Flash Gordon (1980)PG

CapeHalf a capeTentHalf a tent

This has got to be one of the most lavish cheap crappy movies ever filmed. There is only one other film I can think of that shares this same trait of such rich and luxuriant sets and costumes combined with bargain basement effects and miniatures, and it came from the same producer around the same time. Dune. David Lynch’s worst movie. What is it with the De Laurentiis company that they are willing to spend money on sets and costumes, but not on visual effects or sound, or for that matter screenwriting? Whenever this movie is indoors, it looks great. Whenever it’s outdoors and flying around, it looks like refried cat shit. Worse than Supergirl. It features rocketships that travel at the speed of railroads, and winged men less realistic than the ones filmed in the 1936 serial.

The soundtrack music by Queen is mostly unfortunate, though the title song is vaguely semi-awesome. They’re untutored in the art of dramatic scoring, and having Freddie Mercury sing “Flash!” when Flash is coming to the rescue just emphasizes the camp aspect, and — contrary to the beliefs of most producers and directors of the time — campiness hurts comic book movies far more often than it helps them. In this case, if you’re looking for camp humor instead of for adventure, the laugh value is spread far too thin. See, what we have here is that most dreaded of film types, intentional camp. As a rule, true camp only really clicks when it’s done by accident.

The camp factor does give us one classic line: When asked “Why do you attack us?”, Ming the Merciless replies, “Why not?” And compared to other instances of intentional camp, this one does work a lot better than most... especially when Brian Blessed (at his most Blessedly) is onscreen as the King of the Hawkmen.

It would have helped if the promotion let us know it was cheese, instead of trumpeting all the computerized effects advances they’d supposedly made as if this was the next post-Lucas blockbuster.

The story and in some cases the acting are actually not too bad, compared to the shortcomings in production values. (Okay, okay, in some other cases the acting is horrible.) Sam J. Jones, to my surprise, makes an above average hero for this type of movie, especially for someone who remains pretty much a no-name in Hollywood. The film could easily have earned more capes if the movie’s bad points were not so dreadfully and painfully bad. For instance, Timothy Dalton makes his action scenes exciting, but how can you get caught up in the excitement when the ray guns and so on are implemented with a sub-Dr. Who level of realism? Making stuff like that deliberately bad and cheesy only helps, as a rule, if the movie is genuinely funny. This film is sometimes fun, if you’re forgiving, on a level of pure cheese, but it’s definitely not a film that can stand on its own as a comedy, like the 1966 Batman.

I shouldn’t harp so much on how bad the film looks. I should focus on more important things, like how the screenplay uses its tongue-in-cheekness as an excuse to be stupider than the 1936 version was. But the hell with it.

But what does John Stanley say?

Max von Sydow makes movie history as one of the great villains, Ming the Merciless.