VOD film review: Flash Gordon
Belting Queen soundtrack8
Flying Brian Blessed9
Making any kind of sense7
Laurence Boyce | On 10, Aug 2020
Director: Mike Hodges
Cast: Sam Jones, Melody Anderson, Max Von Sydow, Topol, Ornella Muti, Brian Blessed
Watch Flash Gordon online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Virgin Movies / Google Play
Everything about Flash Gordon shouldn’t work. It’s a comic book film directed by Mike Hodges, a man better known for moody crime films such as Pulp and the seminal Get Carter. It stars a cadre of actors for whom the word “eclectic” would be too tame, including a future James Bond, the writer of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, a soon-to-be Blue Peter presenter and the man who wrote such classic plays as Look Back In Anger and The Entertainer. And that’s just in one scene.
Flash Gordon produced by Dino De Laurentis whose filmography is as wide ranging and disjointed as the cast. The soundtrack is done by Queen. It all screams ‘massive unwieldy mess’. Yet, while it is undoubtedly messy, silly and incoherent, Flash Gordon still works 40 years on from its original release.
Rather than being shy about its excesses and flaws, the film brazenly flaunts them with every slightly ropy special effect, unbelievable narrative contrivance and campy line of dialogue adding to the fun rather than taking away. And in an era when the majority of comic book movies wear their seriousness on their sleeve, the sheer exuberance on offer is still a joy to behold.
The story, much like its lead character, is simple. After Earth is hit by freak weather conditions – actually the machinations of evil, intergalactic dictator Ming The Merciless (Max Von Sydow), who is toying with the planet before destroying it – football player Flash Gordon (Sam Jones) finds himself travelling with Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) and Dr Hans Zarkov (Topol) to the planet Mongo to save the Earth. Now it is up to Flash to unite the Hawkmen, the Tree People and all the other races so that they rise up, defeat Ming and save the Earth.
As a film, Flash Gordon wholeheartedly embraces its comic book origins. A riot of primary colours, framing that represents comic panels and some endlessly over-the-top production design, it deserves its reputation as “discotheque in the clouds”. as legendary film critic Pauline Kael once memorably described it. The film is – almost unrelentingly – eye-popping, with gorgeous multi-coloured skies swirling in the distance and an art deco sensibility creating a true sense of the other-worldly.
The constant OTT visuals allow you to paper over the cracks in the script, such as the unlikely love story between Flash and Arden, the constant exposition and the convenient plot devices – which, to be fair, hark back to the cliffhangers of the 1930s Flash Gordon B-movie serials. When they work, the action sequences (all done to Queen’s banging soundtrack) are heart-poundingly exciting. Even with the creaking special effects – which actually add to the charm – moments such as the attack on War Rocket Ajax by Flash and the Hawkman (which itself fittingly sounds like a prog rock album) are wonderfully jubilant.
The acting is as wide ranging as the cast. At the centre, Sam Jones – in his only significant Hollywood role – is a big, dumb slab of granite, all naïve emotions and unsubtle gestures. It would be a bad performance if it didn’t suit the character of Flash so well. This is the idea of a hero at its simplest: someone who comes in and does what’s right, even if they have no understanding of what’s going on around them.
Anderson is fine as she can be as Arden, considering she’s poorly served by a script for which deep characterisation is not a strongpoint and is – sometimes literally – not much more than a cheerleader. But the rest of the cast help everything along by taking everything somewhat seriously. After years of being introspective with Ingmar Bergman, Von Sydow is clearly enjoying playing the villain, while Dalton and Topol do their very best with the material. Even Brian Blessed’s famed pantomime performance as Vultan – all together now: “Gordon’s aliiive?” – works within the context of his character and the movie. It’s the sheer earnestness of these performances that also helps keep the film bolted together.
Flash Gordon is the epitome of a cult film, somewhat forgotten on its release – when it was seen as a cash-in on Star Wars, which, to be frank, it slightly was – but then rediscovered by a generation of fans who have kept it alive through endless repetition of dialogue. Anyone who has seen Thor: Ragnarok will recognise its undoubted influence on Taika Waititi and there are scores of other creators who have been inspired by Hodges’ crazy vision.
Watching it back today – with a 4K restoration that allows the visuals to shine like never before – Flash Gordon is still a tremendous amount of fun that refuses to take itself too seriously. Sometimes one wishes modern comic book adaptations would do the same thing.