Monday, August 27, 2012
Academy of the Underrated: Flash Gordon (1980)
Of Hollywoods' attempts to jump back into the sci-fi game in the late 70s and early 80s, none is quite so endearingly crazy as Dino de Laurentiis' feature film Flash Gordon. It was misguided from the start, a throwback to the deliberate camp of 60s films like Barbarella rather than believable fantasy worlds, but while it was a recipe for commercial disappointment it's become an utterly charming cult film. With a gorgeous candy-colored visual style, wonderfully over the top actors, and a hilarious rock score with songs by Queen, it was the Speed Racer of its day, and it has everything you could want apart from a good lead performance. Oh, well, you can't have it all.
The movie begins with the planet Earth coming in the crosshairs of Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), ruler of Mongo and all its satellites, and allegedly the entire universe. As our world is bombarded with natural disasters, and the moon starts to fall from the sky, Jets quarterback Flash Gordon (Sam Jones) and reporter Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) find themselves in the lab of Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol), a mad scientist who thinks he knows what's causing all this. He leads them at gunpoint into his homemade rocket and off they jet to Mongo, located in a swirling cloud of neon gasses, where the evil Ming takes them prisoner and sets out trying to kill Flash, marry Dale, and enlist Zarkov in his secret police to control the restless races of hawk men, lizard men, and Robin Hood refugees. Flash is rescued by the lusty Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), Dale and Zarkov are captured by the hawk men and their ruler Vultan (Brian Blessed), and one thing leads to another and sooner or later you're flying blind on a rocket cycle and dueling with Timothy Dalton on a giant spiked platform.
The film establishes a goofy tone from the get-go and never tries too hard to escape it. This is probably what doomed it commercially, as audiences just emerging from the naturalistic cinema of the seventies weren't quite ready for something so blatant about its artifice. From a script loaded with one-liners to deliberately gaudy (but still gorgeous) art design, Flash Gordon works hard to establish a camp tone, and when the occasional serious moment creeps through (including a genuinely oddly staged series of flashbacks for Zarkov) it feels extremely out of place. However, the film not taking itself seriously doesn't prevent it from achieving a weird intensity- the atmosphere is simply so heady that it's hard to avoid giving in to it.
The major obstacle to all this is, ironically, Flash himself; Sam Jones had very little acting experience, and can't quite manage the sincerity needed to make a part like this work. Then again, part of the problem may be that much of his dialogue was dubbed over (apparently due to a pay dispute), which makes lines that were clumsy to start with seem downright robotic. Anderson fares better as Dale, but it ultimately falls to everyone else to provide the necessary enthusiasm to sell the fantasy; fortunately, Zarkov and all the Mongo natives have a grand time of it. Von Sydow's Ming revels in his own evilness, and Brian Blessed steals every scene he appears in and several he doesn't.
Far from being just another alien planet, Mongo is a collection of floating rock islands suspended in a sea of swirling neon gasses. Reds and golds are everywhere, and every little planetoid offers its own unique feel. (There's actually a good crazy sci-fi idea buried in here, implying that Ming acquired each kingdom by laying waste to their planets the same way he's attacking Earth.) This is another one of those films where the atmosphere is everything; it's a lush, opulent experience in which narrative and characterization take backseats to spectacle, not so much that the whole thing falls apart but enough that one is never compelled to sweat the details. It's not just that the film looks good, though- it's also backed by a truly awesome score by Queen and the more traditional composer Howard Blake. (It's frequently obvious who did what, but the rock score and orchestral material do blend nicely.) The theme music's signature piano rhythm becomes a wonderful driving force in the third act, and helps to build some genuine intensity.
This movie is just plain fun. There are a lot of dumb jokes and silly quips delivered with the utmost conviction by actors who seem momentarily to believe that they're psychotic aliens waging war for control of a candy-color wonderland. The film is outright audacious in just how far it's willing to go; when Ming elects to marry Dale, we're treated to an electric guitar rendition of "Here Comes The Bride" and a floating rocket-pulled banner reading "All Beings Shall Make Merry On Pain Of Death". A scene featuring two characters held in chains begins with the line "Tell me more about this man Houdini", Dale and Aura have a pillow fight, and Richard O' Brien in a brief appearance manages to be one of the least over-the-top people in the entire film.
Camp can be a dangerous thing; it almost implies a kind of laziness, as though the filmmakers aren't willing to put in the effort to actually draw you into a story. But Flash Gordon is clearly working hard to make you not take it seriously, and there's a decent amount of skill in its stupidity. Clearly this was the wrong approach to take in 1980, and you probably couldn't get away with it now either, but maybe some day the world will be ready for this kind of pure, uncut entertainment. We can only hope.
Based on characters created by Alex Raymond
Adapted by Michael Allin
Screenplay by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
Directed by Mike Hodges