Flash Gordon (1980)
Directed by Mike Hodges

Artistic Value: * * * *
Entertainment Value: * * * * ½

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While the Earth is being visited with numerous apparently natural disasters - which are actually the work of the wicked Emperor Ming (Max von Sydow), the ruler of the planet Mongo - the airplane star athlete Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) and the beautiful Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) are travelling on is caught up in a storm. The plane crashes into the lab of Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol), a scientist who suspects that the disturbances currently being experienced are the work of an alien intelligence. There the protagonists learn that Zarkov has built a rocket capable of traversing interstellar distances, but are kidnapped by him, so that he can force them to help him pilot this vessel. The three Earthlings then journey to Mongo, where they are captured by Ming, who decides to kill Flash, enslave Zarkov, and marry Dale. Fortunately, Flash escapes, with the help of Ming's sultry daughter, Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), and is taken to the forest kingdom ruled by her fiancé, Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton). Later, after Dale and Zarkov have also fled Ming's palace, the three reunite and attempt to enlist the aid of Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed), the ruler of the winged hawkmen, in a rebellion against Ming's tyranny.

While I cannot say that Mike Hodges' Flash Gordon is a complete success, its appealing qualities so outweigh the unappealing that the movie is a pleasure to watch.

The film is, without a doubt, amongst the most visually captivating works of science fiction I have encountered. It is one of those rare movies that successfully brings to the screen the feel and look of other media, here comic books and pulp magazine illustrations from the 1930s. There is hardly a moment from its beginning until its end during which the viewer is not presented with some stunning image or another. The director reveals a city floating in the sky before luminous, multi-hued clouds, wild and weirdly shaped spaceships, and a world composed of a mass of rock with a forest-filled crater upon its upper surface. Ming's court is gorgeously meretricious, with its ornately garbed courtiers and guards, its grandiose architecture, and all its dazzling colors. The costumes of all the characters from Mondo are, in fact, wonderfully gaudy and fun to look at. Without seeing Flash Gordon, it is impossible to imagine how good its sets and costumes are. The director really has captured the tacky, outrageous exoticism that can be seen in old magazines and comics.

While roving through this bewitching world, Flash and his companions have a variety of adventures, most of which are indebted to the kinds of things that can be seen in 1930s serials. The heroes battle armies of faceless villains. Princess Aura is tortured by her father's wicked, gold-masked henchman, Klytus (Peter Wyngarde). Flash is imprisoned by Barin in a cage submerged in a swamp and, after he escapes from this, is forced to engage in a deadly ritual that involves plunging his hand through holes in a stump wherein some kind of stinging monster lives. Later, the hero fights Barin before an audience of hawkmen on a tilting platform that hangs in the sky and is decorated with retractable daggers. Finally, all the heroes attack Ming's palace, Flash upon a burning spaceship and Vultan and his winged warriors in great flocks that dive upon their foes from the air. I simply cannot list all the thrills the movie includes.

As enthralling as these various images and events are, they are not the only elements of the film that are likely to rouse the moviegoer. The music, performed by Queen, is gloriously campy and brings out the outrageous loveliness of every scene. The movie's theme song, "Flash," is especially entertaining.

Though there is a great deal to admire in Flash Gordon, the film is not without imperfections. The movie does take some while to get going - its first act is fairly tedious - and there are a few painful scenes that, while meant to be funny, are not. There is, for example, a point where Flash tramples Ming's guards by playing football with them. The routine is so awful that it almost made me want to stop watching the film. The greatest of the movie's weaknesses, however, is its protagonist. Flash is a virtual non-entity. He is a dull, brave, heroic cipher for whom it is impossible to care.

At least he is surrounded by others who are far more engaging. Ming is a vicious, snarling delight. Barin, who is in love with Aura, is jealous of her affection for Flash. Vultan is dour and stubborn, and Aura is wonderfully sensuous and conniving. In fact, except for Flash, pretty much all the characters in the film are well-realized and intriguing.

Whatever problems Flash Gordon is burdened with, it is still a pleasure to watch. It is one of the most attractive and exciting science fiction films the viewer is likely to see.

Review by Keith Allen

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