Thursday, July 12, 2012

It Came From the '80s: Flash Gordon

Welcome to yet another new column at F This Movie!.

As anyone who regularly reads my "Heavy Action" column or who remembers the lineup for this year's F This Movie Fest knows, I have a deep, deep love for '80s genre movies. I was a child of cable TV, well-versed in everything from the classics that played in heavy rotation on HBO and TMC to the more obscure deep cuts of USA Up All Night, a show for which I would forgo hours of sleep so that I wouldn't miss it.

I love '80s action movies, but those are being covered elsewhere on this site. I love, love, love '80s horror, but there are countless sites already devoted to the subject. This column, which will run when it runs, will instead devote itself to science fiction and fantasy movies of the 1980s, because there was a SHIT TON of that during the decade. Please understand that I will not just be approaching these movies simply as someone with fond memories of watching so many of them on cable growing up, even though I have fond memories of watching so many many of them on cable growing up. Nor will I be approaching any of these movies ironically, because I hate that. Yes, I know a lot of the decade's genre output was terrible. That doesn't mean I'm going to spend a 1,000 words a week just ripping on something. If something is bad, let's figure out why it's bad -- or, better yet, if it's secretly good.

This brings us to the Dino DeLaurentis-produced Flash Gordon from 1980, a movie that's been classified as 'so bad it's good' practically since it was released despite the fact that it's really so good it's good. Ironic successes (like Troll 2 or Birdemic) work on terms other than what they intended. Flash Gordon works because it's exactly the movie that it wants to be.
There were and are a lot of fans of Alex Raymond's original Flash Gordon comic strip from the '30s that hate what director Mike Hodges and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. did to the character in the film adaptation, because it doesn't treat the character with the proper seriousness and reverence. It's too silly and campy at times -- more Barbarella than Star Wars. Now, it would be easy to tell those people to lighten up and suggest that it's just a comic strip and shouldn't be taken that seriously. Writer Semple Jr. has said as much. Maybe there's some truth to that, but I don't really think so. I mean, Batman is just a comic book character, but we can all agree that the '60s TV series doesn't really him justice, right? These people love the character of Flash Gordon, and the only opportunity they've had to see his world in a big screen adaptation was, in their eyes, squandered by a group of people who goofed on it.

I get why Flash Gordon fans don't like Flash Gordon. But those of us who didn't go into the movie with any preexisting notions or affection for the character can better appreciate the movie for what it is, divorced from what we think it should be. Sometimes, it's a sincere attempt at space opera. Sometimes it's a goofy parody. At times, it tries to be funny and fails. Other times, it's funny by accident. It's silly. It's violent. Juvenile. Kinky. It's such a weird mix of tones across the board -- and that includes the acting. Sam Jones, a former Playgirl centerfold who was still fairly new to acting at the time, is all stiff and corny, clearly doing his best at playing the square-jawed hero. He either doesn't know what movie he's starring in or never lets on that he knows it's goofy. There's no winking at the camera; either way, the result works in the same way that Casper Van Dien's performance in Starship Troopers works. It's pure, stone-faced sincerity. Melody Anderson is in a '30s screwball comedy. Timothy Dalton plays it straight and makes for a pretty good swashbuckling scoundrel. Max von Sydow, star of many SAD and SOMBER Bergman films, mostly underplays as the villainous Ming the Merciless. British actor Brian Blessed goes 180 degrees the other direction, cackling and shouting every single one of his lines. Richard O'Brien is on hand almost as a predictor of the film's eventual cult status. Broadway legend Topol shows up. Italian model-turned-actress Ornella Muti makes her English-language debut, often sounding like she might have learned her lines phonetically ("Not the bore worms!"). Everyone is acting in a different movie, and the mixture of styles creates a kind of fascinating alchemy. It's some kind of beautiful mistake.
Large parts of the movie feel like a dream, from the burning red skies to the loose, episodic narrative (like you're drifting in and out of someone else's consciousness) to the fact that Sam Jones' voice has been dubbed over by another actor. It gives Flash a kind of flat remove from everything, despite the fact that Jones is committed to every second he's on screen; the two things don't match up, like the "Silencio" sequence in Mullholland Dr. ("There is no band, and yet we hear a band.") Characters float around on wires in the film, too light to be realistic but too heavy to be a special effect. Your eyes can't quite trust what they see in Flash Gordon.

Then there's the production and costume design by Danilo Donati, the movie's true mad genius. Every choice made about the look of the movie is so overly ornate, so big, so bathed in blood red and shiny gold. It's gloriously, beautifully TACKY -- science fiction by way of Donald Trump. Every set is ten times larger and more complicated than it needs to be, and often times has nothing to do with the demands of the story (Donati refused to read scripts, instead just designing what he "felt"). It's like the Krypton segments of Superman: The Movie, stretched to feature length. And on Mescalin. Producer Dino DeLaurentis was famous for attempting to reinterpret and recreate American successes but getting them wrong, and Flash Gordon represents his effort to cash in on Star Wars but fundamentally misunderstands much of what made that movie work. Lucas created a world that was fantastic but felt lived-in -- it was grounded in its own kind of reality. DeLaurentis and Donati instead build a world that is pristine and expensive and SHINY, jamming every corner of every frame with something to look at. Lucas wouldn't do that until the Special Editions.
And, of course, I've gone on and one about all of the things that are interesting or special about Flash Gordon without a single mention of what puts it into the stratosphere: the soundtrack by Queen. Nowadays, the refrain of the "Flash! Ah--aaah!" theme just adds to the camp factor with most audiences -- it's what they remember when they think of the movie. But what gets ignored is that score KICKS FUCKING ASS and is yet another contributing factor to the movie's fascinating personality. This is a loud, gaudy movie, and the glam rock score by the all-time greatest glam rock band suits it perfectly and distinguishes it from every other genre movie of the decade. DeLaurentis tried the same trick again a few years later by getting Toto to score Dune, and while I dig the music in that movie, the results just weren't the same.

I had the privilege of seeing Flash Gordon screened with an audience last year, and the movie PLAYS. Some of the reaction was ironic hipster laughter, no doubt, but most of it was just the laughter of people having a great time. So many genre movies from the '80s are so plodding and lifeless (has anyone actually tried to watch Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared Syn lately?) that we should give due credit to a movie that's so super entertaining. Ultimately, that's what Flash Gordon is: a movie that does everything in its power -- and some things outside of its power -- to entertain the audience. It's SO MUCH FUN.

On the Blu-ray (and special edition DVD) of the movie, artist Alex Ross (who calls Flash Gordon his favorite movie of all time) gets right at the heart of what makes the movie special: it is unlike any movie ever made. Whether or not you like the finished product, it's hard to disagree with him.

Not every It Came From the '80s column will be this easy, because for every Flash Gordon there is a Gor. For every Beastmaster, there is a Deathstalker. For every Secret of NIMH, there is a Care Bears Movie II. Hopefully, you guys will stick with me through the good, the bad and the Ice Pirates.

Got a movie you want to see covered in It Came From the '80s? Let us know in the comments below.

Don't forget to order tickets for the upcoming F This Movie! screening of Die Hard in Chicago on August 2nd.


  1. don't you be knocking my Ice Pirates.

  2. "Dispatch war rocket 'Ajax' to bring back his BODDI!!!"

    Other then "The Greatest Adventure of All" animated TV special, this movie is one of the only Flash Gordon incarnations I like. I tried to read old Alex Raymond comic strips, and to watch old Buster Crabbe serials (I went to public screening of those), and I was really bored by them, mostly because of that dated movie serial style of storytelling ("from one cliffhanger to another"), that doesn't work if you watch the entire serial back-to-back.

    As for the movie itself, it's exactly the reason why I like sci-fi and comic-books in general. It's fun, it's upbeat, it actually has colors other then grey, there are hand made special effects as opposed to CGI and it doesn't fell the need to justify or logicaly explain anything. There are fat hawk-men dressed like Vikings...and a nation of Robin Hoods! So what? Move along!

    And I'm pretty sure the same people who hate this movie ("because it's campy and it's not faithful to the comic books"), are the same people who go around saying the Dark Knight is OMG! GREATEST MOVIE EVER EVER EVER!! IT'S PERFECT! THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH IT! IF YOU DON'T LIKE IT, YOU'RE A PUSSY! BLABLABLA! Take that as you will.

  3. I saw this movie for the first time earlier this year. Patrick is definitely correct about all the actors/actresses acting like their in a different movie.

    I also want to bring up something not mentioned...The inappropriate orgasmic groans in this film! Tell me that I'm not the only one that noticed them! Also, "Hawkmen, DIIIIVVE!!!", best live delivery ever!!

    Patrick, I would recommend that you cover "Masters of the Universe" but I feel that you would be bascially cutting and pasting your "Flash Gordon" review because I feel that they are simliar films(Movie based on a beloved(?) property, the fans of that particular property hating the liberties the movie took, wildy inconsistent acting, crazy costume design, etc., etc.), but that's up to you.

    1. I wanted to comment on all the weird sexuality in the movie that I didn't pick up on when I was a kid, but I didn't know how far down that rabbit hole to go (I just threw out the word "kinky"). There's a LOT of it in the movie, from Flash imprisoned in chains and a leather speedo to Ornella Muti being whipped half naked to Ming's power ring that whips Dale into a trance of ecstasy. The weirdest part of that is sequence is when Klytus (the movie's Destro) makes mention of how Dale's reaction is ALMOST AS RESPONSIVE AS MING'S DAUGHTER.


      I actually wrote a piece on Masters of the Universe last summer. You can read it here. But thanks for the suggestion!

    2. New suggestions: Legend, The Stuff, and Trancers.

  4. This made me nostalgia hard. I used to watch this on laserdisc all the time as a kid. So many of the scenes are etched onto my memory. Mostly Klytus' face as it encounters some spikes.

    I even made a beveling, spike platform out of a plastic lid for my GI Joes to fight on. Man, Flash Gordon knew what was up.

    1. That Klytus scene scarred me bad when I was a kid. I would have to leave the room when that part was on.

      Even seeing it now, I'm surprised at how gory and gross it is for a PG movie. The '80s were a different time.

  5. Fun column. I've never been the biggest fan of Flash Gordon but there's things to like in the movie for sure. I think I might like it more now because of (spoiler) the Sam Jones cameo in Ted.

    Suggestions for the future: Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and Willow.

    1. I kept waiting for that running thread to pay off, and it never really did. I enjoyed all the references because I'm a Flash Gordon fan, but a lot of that stuff felt the most like Family Guy to me. Am I alone there?

  6. My suggestions would be: Cocoon, Alien Nation & The Abyss.

  7. David Lynch's Blue Velvet.

  8. I grew up reading the Flash Gordon comic strip along with Lee Falks' The Phantom and Chester Gold's Dick Tracy; the three were my Holy Trilogy of daily (and Sundays in color!) newspaper comic strip fun along with a few others (but Flash, Kit and Dick were the man! :-P).

    Which may explain why, despite liking individual elements from each of the movie versions of these comic strips (the production design/photography of "Dick Tracy," Treat Williams' heavy in "The Phantom," Tim Dalton's awesome Prince Barin in "Flash Gordon," etc.) I don't really care for any of them as movies. The combination of a one's imagination, the 'wait-till-next-day' anticipation and the fact these stories never ended and could go on forever in comic strip form were powerful tools to making you love these characters and enjoy their stories. None of that comes through in these movies but at least "Flash Gordon" embraces its own nonsense with so much relish that we, "MST3K"-trained watchers, can take it apart for the laughable mess that it ended up being (except for Dalton, because James Bond!).

  9. So looking forward to reading this column! Just watched Roger Corman's Galaxy of Terror on Netflix the other day because I vaguely remember my Dad taking me to see that when I was EIGHT! Talk about being emotionally scarred. I would love to hear your thoughts on THAT!

  10. As crazy as this film is, I always liked it very much.
    The colorful and kitschy sets and costumes and over the top scenery chewing of most of the actors, combined with the musical talents of Howard Blake and Queen made for a very entertaining and even surprising visit at my local cinema back in 1980.

    I remember I expected something more earnest, maybe because every SciFi film of that time was a relatively earnest endeavour (Black Hole, Star Trek, Alien).

    The movie is still great fun, but considering the big budget of this production, what really bothered me then and now are the really really bad effects.
    It may be intentional but this seems to be a Dino de Laurentiis problem, because just 4 years later his production of "Dune" was also an optical feast with a lot of bad effects.

    Nevertheless I like this campy gem a lot and watching Max von Sydow in anything is always a delight.

    "...jamming every corner of every frame with something to look at. Lucas wouldn't do that until the Special Editions."
    Yes, but the problem regarding Lucas is, that instead of jamming every corner with something to look at, he jammed every corner with something distracting.