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When energy waves pull the moon out of orbit, New York Jets quarterback Flash Gordon unexpectedly finds himself heading for the planet Mongo, where, with assistance from the beautiful Dale Arden and the noble Prince Barin, he will face Emperor Ming the Merciless and rescue humanity.
For more about Flash Gordon and the Flash Gordon Blu-ray release, see Flash Gordon Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on May 28, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Max von Sydow, Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Ornella Muti, Topol, Timothy Dalton
Director: Mike Hodges
» See full cast & crew
Flash Gordon Blu-ray Review
Let's be charitable and say the filmmakers wanted this 'Flash Gordon' to be so bad it's good. Well, maybe not exactly good. . .
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, May 28, 2010
Susan Sontag burst into mainstream prominence with her 1964 essay "Notes on Camp," where she averred, "Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration." Sontag could have just waited 16 years and simply taken everyone to see the 1980 film version of Alex Raymond's iconic Flash Gordon instead, for the film stands as a virtual paean to unnatural artifice and exaggeration. That has made it a bugaboo for many critics, while making it the darling of other, more camp-tastic lovers of works of "art" that are so outrageously awful they actually inspire a certain degree of respect and admiration. As the opening credits roll, cutting between live action (a decidedly relative term in this filmic universe) and original Raymond comic panels, we are treated to the Messianic urgency of Queen's title song equating Flash with the Savior of Mankind (nothing like a little hyperbolic commentary to get our expectations up). But it's the cast list that is our first hint that we're about to experience a film of positively protean camp sensibilities.
Aside from relative unknowns Sam J. Jones as Flash (apparently post-dubbed according to several sources) and Melody Anderson as love interest Dale Arden, we have a veritable treasure trove of wonderful actors evidently punching the time clock for what was hopefully a lucrative paycheck in a less than stellar (no pun intended) enterprise. Therefore we get the iconic Max von Sydow, evidently tired of all that Bergmanesque sturm und drang, hamming it up as bad guy Ming the Merciless, not to mention Tevye himself, mono-named Topol, as putative good guy scientist Doctor Zarkov, though in this reimagining by scenarist Lorenzo Semple, Jr., Zarkov's methods may be less than desirable even if his motives are pure. Future James Bond Timothy Dalton is on hand as perhaps duplicitous Prince Barin, I, Claudius' redoubtable Augustus himself, Brian Blessed, is Prince Vultan, and Italian vamp Ornella Muti is temptress Princess Aura. Mix in an international array of supporting actors, everyone from Mariangela Melato to Peter Wyngarde to Robbie Coltrane and you have a mélange of epic proportions, all working under the aegis of Dino De Laurentiis, a producer who seemingly never learned the meaning of the word "restraint."
A great deal of the success of any camp effort lies with the participants who are creating the work and their ability to be self referencing without "indicating." While Von Sydow and Topol certainly seem to be having a ball playing their roles for all they're worth, unfortunately the largely sexless Jones and even Anderson never quite manage to imbue their patently ridiculous dialogue with the right amount of ingenuousness. A quick review of screenwriter Semple's many 1960's camp-tastic Batman episodes shows what a group of self-aware actors can bring to an enterprise like this. Adam West chews through the absurd dialogue with relish, making that series one of the best examples of Sontag's vaunted idiom. Instead when Dale Arden sighs, "I'm just trying to get my head together, you know?" and Flash innocently responds, "I sure do," there's not a hint of a wink anywhere and it's left to the audience to fill in the blanks. The guffaws here are not just because of the silly dialogue, but the completely inept line readings. But perhaps that's part of the charm of this Flash Gordon.
As screenwriter Lorenzo Semple makes quite clear in his revealing featurette ported over from the previously released Special Edition SD-DVD, he was only too aware of the limitations of his screenplay and would have welcomed some challenging edits. Instead, Semple paints De Laurentiis as a largely hassle-free producer, at least with regard to the writing, a man who simply hired Semple (as he did for the King Kong remake) and just went along with the first draft, no questions asked. De Laurentiis also insisted on hiring the infamous Danilo Donati to helm production design. Donati was of course just coming off one of the most outrageous pieces of film ever committed to celluloid, the Penthouse-financed Caligula. As Semple quite openly admits, Donati had more than his fair share of input into all aspects of the production, so that he might even be thought of as a co-scenarist and even a co-director. Since he evidently managed much the same feat on Caligula, one is left to ponder the fact that this man managed to create two of the most patently excessive achievements in his art in little more than two years. The fact that both of these films are also frankly incredibly ugly at times makes one wonder about Donati's heralded (and Oscar winning) work in such films as the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet, and, later, Fellini's Casanova. This is a film which exults in sado-masochistic and Satanic cult references in an almost nonstop manner. Everyone from Flash to Dale to Aura is bound in wrist straps at least once, Ming's acolytes wear demonic cowls (and Ming himself sports the "Unicursal Hexagram" of occultist Aleister Crowley), and the entire physical production seems to have wandered in from a nearby leather bar. It makes for an oddly dissociative quality with Semple's largely "gee whiz" approach to the screenplay.
When Topol and von Sydow are onscreen, Flash Gordon has the kind of goofy charm that Semple evidently intended this version to exploit. And while many of the supporting cast do all right by their roles, there's no consistency of tone. Dalton is understated, almost like a lobotomized Robin Hood, Blessed is Soupy Sales with a Wagernian helmet on, and Muti is like some B-movie Salome from a low budget porn feature. It's certainly an interesting mix of styles (not to mention accents), but it never gels into the sort of silly, mindless entertainment it could have been. It certainly has the mindless part down pat, though probably not in the way Semple or director Mike Hodges probably intended. What we're left with, then, is some of the most (intentionally?) awful dialogue ever put on screen, either chewed appropriately by either Topol or von Sydow, or spat out in chunks by Muti, or languidly delivered by Jones and Anderson. It's the dialogue that helps to make this film a camp-fest, incredibly perhaps even more than the over the top production design elements. When Aura screams out, "Not the bore worms!," even a hard hearted reviewer is left to giggle helplessly. When Dale and Flash connect telepathically and Dale picks up Flash's interest in Aura, even the ineptly delivered, "I have to hang up now" becomes funny, if perhaps a moment or two after the fact.
There's rampant speculation that we may be getting a big budget, 3D remake of Flash Gordon soon. De Laurentiis and Semple may have simply erred by going the camp route with this source material, though when one catches the original Buster Crabbe serials, it's not hard to understand why that route was taken. With material this self-evidently arch, it doesn't take that much to push it over the edge. Sometimes less is more, though that's probably a losing argument with Danilo Donati.
Flash Gordon Blu-ray, Video Quality
I'm sorry to have to say this to you legions of Flash Gordon fans, but this film is just downright ugly. It was ugly in its original theatrical presentation and it's stayed ugly through its many iterations on home video. Flash soars into the stratosphere on Blu-ray with a VC-1 encoded transfer delivered in full 1080p and an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Part of the problem with this film is its relentless emphasis on garish reds and greens. While that may be a Christmas staple, here it's overblown to the point where one simply seeks to escape the nonstop palette choices of Donati. Rarely has a film bathed in red so ceaselessly, and unfortunately the green interstitials only become annoying, rather than a relief. The good news is this looks quite sharp for its age, with nicely robust colors. Occasionally some of the reds bloom slightly (notice Dale's gown once she's taken prisoner by Ming), but for the most part we're given a clear and precise image. There isn't much damage to the source elements, though you'll notice some very brief bleedthrough in the opening few seconds. Contrast is excellent and black levels, while not incredibly deep, are adequate and shadow detail is quite good. There's simply no way the Blu can overcome the inherent ugliness of most of the imagery here. It's sharper, yes, and more deeply saturated, but that may in fact be a problem with this particular film.
Flash Gordon Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The best part of having a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix for this new Blu-ray release of Flash Gordon is the ability to hear the really quite engaging Queen score in all its glory. This was one of the first films to exploit a rock song score as part of the general underscore, and Freddie Mercury and company provide a glittering sonic accompaniment to the visual madness. In fact the score fills out the surrounds much more expansively than the general sound design does, which tends to remain resolutely anchored to the front channels. There are occasional foley effects that zing in from various directions, but for the most part this is a front heavy, though very clear, soundfield that is not going to send audiophiles to the moon (or any other planet). There's a fair amount of floor vibrating LFE throughout this film, both in the sound effects and the lowest rumbling tones of the synthesizer, which regularly pre-announces coming mayhem. Dialogue is clear and, aside from some of the heavy accents, easy to understand. This isn't a (pardon the expression) flashy soundtrack, especially considering the film itself, but it's a solid and respectable effort that gets the job done, at least minimally.
Flash Gordon Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
All of the extras from the SD-DVD "Saviour of the Universe" edition have been ported over to this Blu-ray, still in standard definition. A self-congratulatory interview with comic book artist Alex Ross (13:27) is less interesting than the funny and insightful turn by screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (9:14). But the best extra is undoubtedly the first chapter of the premier Crabbe Flash serial, entitled "Planet in Peril." Spending 20 or so minutes with this late 1930's version of Flash shows exactly what's missing from the 1980 iteration: fun! The Crabbe serial takes itself deadly seriously, which makes Flash's many non sequiturs all the more hilarious. If Semple had taken that approach, instead of the over-arch camp-fest he employed, the results would have been much more enjoyable. The theatrical trailer rounds out the extras.
Flash Gordon Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Don't get me wrong: there's something inescapably captivating about this Flash Gordon. Whether that turns out to be the captivation of witnessing a hideous train (or spaceship) wreck, or not quite believing the spectacularly stupid dialogue while simultaneously not believing the spectacularly outrageous sets and costumes, I'll leave to your individual preferences. This Blu is definitely a step up in image quality, but the film's flaws are only more apparent in high definition. There's only so far technology can take you, no matter what Dr. Zarkov might want you to believe.
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