but were decidedly retro, and the De Laurentiis team never worried if strings and matte paintings were all too visible. Oscar-winning production designer and costumer Danilo Donati (Caligula and most of the Fellini films) walked away with the film by filling the screen with exquisite creations that funnel space through the warped sensibilities of Studio 54. Cecil B. DeMille would drool in envy at the excesses on display. It's a film that bursts at the seams with colorful playful visuals culled from comic books and old films. Still, American audiences were expecting something darker and more serious than a blissfully glitzed-out Eurotrash rock opera.
The history and production of Flash Gordon is as colorful as the end product. Originally George Lucas wanted to buy the rights to remake the 1930s Flash Gordon, but he discovered those had already been purchased by Italian schlockmeister Dino De Laurentiis. Lucas shrugged his shoulders, and went off to write Star Wars. Meanwhile De Laurentiis went through eight different directors, including Frederico Fellini (8 1/2) and Nicolas Roeg (The Man Who Fell to Earth), while trying to get his film made. Finally he settled on British director Mike Hodges, who was mainly known for Get Carter and the Michael Crichton sci-fi thriller The Terminal Man. The producer and director definitely wanted to do something different with Flash Gordon, and their take was more melodramatic than serious. This was not going to be the serious-minded Star Trek or Star Wars, but instead a loving valentine to comic books and serial movies of the '30s. The first order of business was to get a rock band to score the film. Mike Hodges' first instinct was to employ psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd, but that never came to pass. Instead he ended up with Queen, who seemed a better choice to camp up the comic-flavored project. Queen's work is catchy and captures the ecstatic tone easily with Brian May's swirling guitars, robotic keyboards, and the vocal bookends provided by Freddie Mercury. Rather than create a realistic space look, tanks of water had brightly colored dye swirled through them to induce a lava lamp look as if comic ink wafted through the vortex of space. The costumes and set pieces were equally trippy and pretty simultaneously. Flash Gordon was treated like opera, and everything about it was over the top. The cheese-ball big-budget film is a riot of swirling gaudy colors, questionable plotting, and ham-fisted dialogue.
The actors were in on the indulgent tone, and simply had a ball with the material. At one time Kurt Russell (Escape From New York) and Dennis Hopper (Blue Velvet) were in talks to be Flash Gordon and Dr. Zarkov, but ultimately the roles went to newcomer Sam J. Jones (a sexy Dolph Lundgren clone) and screen legend Topol (known mainly for a musical). Jones was indeed a pretty man, but he was severely stilted on screen. Urban legend has it his lines in the film are dubbed by a more accomplished thespian. Sam was nominated for a Razzie award for his apparent lack of talent on display throughout the movie. The more accomplished Topol as Zarkov more effectively chews scenery and sappy dialogue right along with fellow Oscar winner Max Von Sydow. Von Sydow makes the most of the villain role, lumbering along in 70-pound outfits (he could only stand for minutes) as Ming the Merciless. Von Sydow is an absolute joy to watch, all tics, twitches, and menace. He was nominated for a British Academy Award (BAFTA) for supporting actor in a comedic role. Melody Anderson seems to cry constantly as Dale Arden, but somehow remains sassy enough in the right moments to make us like her. Italian screen siren Ornella Muti (Oscar) gets to pout and preen in peek-a-boo outfits as Ming's rebellious daughter Princess Aura, a memorably sexy performance that climaxes with a torture sequence. Another Italian actress of note, Mariangela Melato (The Seduction of Mimi), gets to play cold, harsh General Kala. The golden Klytus is played by British TV legend Peter Wyngarde (Jason King). Wyngarde infamously lost his career in 1975 when he was caught in a public restroom getting amorous with a truck driver. For this film he appears in an outfit that can only be described as "Darth Vader goes Vegas!" Classically trained British actors Timothy Dalton and Brian Blessed hopped onboard as two of the most iconic Flash Gordon characters—the dueling Prince Barin and winged Prince Vultan. Dalton looked like a suave Valentino playing Robin Hood in his green suit with tights and clipped mustache, while Blessed used his big booming laugh and voice to create some of the most memorable moments in the film. Who can forget Blessed screaming for his waves of Hawkmen to "DDIIIVVEE!"? Richard O'Brien (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) has a short role as one of Barin's men. There is also a brief appearance by Tim Burton's main Oompah Loompa from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Deep Roy as a dwarf creature named Fellini (nod to the Italian director once attached to the project). The cast was designed to have maximum international appeal, and it certainly was a diverse group.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Fans of the film have been holding on to a simple stereo non-anamorphic bare-bones disc from Image released early in the DVD format history. The only saving grace of that first release was the inclusion of several deleted scenes missing from the VHS copy. The Image edition has long been out of print (fetching exorbitant prices on eBay), so this is the second time the film will be released in the States. But there's a thorny issue when we look across the sea at another Silver Anniversary edition of Flash Gordon released by Momentum. Oh, the injustice of all these different regions for DVD distribution! In Europe (region 2) Flash Gordon received a collector's edition two-disc release which provided the movie and the Queen soundtrack album remastered on separate discs. The European collector's DVD included two separate commentaries from director Mike Hodges and actor Brian Blessed. There were also interviews with the director, and the inclusion of a serial episode from the earlier incarnation of the character on the silver screen. Only one of these features gets ported over for the Region One release.
Universal had to create all-new special features for the Flash Gordon: Saviour of the Universe Edition. Originally planned was a commentary with lead actors Sam J. Jones and Melody Anderson, but the studio wasn't willing to pay for their participation. Rumor has it those two actors may provide their own track that you may be able to download later. What we do get are two ten-minute interviews with artist Alex Ross and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. Ross is an artist who was commissioned to create the new cover image as well as a collector's series of action figures based on the movie. He was eight years old when the film came out and can only speak as a rabid fan. Lorenzo Semple, Jr. is more insightful, but seems a bit bitter at his experience with De Laurentiis and his production company, who seemed to care more about the glitz than the script. Each of these interviews lasts ten minutes. Also included is a first chapter of a Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serial from the Universal vaults. Its main purpose is to show the serial's tone and effects, so you have a point of reference for the feature film. You'll see how great De Laurentiis and Mike Hodges replicated the original. There is a trailer for the new Sci Fi Channel series, but it is merely a logo and reveals nothing. Rounding things out is a vintage 1980 trailer promoting the film.
You'd think with the lack of extras Universal's Flash Gordon: Saviour of the Universe Edition would be a purchase to skip in favor of the other European edition (playable only on PAL capable DVD players). Not so fast, though, because the transfer found on the North American disc eclipses every other release. Universal has remastered the film and done an incredible job with a gorgeous color-correct anamorphic presentation. It has no traceable digital artifacts, and the contrast levels are impeccable. The European PAL edition's skin tones are washed out and colors run too hot, making everything blurrier than it should be. This U.S. product is far more detailed, and the surround mix is incredibly well done to boot. The only downside to this stellar work is you see the grain and film limitations of the source easily. This is the best Flash Gordon has ever looked, and all the original shots are there in exquisite detail. You couldn't ask for a better technical presentation, and this is the closest we will get to a reference quality print.
Admittedly Flash Gordon is a purposefully bad film, and it was hardly the runaway hit producers were hoping for. Yet something about Flash Gordon makes it addictively rewatchable. It has a lively tone, and it's a whole lot of fun to watch. It works as camp because it was earnestly made, and possesses a loving tone for the source material. The movie moves quickly, has tons of action, is unafraid of hammy acting, looks incredible, and has a classic rock soundtrack that was some of Queen's best work. It is full of pleasures you never imagined—a Hawkman who delivers every line as if he won the lottery, James Bond sticking his hands in tree stumps, sexy fetish costumes, Italian sex bombs, a blond, ripped quarterback as space hero, and swirling colors instead of a black space void. You'll giggle and clap with glee watching Flash Gordon, and it's high time this cult favorite gets the digital transfer it deserves. It's a shame Universal didn't come up with a more robust package of extras, but it all looks and sounds gorgeous. It'll hold everyone over for the next few years when someone inevitably will finally load the feature up.
Guilty pleasures don't come any bigger than Flash Gordon. He's never looked so good!
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• Interview with Artist Alex Ross
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