Combined Rating: 3.75/5
It’s funny all the preconceived notions I had of this film. I knew Flash Gordon was a comic book hero, but based on the name, I thought he was a superhero imbued with superhuman speed. I was pretty surprised when Frank suggested we watch it, since I assumed that it would be essentially a Marvel movie (which I know he hates). Definitely could not have been more wrong! First of all, Flash has no superpowers at all; he’s just an all American good boy who looks like a Ken doll come to life, and wears a t-shirt bearing his own name (???). Second, while the plot is just as over-the-top as is a Marvel film, “Flash” is very self-aware about it, almost in the style of “The Princess Bride.” You get the impression that the cast is having a hard time keeping a straight face, as opposed to the Marvel franchise, which (“Thor” excepted) seems to take itself quite seriously. Third, I guess I can’t fault them too much for the special effects (it was made in the early 80s, after all), but unlike the CGI of today, they’re so bad, they’re charming. And finally, the soundtrack was written and performed by “Queen,” which is just the coolest. Their lyrics were even better, underscoring the film’s intentional absurdity: “Flash: Savior of every one of us! Flash: king of the impossible!” Cracked me up the whole way through.
The plot checked all the boxes for your classic rollicking adventure tale, too. Football star Flash (Sam Jones—who incidentally was an athlete before he became an actor) finds himself in a plane gone haywire when alien Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) decides to conquer earth. Dale (Melody Anderson) gets swept up into adventure with him when, thanks to crazy scientist Hans (Topol—love that the lead of “Fiddler on the Roof” is the crazy scientist!), all three of them hurtle into Ming’s world. There, Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura (Ornella Muti) takes a liking to Flash. This is fortunate for him, because Ming has him killed in short order—Aura just brings him back to life, much to the dismay of her lover, Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton, who was probably the only actor in the film who took his role seriously). Meanwhile, Ming takes a liking to Dale, and forces her to marry him, while Dale still believes Flash is dead. Flash rallies Ming’s subjects, converts Prince Barin to his cause, and races to overthrow the emperor and stop the royal wedding—all while Queen sings in the background, “Flash: Savior of the Universe!”
It’s a fun film, though not one you’ll ever get lost in, as you’re quite aware that you’re watching a film from start to finish. But it’s funny in its silliness, and feels like it would translate very well to the stage—particularly the kind of community theater in which the audience cheers for the good guys, and boos and throws popcorn at the bad guys. Good triumphs, evil gets its just desserts, and true love wins. It would make a good pick-me-up after a bad day.
What better way to kick off the most outlandish American decade than with a football player in tights battling a space lunatic inside a glitter-filled pleasure dome? I’m of course talking about the 1980’s…which decade did you think I meant? Throw in a few respectable, high brow actors for credibility (Timothy Dalton, Topol, Max Von Sydow), colorful, retro Batmanesque special effects, and a killer Queen soundtrack, and you’ve got the makings of an instant bubble-gum cult classic…arguably the perfect movie for opening up a summer, even one as ostensibly dark as 2020.
Some movies just make you grin. There’s a lot of sentimentality in the cheesy, self-aware dialogue that functions both as a throwback to a simpler time, and an intentional slap on bloated, grandiose productions that competed for post-Star Wars dollars. “Flash, I Love you…but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!!!” Flash Gordon is proof you don’t need big money to make a splash, when you’ve got memorable and likeable characters and a whole lot of fun. I admit, when I was a kid, I was creeped out by the scene where Prince Barin (Dalton) and Flash (Sam Jones) play one-up with the slimy creature in the stump, and exhilarated by their fight to the death on the oscillating, hovering platform with random protruding spikes. Those were, actually, really well filmed scenes that far outdid the trash compactor bit in Star Wars on the intensity meter. I was surprised to find they held up, even now, amidst such spared expense! Director Mike Hodges, while lesser known than your George Lucas, unrelentingly moved us along from one creative set piece to another, inundating us with melodramatic escapes from certain death, changing allegiances, and humorously avoidable setbacks, as Flash, through pragmatic American grit, wears down and bears down on our evil villain, Ming the Merciless (Von Sydow) for a proverbial final showdown that will likely end in a call to janitorial services to wipe up yet another pile of goo. Even Ming’s cloaked goons (which resemble, yet predated the Emperor’s Imperial guard in Return of the Jedi) made your average storm trooper look wildly competent. But then again, we’re never meant to fear for anybody’s life. It’s not that kind of movie. It’s just a movie about a living Ken Doll who gets all the girls and saves the universe, instinctively. Arguably, there was no better time to simultaneously send up, and emulate, American hubris and optimism.
I never saw the Flash serials from the 1930’s, but I can’t imagine they were a better fit for the material than our flashy cinematic treatment. And I don’t believe any effort to revive Flash in the modern day would employ as much playfulness, or writers who would resist politically motivating Ming’s world destruction in favor of sheer boredom. But if you think about it, the guy who is merely killing time is even less predictable. Brilliant! Even in the end, our heroes’ cadre is seemingly stuck on Planet Mongo with no way to get back to Earth, but they don’t seem to mind. If they’d predicted the big bowl of awesome that was about to spill out on America in the 1980’s they’d surely have rushed the return trip.
Meal pairing: Eat dinner first. This is a dessert movie, and should be viewed while eating a giant hot fudge sundae.