Review: Flash Gordon

Celebrating its 40th anniversary, this 4k restoration of the 1980s sci-fi movie comes with a bundle of extras

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New York quarterback Flash Gordon boards a private plane and introduces himself to fellow passenger, travel agent Dale Arden, who seems instantly charmed. The weather takes a turn for the worse courtesy of villainous emperor Ming the Merciless and they are forced to crash-land at the secret laboratory of one Doctor Hans Zarkov.

Zarkov has been monitoring these dangerous weather phenomena and believes he has pinpointed the source. Declaring that the Earth will be destroyed, he abducts Flash and Dale, forcing them to crew his rocket and propelling the trio into the vastness of space in the hope of halting the climate catastrophes and saving the planet.

At the outer reaches of the galaxy they crash-land again (irresponsible) on the planet Mongo and are escorted to Ming’s palace in Mingo City. After witnessing fractious tribes offering worthless tributes they stir up a knockabout tussle before being apprehended and separated: Zarkov sent for brainwashing, Dale ordered to be Ming’s concubine, and Flash readied for public execution. Will they escape their doom? Will the populace unite against the despotic Ming? Will Earth be spared from destruction? And that’s just the first 30 minutes.

I am aware that people either love or loathe this campy comic-strip fantasy flick from the decade that taste forgot, so let me start by declaring that … I adore it. Flash Gordon is my favourite film bar none; it may not be “the best” by any stretch of the imagination but it’s certainly one of the most enjoyable, most quotable, most re-watchable pieces of cinematic flotsam I’ve yet seen. The set designs are gaudy, the soundtrack bombastic, the dialogue seemingly both risible and clever at the same time, and the story episodic – not unlike the black and white serials this is based on.

Ex-Playgirl centrefold Sam J Jones (Flash) is as rigid and cold as Max Von Sydow (Ming) is sinuous and alluring. Melody Anderson (Dale), Topol (Zarkov), plus Ornella Muti, Peter Wyngarde, Timothy Dalton and Brian Blessed add ripe support as riotous as the dayglo visuals. When I first saw this film as a wide-eyed 10 year old on VHS (or was it Betamax?) I was swept away by a fluorescent space opera filled with colourful characters, death-defying incident and weird creatures. I wanted to go there! To my more cynical, middle-aged eyes (and ears) the technical craft and professionalism on display here are matched only by the almost mythic Mick Fleetwood-Sam Fox Brit Awards of 1989. My adult verdict: appallingly joyous and secretly genius.

The Flash Gordon comic strip was created by Alex Raymond in 1934 and published to compete with Buck Rogers (swoon). In the 1970s producer Dino De Laurentiis snagged the film rights from under George Lucas’s nose – who, inspired by this loss and his love for the character, went on to create The Adventures of Luke Starkiller, later retitled Star Wars. With screenwriter Michael Allin in place, De Laurentiis approached Federico Fellini, Nicolas Roeg, and apparently Sergio Leone to direct his film, but all either declined or failed to meet the demanding Italian’s requirements. This much I knew.

What I learned from the enlightening Lost In Space documentary (on disc 1) was that the writer had originally envisioned a grandiose “Adam and Eve vs. The Ultimate Evil” story where Ming sought to repopulate all planets in his own image using a representative female of his liking from each to bear his progeny, and erasing all other life. De Laurentiis hankered for a more comedic tone, one that wasn’t present in the original comics, so Allin departed and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (the 1960s Batman TV series) stepped in. Mike Hodges, then hot off 1971’s Get Carter and an uncredited stint on Damien: Omen II, was subsequently hired to direct.

Much has been made of Flash Gordon’s perceived box office underperformance, yet it made back its production budget (just) and was one of the UK’s highest grossing films from 1980, second only to The Empire Strikes Back, ironically. It has since grown in stature as a bona fide cult classic due to the “Is it intentional? Is it dreadful?” dialogue, the wildly inconsistent acting, the deafening Queen soundtrack, Blue Peter’s Peter Duncan in a cameo role and, of course, Brian Blessed.

Disc 1 of this new presentation contains the film itself, restored from the original 35mm negative with sound and VFX improvements, the aforementioned documentary detailing the abandoned story, audio commentaries and some usual puff pieces.

Disc 2 contains a Mike Hodges interview showing him to be a likeable guy and consummate professional, an episode of The New Adventures of Flash Gordon cartoon (1979-1982) – which I fondly remember – two Entertainment Earth geeks talking about merchandise, and a piece titled Bob Lindenmeyer Discusses Deleted Scenes and Original Endings that doesn’t actually show any deleted scenes. Additionally there are a couple of 35th anniversary featurettes and further interviews, most notably Brian May on his and Howard Blake’s work, and some hillarious anecdotes from Blessed.

The bumper five disc Collector’s Edition packages all of this with a bonus disc – Life After Flash (the 2017 feature documentary by Lisa Downs), plus the original soundtrack, various booklets, a reproduced comic strip, artwork and a sew-on patch! Frankly it’s a mind-boggling haul and well worth the price tag if you’re an avid Flash-fan like myself. If you’re more of a casual viewer, however, maybe stick to the one or two disc versions, where most of the interesting material resides.

Flash Gordon special 4K restoration is in selected cinemas now, and available on Blu-Ray, DVD, UHD and digital from 10 August

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