I just spent the best two hours of my Saturday night watching Flash Gordon (1980). I’ve never before encountered such a gloriously semi-coherent cocktail of ball-shrieking insanity, cheesy one-liners and acid-fueled green-screens.
In short, holy shit, I love this movie like, so much.
I entered this movie hoping at best that mocking the dated special effects could net some cheap thrills. For the first slavishly boring minutes introducing Flash Gordon and flailing to introduce the leading lady Dale as someone we give a fuck about, I was afraid that I’d made a terrible mistake. I mean, Queen did music for this movie, so I genuinely wanted to like it. Would Freddy Mercury betray me?
I know, Freddy, I should never have doubted you.
Fortunately, things picked up. Introducing Hans Zarkov, beardy scientist extraordinaire!
His cowardly research assistant runs off, refusing to help, and I feel my first stirrings of emotion. Rage. I hate Zarkov’s assistant and before long, I’m hoping he dies. Then BAM! Flash crashes the plane into the lab. Why? Because the pilots were jacked up or something. I dunno, I missed that part when I stepped out of the room for a bit. Anyways, the lab assistant died then. It probably didn’t happen that way, but I’m saying that the crashing plane crushed him. Now this movie’s even more awesome. You’re welcome.
So Flash, Zarkov and Dale launch into space and the movie finally gets good. They’re brought to the court of Emperor Ming, a bad Mandarin stereotype almost as badass as Zarkov. When Flash whispers to Dale, “I think Ming’s a psycho,” it’s totally on. I’m unhappy, because apparently Flash and Dale are gonna get together, which sucks because he could get so much better.
I mean Dale’s got the depth of a mud puddle! Where was I? Oh yeah. So Ming gets all execute-y at Flash.
BUT HE FAILS! Ming’s guards assault Flash with the grace of epileptic figure-skaters as Flash flails as though the debt for all those accrued football concussions suddenly came calling like, right then. Then Zarkov tosses Flash a football and he suddenly becomes a wrecking ball. Because as any street fighter or martial artist knows, football technique translates amazingly well to a brawl.
Either way, his shenanigans make Aura, the Emperor’s daughter, totes hot for him, even though he loses.
So upon seeing miss Princess hottie (pictured above), I figure, hey, finally our romance arc. Oh, you clever screenwriter, you! I knew you wouldn’t hook up super-jock with the cardboard woman. Yes!
Aura smuggles Flash out, and they get hot while the shuttle’s on autopilot. Skipping ahead. The Emperor’s brought Dale to his harem, his motives murky, since I’d rather sex stale moldy bread crumbs than Dale. Oh, he’s also taken Zarkov to be reprogrammed as an agent.
Zarkov’s reprogramming is at once ham-fisted and amazing. Zarkov’s Jewish, so suddenly I’m thinking, man, I wish Cracked’s Gladstone had included Zarkov in the article The 5 Types of Jewish Characters in Science Fiction. I have these focus problems, you might not have noticed…
So our good Doctor, my favorite character, may become puppets of people who say, as an image of Hitler flashes by in Zarkov’s memories, “Now that guy had potential!”
Quick pause here. This is just one instance of the movie’s ham-fistedness. It’s incredibly refreshing, seeing a movie that gives absolutely zero shits. They cared not who they offended, and scoffed at ivory-tower phrases like like subtlety and subtext. If someone’s evil, have them admire Hitler! That way the audience fucking knows to hate them. We want no ambiguities to damp the audience’s hate for the foe. What are you, a commie? Watch shit explode on the green screen! Of course, by this time, I’m on board for this approach. It’s got merits.
So cut back to Princess Aura and Flash. They seem to have some chemistry, which I like, since it confirms my ship-choice. They land, and then from there straight until the end of the movie, I recall little but a blur of testerone-filled action, so I’ll get this out of the way now. Flash, for some reason beyond me, ends up with Dale. What a ship tease.
So what’s bad about this movie? Well, if I’ve not yet mentioned, I’ve eaten Hawaiian barbecue less hammy than Flash Gordon. I also really disliked Dale and felt the character was just a waste of air. I mean, she does have highlights, but mostly she just sucks and sucks. I don’t understand why she’s the leading lady, and her attractiveness is really just an informed ability.
The special effects are charmingly terrible, but for graphics geeks, this may be sufficiently off-putting to avoid the movie. I mean, it did come out in 1980, guys.
I also disliked the really awkward Earthman Jingoism. At one point, a bird-man says to Flash, “It must be a great planet you come from,” a comment which would be fine as a one-off comment. Of course, in another scene, Dale says to Aura, “Yes, but I keep my oaths. That’s what makes us different from you.” Oh snap, I fucking hate you, Dale. Why couldn’t Aura have just shredded your face with her immaculate nails when you said that?
And that’s a great segue to the most jarring element: Combat. Some scenes, like the ritual fight between Baron and Flash, are great. The laser fights are pretty great too. But then there’s the just terrible: The palace guards fighting Flash as he plays football at them is so terrible it comes out the other end and is kind of awesome, but I couldn’t help thinking, “Are these guys mostly for show?”
Yes, they are. They’re storm troopers that predate Star Wars.
One again, disbelief flashed before my eyes when Aura and Dale catfought (is that a word?).
It’s really my fault though, in this case. See, I strongly identified Aura as the noble of a treacherous court. This placed her on the same level on other Byzantine imperial families in literature, such as R.A. Salvatore’s Drow, Corwin’s treacherous sisters in Roger Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles, and, worse, my own Quen’Sathis nobility in Snowraven. I just naturally assumed that Aura had received self-defense training as a member of the royal house, and expected her to just butcher the soft earth-girl who dared lay hand upon her. Instead, the two actresses incompetently flailed at each other until they both kind of gave up. Did they shoot this scene to prove that catfights don’t have to be sexy? If so, mission accomplished!
Oh yeah, the pseudo-racism. That’ll get a pass, because I’d need 1500 more words to discuss it, and I’d sound like a pompous windbag doing it. I mean, shit, man, it was the 80’s. The Cold War was on, and you could expect a little bit of racial tension between the Eastern and Western Bloc. It pervades tons of contemporaneous works. That doesn’t make it okay.
But what can you do about it? Lovecraft was a terrible racist and I’d never condone his beliefs. Were he alive, I doubt I’d buy his books, just like ever since Mel Gibson went (more) nuts, I’ve stopped going to see things with his name on it. But the difference is that Lovecraft and Flash Gordon are part of the cultural tapestry of speculative fiction now, a tapestry made from gold, silver, lead, pottery scraps and refuse. Only in knowing our roots can we transcend the ugliness of the soil that they pierce. That doesn’t mean it’s cool to appropriate defunct anthropological theories into your own literature. You’re better than that.
So I talked about it. And I sounded like a pompous windbag. Dammit. Anyways, moving on to the good!
The pacing. Nothing makes sense and you’re dragged along for the ride. Flash careens through plot like an old-timey liquor smuggler who’s lost braking. The audience’s only choice is to nod and say, “Okay, so now this is happening.” Flash wastes no breath on exposition beyond a brief handwave. Every plot device does what they want and doesn’t give a fuck. It’s beautiful. No time’s available to think, “Hey! That made no sense!” because you’re pushed so far, so fast, that you can’t untangle any inconsistencies you expose. Like at the end of the movie. Did they save the Earth or not? I have no fucking clue. All I know’s I watched the clock hit zero. But they mourned not their crushed home planet. So was it saved last-minute? I don’t know.
The dialogue is terse, and rarely wastes time, and I do like Dr. Zarkov. Princess Aura is great, a sympathetic promiscuous jaded noble. I’m a sucker for that trope, though, so grain of salt.
The optimism’s a little overplayed. Not since I’ve watched my last shounen anime have I seen so many scenes pulled through simply by an imbecilically high pain resistance and the power of friendship. But Flash did it. Gloriously.
Who’d like this movie? People who like cheesetastic old-fashioned SF, or writers who overanalyze their own writing. This movie certainly didn’t overthink things, and I like that. 8/10, would watch again.
Get it here and watch it right now, dammit!