Monday, April 27, 2015

Space Camp

Fig 1: Restraint
Flash Gordon (1981)

This is the third and final synched-review of late Seventies/early Eighties space opera movies. Guanolad, Jamas and Al have also covered this movie -check them out!

I am ten and- do you really want me to continue beginning my posts this way? Okay, how about this: I wanted to see this when I was a kid, arranged to watch it the first Saturday it got into town with my friend Paul (who I was 'sharing' with his weirdly jealous next-door neighbour), missed the first week, and on the last weekend, while mowing my Nan's lawn, watched then bicycle home past her house with my rival crowing that they'd just seen Flash Gordon and I hadn't. Screw you, Geoffrey McIntosh, screw you!
A bullet for my rival in friendship, Mister Memories, sir...
I eventually saw Flash Gordon  maybe twenty-three or twenty-four years later along with Mrs Simian at the flat of a workmate of hers, an expat whose lovely collection of movies also introduced us to such treats as Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Mouse That Roared and one of my all-time favourites, School for Scoundrels. Flash was jokingly dreaded by both of us in advance, but by god we had a lot of fun watching it. I'm convinced I wouldn't have got half as much out of it at ten. Even now, I thought I'd be reviewing this with the old skeptical spectacles, and yet again fell for its prurient charms. I shouldn't enjoy it, but it wants me to. I can't take it seriously, nobody takes it seriously - god knows it can't take itself seriously. It's a beautiful thing.
This is the tamest 'kinky' picture I can find.
But let's try for some balance and address some ugly truths. This movie is kinky as all get-out. Leather, whips, leather whips, shorts, short shorts, leather shorts, thongs, spandex, gimp masks, bondage, drugs, and some of the campest lines this side of Scouting for Boys. And it's all deliberate.

The campness is a knowing wink towards the dated aesthetic of Alex Raymond's original strip, an appealing but unworkable welding together of Buck Rogers SF and the derring-do of a Douglas Fairbanks serial. This is borne out by the special effects, which switch the two-stroke whining sparkler-farting piano string borne rockets and painted cycloramas of the Buster Crabbe shorts (not those kind of shorts!) for studiously-designed models and a LOT of blue screen over lava-lamp cloud formations. 
Welcome to Mongo, hope you like red!
Once the rather wooden prologue connecting our three leads (Flash, Dale, Zarkov) is over and the All-American tee-shirt is ditched for Mongo attrire - in fact, once we're on Mongo, this retro design kicks in, and it sells the movie, really. The only gripe I'd have is in the lighting, which gives nothing in the way of shadows and makes the reds look garish, the gold look plasticky, and Mongo look a little two-dimensional. I'm not sure whether this is Mike Hodges attempting to replicate the four-colour look of Raymond's strips, or just dodgy direction, but there's probably too much hoving towards the old stagey serials in this approach, and not enough wide open spaces. I do bear a lot of goodwill towards the look of this movie and its aesthetic, but particularly towards the end it looks cheap, is directed flatly, and its realisation of the Hawkmen of Vultan aren't a patch on Barbarella's angelic Pygar, twelve years older.
Gaze into the Ring of Ming!
Vultan is of course Brian Blessed, one of a notable handful of Shakepearean actors hamming it up, supporting frankly weaker leads, though Max von Sydow and Chiam Topol are quite endearing in their fun as Ming and Zarkov, respectively. The straightforward script is given the minimum of conviction, and only then by Sam Jones and Melody Anderson - our leads and the weak links in the chain. Without them, however, and in the hands of actors more arch, I think Flash Gordon may well have been dismissed as a production just too knowing to be given its due. As it is, the balance is fine, teetering on lampoon, and the Queen soundtrack never really hits the highs of the famous theme song. Klytus is dispatched too easily and really has little threat, and his troops have the aim of graduates from Stormtrooper Academy.

Yup, if you're going to be in with this movie, you need to cast aside a too-critical eye, and maybe be a little longer in the tooth than the movie's adventure is pitching at.

But look - there's the ingredients here for a hell of a remake, and I hope Matthew Vaughan is taking notes as well as phoning The Darkness to do the soundtrack.

1 comment:

  1. That's a heart breaking story - I'd have gone with you!

    Anyway, this film is kinky? Who knew...? Apparently Mike Hodges became aware that many of his contemporary's sexual fantasies were inspired by the original comic strips, so choose to capitalise on this. But I see you missed (maybe on purpose) the single most disturbing element in your list - Ming's relationship with his daughter. Ewww - moving swiftly along. people do tend to get hung up on Klytus's 'easy' demise but I think the point of the scene(coming close on the heels of a lengthy and brutal fight scene as it does) is that this single fleeting action redefines the paradigm on Mongo.
    Vultan is forced to fight alongside Flash and Barin because he no longer has any choice - he would probably have intereded in Klytus's death had he been given the chance. But Klytus's supreme arrogance and faith in Ming's divide and conquer rule makes him choose to remain behind unguarded, and he pays a swift price. This isn't one of your 'lengthy stoush with masked villain/robot on strings' movies, Klytus is the representation of a corrupt ideal - exposed as unable to stand against our heroes once they finally put aside their differences and band together.

    As for flat direction, well I'd certainly look elsewhere at the three films we've covered in this little sync-set to level that particular criticism... But a Darkness soundtrack for the remake? Couldn't agree more!