BY KEVIN ROEGELE, ART BY JASON DAVIS
The debt pop culture owes Flash Gordon is impossible to calculate. For starters, he was the foremost proto-superhero who was saving the earth in comic strips before Kal-El hit Kansas. Secondly, it was the Flash serials of the 30′s which inspired George Lucas to create Star Wars, and thereby change the world of cinema forever. It was the success of Lucas’ space opera which led to 1980′s big-budget Flash Gordon movie, which deserved to be a box office hit by lineage, if nothing else. Ultimately, the movie crashed and burned like a doomed rocket ship, but has remained embedded in the public consciousness, carving out a pop culture niche of its own.
Once seen, Flash Gordon is impossible to forget – whether you want to or not. A deliriously full-on space opera, it wholeheartedly embraces its printed and celluloid forebears by bringing to the screen moments of pure melodrama and spectacle that can equally be taken as thrilling or ridiculous. The characters are rigidly two-dimensional, and deliver corny, po-faced speeches and double entendres (as expected from Batman TV show writer Lorenzo Semple Jr). The story, such as it is, sees superstar quarterback Flash and his companions Dale Arden and mad doctor Hans Zarkoff blasted into space, where they attempt to stop galactic emperor Ming from destroying earth.
What follows is a triumph of art direction and production design, lavishly updating cheap serial concepts. The cast are decked in overwhelmingly elaborate, frequently changing costumes, on operatically huge sets. Ming’s palace is flooded with garish costumes of so many colours and designs, it resembles an extra-terrestrial fashion show designed by Quality Street.
Every scene offers new wonders to look at; a wooden city built in giant trees; an ethereal floating palace; a spiked turntable arena; an army of hawkmen swooping through lurid skies to attack Ming’s battleship. A soaring score from British rock royalty Queen brings a weird, overpowering energy to the visuals; Flash and co’s surreal journey through dimensions is a lava-lamp fever dream, backed by pounding, almost tribal drums.
Whilst an undoubted production showcase, Flash Gordon struggles with a wafer-thin rebellion plot. Simplistic characters are given little to do, all dressed up and nowhere to go. Instead it’s the performances themselves that entertain. Heavyweight thesps Max Von Sydow, Timothy Dalton and Brian Blessed take all the plaudits here; dashing Dalton and bellowing Blessed as feuding leaders of rival kingdoms, eventually uniting to overthrow Sydow’s sinister Ming.
Dalton, intense as ever, brings the romantic swashbuckling aspect to create a po-faced take on Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood. Dalton would play an even closer approximation of Flynn in 1991′s Rocketeer, and the two performances show just how entertaining and charismatic Dalton could have been as James Bond. Topol’s giddy Zarkoff looks fit to burst with insane energy, seemingly arrived from another film entirely, David Lynch’s Flash Gordon perhaps.
In comparison, Flash himself (Sam Jones III) comes across as little more than a bemused intergalactic tourist, neither the commanding leader of the comics, nor the all-action daredevil of the serials. His few attempts at heroism invariably result in his being knocked out, defeated, and captured. Let alone every one of us – he can barely save himself.
Flash only takes the fight to Ming at the climax, and spends the rest of the movie being given what amounts to a tour of Mongo against his will. When Flash outwits Dalton’s Prince Barin at sword-point, it’s been so long since he took the initiative that it almost seems out of character.
In between the kaleidoscopic visuals and innuendo, there are scenes of real darkness. Flash is forced into a disturbing contest which involves reaching into the holes of a porous rock and hoping there isn’t a venomous blob lurking within. A previous contestant is on the receiving end, begging to be executed before succumbing to madness. A truly nightmarish scene following sees Flash almost consumed by a giant green pincer-monster in a swamp. Another highlight sees him fight a whip-wielding duel on a spinning, spiked turntable, hovering over an abyss. It’s these moments which stay in the mind afterward, and give the film much-needed, albeit fleeting, suspense.
Flash Gordon succeeds as a lavish confection – amusing, broad, never deep, occasionally dark. A more commanding central character and a few more set-pieces wouldn’t have gone amiss, yet the movie remains consistently entertaining, a gaudy, drunken homage to a comic strip icon.