Flash Gordon (1980) 4K Ultra HD Review: Garish and Spirited Comic Action

George Lucas’s inspirations for Star Wars were many. He was a voracious reader of golden age science fiction, and picked elements he liked from several different stories: lightsabers were borrowed from Lensman, Tatooine’s moisture farming and the spice mines of Kessel were liberated from Dune. But the form of the story, and the real heart of Lucas’ ambition was to recreate the thrills of Flash Gordon: the long running comic strip, and the Buster G. Crabbe starring serials that were adapted from it. But the license for Flash Gordon was expensive, and mid-1970s George Lucas was not a billionaire. He had to make up his own world instead.

It’s a cinematic irony, then, that the colossal success of Star Wars lead to a new adaptation of Flash Gordon finally appearing on screen, but in the hands of uber-producer Dino De Laurentiis. The first director to try to crack the nut was the British art-house auteur Nicholas Roeg. He had an elaborate, epic vision, a kind of biblical allegory where Flash and the spunky Dale Arden were Adam and Eve, and Ming the Merciless was a vengeful God chasing them from his Garden of Eden. It’s a high-minded, deeply conceptual idea. It didn’t fly with De Laurentiis for 10 minutes. Roeg got the boot (or quit, everyone’s got a different story) and director Michael Hodges was brought in. The result is a truly odd film, a mix of visual beauty and story-less nonsense that can be enthralling in one second, high ridiculous camp the next, and manages to be wildly entertaining without having a center or a consistent tone to speak of.

The story is space opera: Ming the Merciless, out of boredom, decides that Earth will be his next victim in his galaxy-spanning reign of terror. He visits natural disasters on the planet, which are baffling to Earth’s scientific minds…except for the eccentric Dr. Zarkov. He sees some sort of intelligence behind these events, and intuits that they aren’t natural disasters at all, but attacks. He wants to fly up in his rocket ship to find the source, and when his cowardly assistant abandons him, he grabs the football star and nearby female who just happened to crash an airplane into his laboratory before takeoff: Flash Gordon, and Dale Arden, respectively.

The three arrive in the kingdom of Ming, a space emperor played with scenery-chewing relish by Max von Sydow, and discover the horrifying police state he rules, something between Soviet uber-surveillance and the ancient Persian Empire’s sensual excess. Ming likes Dale, admires Zarkov’s mind, and is furious when Flash beats down his guards in an absolutely ridiculous scene where he basically plays football with them and wins single-handedly. Dale he wants in his bed, Zarkov on his secret police, and Flash is to be executed.

But this tyrant has multiple enemies, in his administration and without. His daughter Princess Aura wants to keep Flash alive for her own pleasure. The chief of his secret police, blatant Darth Vader rip-off Klytus, wants Princess Aura for himself, and Ming’s various conquered planets are all too busy warring among each other to be any trouble to the emperor. Flash Gordon, suddenly, is the only real problem Ming has. And he’s to be executed.

Thus the space opera of Flash Gordon commences, moving from crisis to crisis, impossible escape to impossible escape. Flash, played by relative newcomer Sam J. Jones, is kind of dull as a leading man, though he has a confident competence that’s charming even if the performance is a little perfunctory. Most of the scenes are kind of flabby, and though they each lead one to another with some logic, there’s no great clever plot or stirring storyline. Most of the performances go further over the top than Zarkov’s rocket but a hell of a lot of the movie just kind of works, despite itself.

It succeeds in excess. The aforementioned ridiculous football sequence is not designed for an adult mind to take with any kind of seriousness, but it’s energetic, and really goes for it. Dale Arden even cheerleads from the sidelines as Flash bowls over the legion of mostly ineffectual guards. And though the characters could not be accused of having any kind of complexity, they’re just the right kind of broad stereotype. Flash is confident middle America, Dale is a plucky female protagonist who wants to end up with the guy, but she’ll happily mow down evil guards with blaster rifles to get to him.

The film is blessed with a wildly-overqualified cast, as well. Besides Max van Sydow, there’s Timothy Dalton as the leader of the tree people, the luscious Ornella Muti as Princess Aura, and the irrepressibly loud Brian Blessed, who shouts his way through the role of Voltan the hawkman. They’re all dressed in fun, ridiculously colorful costumes and declaim their lines like they’re playing for the cheap seats. It’s arguably all quite stupid, but it’s also hard to dislike.

And the gaudiness and the beauty of the film is highlighted on this 4K UHD release. In some ways, the crystal clarity of the Ultra HD video fights against the film: never has the actor behind the mask of General Klytus been so evident. You can easily see where the makeup doesn’t completely cover up his skin. And there are tons of effect shots that look like old, over-ambitious effects shots that can throw an uncharitable viewer right out of the film.

But there’s the energy. The ridiculous set pieces and constant action. That terrific theme song and score by Queen. Really impressive set design and the elaborate, if completely garish, costumes. All the bright colors, the broad acting, the complicated story and the unflinching confidence and good nature of Flash Gordon himself. I could easily write an excoriating review highlighting all of Flash Gordon‘s faults – they’re myriad. Constant. Inescapable. But I enjoyed the hell out of revisiting the film for the first time since I was probably seven years old, when I’d rented it from the video store for probably the 10th time in a year. That’s the kind of movie Flash Gordon is.

Accompanying the film in this Arrow Video release is a feature length documentary, Life After Flash. It began life as an examination of what happened to Sam J. Jones’ career and life after the film was released. The filming of Flash Gordon was contentious, and he was actually fired before post-production was completed, so that all of his actual dialogue was dubbed by another actor. His life had some ups and some major downs, but the film finds him in a later life upswing, reconciled to his past and building a new future. It also serves as a retrospective on the film itself, including interviews with many of the principals who are still with us, and with celebrity fans who discuss what the film has meant to them.

Flash Gordon has been released on 4K UHD by Arrow Video. Life After Flash is presented on a separate standard Blu-ray disc. There are extensive extras for both films. On the UHD disc there are three commentaries: one with writer-director Mike Hodges, one with Brian Blessed, and “Big Kev’s Geek Stuff”, a November 2007 radio show that featured Sam J. Jones and Melody Anderson. Video extras include the archival “Behind the Scenes of Flash Gordon” (15 min), the new “Lost in Space: Nic Roeg’s Flash Gordon” (28 min) which details the abandoned Nicholas Roeg version of the film, “Flash Gordon Animated Episode” (25 min) from 1982, “Flash Gordon Merchandise” (5 min), “35th Anniversary Greenroom” (9 min) and “35th Anniversary Reunion” (7 min) which include footage from the 35th Anniversary reunion of the film’s principals. There are several video interviews with various cast and crew member, as well as fans: director Mike Hodges (32 min), screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (10 min), comic artist Alex Ross (14 min), Sam J. Jones on His Move into Acting (4 min), memorabilia collector Bob Lindenmayer on Deleted Scenes (2 min), actress Melody Anderson (6 min), Brian Blessed (11 mins), Queen guitarist and composer Brian May (8 min), and movie poster artist Renato Casaro (6 min). There are also image galleries and trailers.

The Life After Flash Blu-ray has a large array of video extras: “Extended Comic Con Sequence” (13 min), “Deep Roy Ambition Rap” (2 min), “Tell Me More about the This Man Houdini” (2 min), “Sam J. Jones ‘Prayer Walk’ in Full “(2 min), “Chattanooga Film Festival Script Read” (6 min), “Lisa Downs Interview”(13 min), “Topol’s Stamps” (3 min), “Topol’s Awards” (2 min), “Topol’s Jordan River Village” (6 min), “Topol’s Portraits” (3 min), “Boston Sci-Fi Fest” (5 min), “Alex Ross Talks Early Art” (9 min), “Melody’s Paintings Extended” (4 min), “Private West End Screening” (2 min), “Kickstarter Video” (3 min), “Mexico Sequence” (11 min), “Flash Gordon Starts a Fire” (1 min), “Brian, Tim, Magda Love Triangle” (3 min), “Sam and His Wolf” (4 min), “Brian Gooses Melody” (3 min), “Deep Roy’s Eastbound & Down” (2 min), “Rochdale Extended” (7 min), “The Late, Great Peter Wyngarde Uncut Excerpt” (9 min), and a trailer.

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Kent Conrad

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