It’s been a couple weeks, so here’s a double-dip of classic cult comic book movies for you, and some prime so-bad-its-good filmmaking on both counts.
It’s the most depressing kind of thing to discover a film that is popular only for its theme tune, only to watch it and realize that the theme works primarily because of the film it accompanies, and that it is the images and sounds of that film in unison that dance together a most magic dance. Wait, did I say “depressing”? I meant absolutely positively exciting and inspiring in the most enchanting possible way, although it is also depressing in the sense that I am confronted with the fact that we remember Queen songs these days more than we remember totally singular, inspired filmmaking. For, terrible as it is in many ways, there are aspects of Flash Gordon that are inspired in a way I cannot even begin to describe.
Here’s a way to start: they are more inspired than Star Wars. Yes, I said it. And the film is very clearly aiming for the Star Wars comparison, so I wasn’t simply pulling this name out of the hat of “all-time loved films to compare other films to, especially when you wish to be snarky by saying this new film is better than your infinitely more popular one”. The story is archly simple and straightforward, with New York Jets football player Flash Gordon (Sam Jones) and his …female, Dale (Melanie Anderson), are accidentally transported to the far off space world of Mongo, along with Russian scientist Zarkov (Chaim Topol). Mongo is ruled by Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow, doing I don’t know what here, but he’s certainly far off track of meeting death on the beach, but then on Mongo, anything is possible). He rules over a series of other kingdoms, each of which appears to be populated by roughly a dozen people dressed in matching outfits and taking up the space of a room or two. Among them are the eagle people ruled by Vultan (Brian Blessed) and a merry band of hooligans headed by Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton, doing his absolute damnedest Errol Flynn) who seem to have seen too many episodes of some fictional Robin Hood TV show I just made up. Outraged at Ming’s vileness, Flash does his white-bread football thing and gets to saving that day of everyone’s
All right, Flash Gordon is sort of a terrible film. Sam Jones, for one, is absolutely pallid in the main role, never convincing for a second. Melanie Anderson as Dale is a non-entity, and the film never even bothers to explain who she is in relation to Flash…it’s assumed she’s kind of becoming his girlfriend, but we have to do most of the work to get there, until the film makes the jump in a profoundly unearned way at the very end. Elsewhere, the narrative flow isn’t one. Ming is barely a villain, we have absolutely no sense whatsoever of how anything about Mongo works. Its geography and sense of time and space make no sense whatsoever (and not because it’s some sort of fancy-ass golden pocket watch and cane art film about the nature of space and time, mind you). And it uses and abuses characters like dog-food, never truly being what it wishes to do with Barin and Vultan especially until the script needs them to come together as friends for the final plot device.
But it’s so damn fun. Seriously, fun seeps out of every corner, spewing forth with every cackle, glimmering about every high-contrast costume and delicious cotton candy background, hidden in all of Queen’s harmonies and up and down every glam-speckled solo. It’s a violently committed bit of cinematic fluff at its purest and least restrained, not making a single sideways glance at seriousness or drama and jumping with such vigor into its own vision of right and wrong it can’t but attain a deliciously delectable kitsch value.
Certainly, if one were to point to specific reasons for this, the sure standout, along with the light-as-air narrative structure that never doubts itself for an instant, is the pure look of the film, from the glitter and gold of the ultra high contrast costumes to the high spirits of the caramelized clouds in the picture book air, to the way each little kingdom represents a certain idealized portrait of early cinema history. The whole thing just looks gorgeous, and it all goes so far in ensuring that the film is having every last ounce of fun with itself it possibly could. Brian Blessed at his in-your-face best goes pretty far in capturing this too, but that’s so assumed by now it’s not even worth mentioning. Even the Queen songs, especially matched to the maximally-edited credits sequence, just races up to the top of a mountain and shouts fun at the top of its lungs.
Flash Gordon isn’t necessarily an excusable film, but it is so committed to what it is I can’t but love it a little. It’s so sincere and earnest about itself, and about its limits (some of the dry, lightly absurdist humor mocks itself without ever being ironic), that it achieves a certain guiltlessness about it that not even Star Wars ever achieved with as much honesty. It isn’t the best post-Star Wars pop-sci-fi opus, nor is it in any real way, excepting purity and pure visual panache, anywhere close to being as good a film as Star Wars, especially when matched to the deft storytelling of 1980’s other big sci-fi feature, The Empire Strikes Back. But of all the post-Star Wars sci-fi films, it is the most honest about what it is, and maybe, honestly, the most fun to just look at and exist within. Anyone who doesn’t think of that as a benefit, you mundanes are excused, but you need not apply here.