Friday, August 21, 2009

Film Friday: Flash Gordon (1980)

Flash Gordon should stink. But I love this film and I’m not alone. Although it had limited success when it was released, Flash Gordon has since become a cult classic. The question is why? To solve that riddle, let’s look at what’s wrong with the film.

The Production Stinks, Right?
Right off the bat, we notice that the effects in Flash Gordon are quite poor. The ships aren’t sleek or believable, the planets aren’t planets and half the sets are only half sets. This is not Star Wars. Clearly, this counts against the film. . . or does it?

Actually, let me backup a step. The sets and effects seem bad at first, until you realize what is going on. They aren’t realistic because they aren’t intended to be. These effects and sets were consciously chosen by producer Dino De Laurentiis (Conan, Dune, Army of Darkness) to be stylized and minimal. At the same time, the costumes are remarkably ornate and colorful. And all of this combines to gives a retro feel to the movie, reminiscent of the 1930s comic strip.

Moreover, minimal sets can be quite a good idea. Minimal sets work because the human mind is remarkably good at interpretation. That’s why we can see stick figures as people even though they are just a collection of lines. That’s also why theater works, why cartoons can be largely symbolic, and why movies like Dogville work, even though the sets are imaginary. The sets and effects in Flash Gordon fall into this category. Indeed, in many ways, these sets are rather ingenious because they let the imagination of the viewer fill them in. It’s hard to go wrong when you let a viewer customize a movie in their own minds.
The Plots Is Surprisingly Solid
So we can’t really criticize the sets or the costumes. And we certainly can’t criticize the soundtrack, scored by Queen. So what about the plot? The plot of Flash Gordon is nothing special, right? New York Jets quarterback Flash and Dale Arden are kidnapped by Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol), and flown into a great void from which the earth is being attacked, though the attacks appear as natural disasters. On the other side of the void, they find Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), who rules over a series of princedoms through fear of his military and his secret police, and by keeping the princes fighting with each other.

Ming decides that he’s going to execute Flash, brainwash Zarkov, marry Arden, and then destroy the Earth. Flash escapes execution with the aid of Ming’s daughter Princess Aura, who takes him to the princedom of her lover -- Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton). Barin tries to kill Flash but ends up being captured by his rival, the winged Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed). In the processes of sorting out their differences through trial by combat, Flash kills Klytus, the head of Ming’s secret police. Ming responds by destroying Vultan’s city and taking Dale back to his castle to be married. Flash must convince Barin and Vultan to team up to defeat Ming. He does, they do, the end.

Actually, that’s a rather complex plot for as simple as the movie feels. And that’s the result of surprisingly good writing. The plot moves quickly, at a strong pace, and without hiccup. Nothing in this story feels like it was added to make the movie longer or because the director wedged in some idea that never really fit the story. Moreover, even though the lack of sets meant that every action or plot element had to be communicated to the viewer through dialog, the dialog never feels heavy or labored or weighed down. To the contrary, the dialog is witty and simple, and eminently quotable.

Also, these writers have learned the art of manipulating their audience on an emotional level. For example, we know that Flash will not die. Thus, when he is executed, we know this must be a ruse, though we don’t know how. Whereas lesser writers might have immediately revealed Flash’s escape, these writers take their time and continue the rest of the story as we wait. This heightens our tension and keeps our eyes glued to the screen in anticipation. . . we want to know the answer to the riddle that has been asked. In the same way, we are often told of schemes, which we then get to watch unfold on our unsuspecting heroes. This pulls us into the movie as we know something the hero does not and we feel compelled to warn him.

The strong writing is perhaps explained by the pedigree of the writers: Flash Gordon was co-written by Michael Allin, who wrote Enter the Dragon (1973), and Lorenso Semple who wrote the screenplays for such classics as The Parallax View (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975),Papillion (1973), and Never Say Never Again (1983). Good writing comes through in any genre.
The Acting Is Surprisingly Good As Well
Even though the writing is good, the acting is horrible right? Nope. Flash Gordon contains some amazingly talented actors. Max von Sydow plays Ming, Topol plays Hans Zarkov, Timothy Dalton plays Prince Barin, and Brian Blessed plays Vultan. And while they all definitely play "over the top," it really fits with the story. What's more, the script is eminently quotable and it is the actors' delivery that often makes the quotes memorable. Blessed, for example, has mentioned that his “Gordon’s alive” quote is the one he hears the most from fans of his work.

Moreover, these actors act quite earnestly and they remain true to the emotions and natures of their characters. In every moment, they act consistently with their characters’ natures and respond naturally to events. They don’t “act down” to the subject matter and there is never a moment where they do something strange or unnatural that pulls you out of the movie or reminds you that they are acting.

If there is camp, it comes from Gordon (former Playgirl centerfold Sam Jones) and Dale (Melody Anderson). But I’ll tell you why it works. Their camp brings a level of innocence to the roles and their chemistry is real enough. Indeed, they are quite believable as two people who barely know each other, but find themselves in unusual surroundings and are starting to fall for each other. Thus, while sometimes their acting seems more melodramatic than dramatic, it serves the story well. In fact, it gives the movie a heart, in that you easily like these people and you want to see everything work out for them. It also sets them off from the other characters, who are native to Ming's universe, and who act much more aggressively.
But In The End, The Films Is Just Plain Fun
So the sets and effects, and soundtrack are actually quite good -- particularly for science fiction fans who tend to accept greater creativity. The script is surprisingly strong, despite the surface childishness of the concept. The acting is quite solid too. But that alone doesn’t mean the film is going to work. Yet, this film does. So what makes it cross that line?

This movie aims straight for your inner child. It is a modern fairytale. It is uncomplicated and clear. The good guys are not only good, they are innocent -- no anti-heroes here. The bad guys are evil villains. They too are uncomplicated. And that means you can sit back and root for the good guys without worrying about the rightness or morality of their actions. Thus, while this film is not deep or meaningful, it is very easy to enjoy. That is perhaps why this movie continues to find viewers in each passing generation, because this movie appeals to our simpler, less cynical selves.

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ScottDS said...

A film school friend and I saw this last year on one of the HD movie channels (the film looked gorgeous). I'd never seen it before and, needless to say, we had a blast! Yes, we laughed at some of the schlockier elements but I think I wore an ear-to-ear grin the whole time. It's such a fun, ridiculous movie.

I think we can all agree that there is room for anti-heroes and complicated villains but for a film to succeed without them is a rare thing these days. Lorenzo Semple Jr. knows a thing about this, having written the script for the 1966 Batman movie and several episodes of the series.

As for Brian Blessed, this movie made me a fan for life. :-) He hosted an episode of that BBC series I mentioned in the Top Gear thread: Have I Got News For You. Just skip to the one-minute mark and watch (some of the language later on is NSFW):

ScottDS said...

(By the way, I should've mentioned the reason I posted that link was because there's a great Flash Gordon homage, courtesy of Mr. Blessed.)

StanH said...

Great music, beautiful women!

Writer X said...

I loved this movie and now I need to see it again. I was also wondering if you saw FLASH GORDON, the series? It ran only one season two years ago before it was cancelled. Like the movie, the sets were a bit cheesey. But the dialogue was quite funny at times and the stories were clever. I got sucked in. Unfortunately, I was apparently in the minority because the show got cancelled.

LoneWolfArcher said...

Queen on the soundtrack. That is the reason for it's success.

"FLASH! AHHHAHHHHHH! Savior of the universe!"

Pittsburgh Enigma said...

Agreed, this is a great film! Fun to watch, great soundtrack, quotable lines.

I would add that I like how humans are portrayed. So often in sci-fi, we have to be saved from ourselves or are lectured to on how destructive we are. But in Flash, we are innovative, unselfish, and freedom-loving. I love the line from Zarkov explaining why the brain drain failed (paraphrasing): "I started quoting Shakespeare, Einstein's theories, even a song from the Beatles! They couldn't wipe those things away! You can't beat the human spirit!" And the line from Vultan to Flash: "That must be one hell of a planet you come from!"

Unknown said...

Well, here I go showing my age again. When I was growing up in the early days of TV, most everything was live except for the few things that they could put on where copyrights had expired or deals could be made cheaply. So from about kindergarten through second grade, I endlessly watched the Flash Gordon serials with Buster Crabbe from the 30s. Nothing is ever going to top those cardboard spaceships on strings shooting sparks out their backsides.

So I was prepared to dislike the Flash Gordon movie. Nope. It was a lot of fun (which was kind of the point of the original). The bad guys were just as evil, the good guys were just as virtuous and I just plain enjoyed the movie. And by then, the special effects were quantum leaps ahead of the original--and in color. The Queen soundtrack was the frosting on the cake.

WriterX: I was one of those Flash Gordon acolytes who just couldn't take the short-lived TV series. In order to avoid the expense of having to show space travel by modern standards, they simply did that parallel universe/wormhole thing. Much cheaper to do. The dialog was occasionally witty. I'll give you that. But for me, the character of Ming was almost 99% as important as Flash. The TV series took Ming the Merciless and turned him into Ming the Mirthless. Yuck.

Writer X said...

LawHawk, okay. Busted. Ming schming! I watched FLASH GORDON, the series, because of Flash. He was cute. What can I say? There. I said it. ;-)

Truthfully, in the last show, where his mother looked like his girlfriend (instead of like a mother), the show kind of lost me. Still, I wouldn't have minded an extra season. Something has to plug the hole for my SERENITY loss. At this point, it's EUREKA.

AndrewPrice said...

Interesting to see so many Flash Gordon fans! I knew I liked you people! :-)

Scott, There is definitely room for the anti-hero, but there is still room for films like Flash as well. Loved the Batman movie -- "Some days, there's just no getting rid of a bomb."

Writer X, The series left me cold, so I gave up after 3-4 episodes. I like Eureka. Also am looking forward to the new Stargate spin off. I was getting into Primeval but then they started shedding the characters that made the show. :-( Can't stand Warehouse 13.

Pitts, You're right, Flash is about our better natures, and I think that's well appreciated. Not all movies need to make us feel bad.

Unknown said...

WriterX: I love Eureka. And Warehouse 13 is showing lots of potential. The characters play well against each other, the dialog is frequently witty, and some of the real sci-fi (oops, SyFy) elements are good. But unlike Eureka, they didn't have an immediate idea of what the overriding themes would be, and if they don't figure that out soon, they'll be gone.

Writer X said...

Andrew, LawHawk, glad to hear that you both like Eureka. It's one of my favs on the SyFy channel. Maybe this means it won't get cancelled? ;-)

Andrew, I wanted to love Primeval. So far, I'm only lukewarm on it. I think it's because that it tries to be too clever.

I do like Warehouse 13, but I don't think it's as clever as Eureka. I'm willing to give it more of a shot and see how the characters develop, but I hope it's not going to be a Fox/Muldar redux. And, do female FBI agents always have to be snippy, hopelessly single, and neurotic?

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, It took me a long time to warm to Primeval, and just as I did, they started losing the characters who made the show so good. Since then, I think the show has lost its moorings.

I detest everything about Warehouse 13. It is 100% a knockoff of other recent shows, and it comits the cardinal sin of being less interesting than the material it has stolen. I will be surprised if it lasts more than a season.

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