I sit here typing this review in stunned amazement. At 25 years old, I would say my tastes are pretty well developed at this point. Sure, I’m up for trying something new, but I know what I like and I know how to where to get it. Which is why I am so amazed to find something like Flash Gordon. I stumbled unawares upon Flash Gordon, no foreknowledge, no familiarity at all. That should not be possible. I am a greedy devourer of 70’s and 80’s science fiction and fantasy movies. I love old comics. I love cheesy, goofy, campy films from any era. If you know of a movie with a cult following, I am likely a member of that cult. Flash Gordon is not only all of those things; it is the epitome of them. Somehow, I had no awareness its existence despite it practically being the nexus around which my tastes revolve. I love science fiction and fantasy movies from the 70’s and 80’s. No matter how much work was put into making it look real, they all look cheesy. No matter how they are dressed up, all of these old fantasies (which even the science fiction movies are) still look like childish imaginings. Flash Gordon, though, never attempts to seem real, it fully embraces the unreality of its world and is all the better for it. A haphazard mix of fantasy and science fiction, an origin in the pulps and comic strips, a gleeful disregard for anything even resembling sanity, Flash Gordon has nearly everything I could want in a movie.
Obviously, this is not going to be a measured critique of the movie. I am still to new to its charms to see anything but the beautiful, captivating fever dream before me. I love everything about Flash Gordon. I love that Flash wears a shirt with his name on it. I love that everything glows with impossibly bright colors. I love that he fights the guards with football. I love Brian Blessed and Timothy Dalton. I love that Princess Aura enters leading a dwarf on a leash. Had I seen, or even heard of this movie before watching it maybe I would not have such a rosy view. Now I am flush with the thrill of discovery, a thrill I have not felt since I was barely a teenager finding the joys of Star Wars and Kamandi and Conan. I thought I had seen it all, at least in the small corners of the world in which I claim expertise. Not even old favorites could overcome the ennui from feeling I had seen it all. The unexpected discovery of Flash Gordon has wiped such foolish notions away.
Flash Gordon is unrepentantly kitschy. Where it succeeds is that though it plays up the absurdity, the illusion of reality is never broken. No matter how unreal the world of the movie is, it is never perceived by the characters to be anything other than real. All it would take is one or two instances of Flash winking at the camera to destroy the illusion, making an already tough pill to swallow all but impossible. The effects may look cheap, the plot may revel in its insanity, but no one reacts as such. That is not to say that the creators did not recognize or choose to emphasize the silliness just that they chose not to spoil the illusion. They are not creating comedy at the expense of the source material, taking the easy way out by getting the viewers to laugh at it. Instead, they set it up so you can laugh with them. It might seem the opposite it true, that winking to the audience to let them know that everyone knows it is silly prompts viewers to laugh with show. However, that method would not encourage the giddy enjoyment of the ridiculousness. As wrong as any acknowledgement of meta-textual existence would have been, playing it straight would have resulted in an equally bad movie. It would have been dull. There is nothing here for serious consideration. It is entertainment for the sake of entertainment, like the comic strips that birthed the character. In this instance at least, melodrama trumps drama.
Possibly the films biggest tool for setting the required tone is the music by Queen. One can’t help but imagine a meeting at the start of the creation process, when the producers sat down, looked at their budget and tried to decide how best use it, eventually deciding that hiring Queen, near the peak of their popularity, to do the sound track was worth a significant portion of it. Not that I know how much they paid Queen to do it. Anyway, it was a great decision. No similar movie can boast of a soundtrack of similar quality. It sets the tone, one of joyous absurdity, perfectly; as perfectly as John Williams sweeping score set the tone in the Star Wars movies.
The plot is a classic planetary romance, like Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars series. It is patently ludicrous, but a decent enough excuse for some high adventure. In order to save the Earth from destruction, Dr. Hans Zarkov, Dale Arden and Flash Gordon ride a rocket into space, ending up on the planet Mongo, ruled by the evil Ming the Merciless. The trio tries to stay alive while uniting the Princes of the various moons in order to overthrow Ming and save the Earth. The characters are broadly drawn, but each has their appeal. Flash is a classic hero, and Dale a somewhat proactive damsel in distress. Princes Vulcan and Barin are hotheaded and highly entertaining leaders of two of the peoples of Mongo. Princess Aura is Ming treacherous daughter, who has never met anyone she could not seduce and/or betray. It is all entertaining enough, but will never be confused for anything but childish nonsense .
The special effects are perfectly cheesy. No one could think the hawk men’s wings are real. Or the goofy lizard people. The space ships are obviously small models. The sky is a wonderfully alien acid trip of tie-dyed colors. Colors are somehow more colorful than they should be. Ming’s entire castle is red, a bright pure red. Even black is a perfectly dark, shining black. The effects aren’t exactly good, but they are uniform. Flash Gordon has a distinctive look. Something may not look as good as they could have, but it all looks as good as it should have. Everything is bright and cheesy and fake and wonderful.
I have nothing but effusions of love for Flash Gordon. In addition, my previous ignorance of it seems even crazier as I now notice all the references to it around me. While I did not know the movie existed, I did know Queen’s theme. I had seen pictures of the hawk men and of Ming. I had heard about the War Rocket Ajax and had heard the phrase “flying blind on a rocket cycle.” Now that I’ve seen Flash Gordon, I can almost see the pieces of the pop culture puzzle falling into place. I have not seen many movies I’ve enjoyed as much as Flash Gordon. It is a movie both perfectly suited to my tastes and put together in a way that fits my sensibilities.