Monday, 27 April 2015

Flash Gordon (UK, 1980)

Created by a New Yorker in the 30's, an all American comic strip character thought up to compete alongside another American creation Buck Rogers. Yet somehow the only movie adaptation of this character is a completely British affair with the epitome of British rock for its soundtrack. Its like...taking Superman and having Edgar Wright direct a movie version complete with his usual roster of acting mates. Simon Pegg as Superman, Nick Frost as Jimmy Olsen, Bill Nighy as Jor-El etc...The soundtrack being covered by Keane or Muse or whoever, but I digress.

The movies plot is basically the same kind of space opera hokeyness that we saw with 'Star Wars'. The ruler of planet Mongo (not mango), Emperor Ming, has decided to play with Earth by causing natural disasters and then destroy it...for reasons. On Earth a scientist believes these natural disasters are being caused by powers coming from deep space which are pushing the Moon towards the Earth. So he lures Flash Gordon and his bird into a rocket and blasts off into space, oddly enough the rocket ends up going through a space vortex and crashing on planet Mongo, convenient. From this point onwards its up to Flash to battle Ming and save Earth from his evil clutches...oh and he gets some help from other alien races too...and saves them also, what a guy!

Now the important thing to remember here is the obvious in your face camp factor. The movie was intentionally made this way to capture the pure colourful and fun essence of the old comic strips and film serials in the 30's (yes I know the film serials were black and white). These days most people will recognise this style being that of the old classic 60's Batman TV series with Adam West, and yes again this movie was made with those specific visuals in mind. The only difference of course being this movie was to be taken relatively seriously or as serious as possible. There are no silly word gags or puns or visual tomfoolery, this was not a spoof or parody, it was a straight up fantasy action flick that just happened to look very vibrant and...errmm camp.

I still find it amusing that Flash was originally a polo player and Yale University graduate because that doesn't seem to fit his character. The guy is suppose to be a superhero-esque figure and...a bit flash, but he plays polo? and he's a snobby top uni grad?? is his alien fighting attire a top hat n tails? Its obvious why they altered this to him being an American football player thusly giving him a much more manly vibe and suiting his rather silly name. Gotta ask...did his parents actually name him Flash? and in this movie why would he wear a shirt with his own name emblazoned across the front? (ego much!!).

That's not to say the film doesn't take liberties with the plot, there are still lots of stupid story holes and ultra convenient circumstances that play along with the frilly gay visuals. The entire beginning of the movie is so ludicrous and convenient its laughable. For a start we're not really told why Ming wants to destroy the Earth, he just kinda wants to for fun, plus how can he control the weather? Then the whole idea of Flash and his bird crashing into Zarkov's lab (their plane is brought down by a hot hail) at the exact time when Zarkov is about to blast into space wreaks of plot convenience. The following idea that Zarkov then tricks and kidnaps the pair to go into space with him is odd to say the least. He actually needs one person to assist him with the launch by stepping on a pedal or something, beats me. He didn't actually require both of them but they all end up going after a bit of fisticuffs, its a very stupid scene frankly. Why not just explain the perilous situation the Earth is in and maybe they would have just agreed to go.

Its also kinda funny how this Zarkov bloke can build a huge space rocket in the comfort of his own greenhouse. He apparently has the funds, the equipment and strangely enough the space! it all fits nicely within his greenhouse. I'm not entirely sure if his space rocket actually finds its way to planet Mongo by accident or intentionally. They go through this space vortex, again very convenient how they fly straight into it, and end up slap bang at planet very convenient! Oh and they happen to crash land right outside Mingo City too! pretty lucky considering they could landed anywhere on the entire planet...I'm being picky aren't I. The movie is filled with these kinds of highly fantastical conveniences and plot holes, its best to try and not think about them really, just enjoy the ride.

As many know this is all part of the fun with this movie, its a semi-serious fantasy but at the same time you're not suppose to look in depth at the tiny details. Much of this universe makes little sense and nothing much is explained, like how come Flash and co are able to breathe the air on planet Mongo? is it identical to Earth? and surely the space trip they undertook would have killed them due to all manner of real time scientific issues...stop!! This film has flying birdmen for flips sake!

Its all about the visuals, bringing the comic strip to life, an early attempt at what 'Sin City' achieved basically. To that end they do a great job and it looks terrific considering how old this is. Production values were solid and you can tell with a vast arrange of lovely sets, costumes and props. Everything is clearly custom made to perfection and with great care and attention to detail, its so nice to see old fashioned model spaceships set against old fashioned model planet surfaces and matte paintings, glorious sight. In fact the special effects do look very much like the model effects seen in British comedy 'Red Dwarf', that gives you an idea of the visual quality and style, obviously fake but really beautiful to see. At the end of the day handmade real time effects may look hokey at times...but oh so charming, and what's more they are real thus providing atmosphere.

The cast is another famous part of this films overall appeal. Its clear to anyone that Max Von Sydow steals the show with his scenery chewing and evil use of eyebrows and goatee. Despite everything going on around him being really quite farcical Sydow sticks to his guns and delivers an epic hard-nosed lavishly dressed ruler or dictator (he looks and dresses very Russian in some scenes if you ask me). He doesn't actually do anything in the movie, no laser battles, no lightsaber fights etc...he just swans around looking ornate and splendid, grimacing at everyone and making them obey. At the same time Sam Jones shows he can't act very well but looks every bit the part of Flash with his golden locks and all American attitude (doesn't actually have much of a muscly physique).

Other stars include Timothy Dalton doing what he does best, playing a dashing dueling cad with an Errol Flynn-like pencil tash. Mariangela Melato as the quite sexy yet evil General Kala complete with black catsuit, Ornella Muti as the stereotypical Princess Aura, Robbie Coltrane is in there, Kenny Baker, Deep Roy and the marvelously creepy Richard O'Brien (look out for Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan in a small role). But wait! who could forget the gaping bearded maw of the great Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan...wearing a Roman-seque metal skirt. Next to Sydow Blessed performance is probably the most remembered here with some corking dialog and being the only character to actually add some silly comical relief.

The final part of this cult jigsaw that everybody knows and loves is of course the soundtrack. I think most folk will recognise the famous Queen track with cries of 'FLASH! A-AAAH!!'. I love how the opening credits show sections/snippets of the original classic comic strips with the Queen track roaring at the same time. Very much a precursor to what Marvel do now, showing various original comicbook art flickering over credits, and their logo even (Marvel probably pinched the idea). This move was highly original at the time and still is really, you don't often get bands writing exclusive songs for a movie and then use it virtually through the whole movie with little else. The only other music was a small orchestral score by Howard Blake which actually sounds too good for this movie. It does remind me very much of 'Blade Runner' with its deep ethereal tones, it should of been used in a better more serious sic-fi movie methinks.

Sure most things you see here are very cliched, they use every fantasy/space adventure cliche there is although much is taken from the original source material. Anyone young seeing this now would probably groan at the use of jungle worlds, fighting to the death in arenas, ancient Greek looking winged warriors, Princesses, a blonde all American hero, a racist Fu Manchu-esque villain and hordes of faceless Stormtrooper-like soldiers that may or may not be robots or monsters. Naturally the movie rides on the coattails of 'Star Wars' but at the time that was a fresh approach so it all felt new and original. Looking back its clear to see this cult has influenced many films that came along after it, classic British fantasy 'Krull' for one.

By today's gleaming special effects extravaganza laden standards this now looks very hokey at times admittedly. Some model/matte painting shots work beautifully, others which include bluescreen look a bit crap truth be told, even more so in Bluray. Still you can't really complain firstly because the movie is very old and secondly because the cheesy camp style along with dated visuals do combine to homage the original comic strips and early film serials nicely. Its a lively, flamboyant, dazzling ride full of imagination, quirky casting, familiar sci-fi fantasy traits and with colour very much at the forefront of the visual assault. This movie is very much a British institution.