What if sci-fi movies never grew up? Watching the 1980 Flash Gordon movie is like experiencing an alternate universe of science fiction cinema in which the ‘70s and ‘80s unfolded differently. In the universe in which Flash Gordon represented sci-fi, there is no Blade Runner, no one has any reverence for 2001, and a poorly-edited version of Star Wars never got any sequels.
This isn’t to say Flash Gordon is a bad movie, but if you watch it now, you have to accept that it exists in a different universe of good taste. Trying to faithfully recreate old comics and succeeding is something we applaud Marvel movies for doing today. But with the 1980 Flash Gordon, the sense of post-Star Wars irony hadn’t been developed into a recognizable art form, yet.
This weekend, Flash Gordon celebrates the 40th anniversary of its theatrical release on December 5, 1980. Here’s why it was The Phantom Menace of its time, but why it’s also still very much worth a late-night rewatch.
The idea of doing a big-budget film adaptation of Flash Gordon in 1980 is a little like imaging someone doing a fully immersed holographic simulation of Game of Thrones — with all new actors — in the year 2060. Created by Alex Raymond to compete with the Buck Rogers comic strip, the first Flash Gordon comic was published in 1934. The origin story — which is somewhat faithfully recreated in the 1980 movie — involved a polo player named Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones), who is abducted on a rocketship by a mad scientist named Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol). Flash’s romantic interest, Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) is also abducted in the same origin story.
Imagine The Princess Bride without jokes.
The 1980 movie — directed by Mike Hodges and produced by Dino De Laurentiis — replicates these story beats slavishly but changes Flash Gordon’s day job from polo player to New York Jets Quarterback. Other than one scene in which Flash bizarrely plays ad hoc football with a bunch of evil minions, the idea of him being an NFL player does very little for his backstory other than making the entirety of the plot seem like a set-up for softcore porn. Instead of a pizza delivery man suddenly getting lost, some hunky quarterback finds himself on another planet, and it seems like everyone is sitting in his lap!
Superficially, Flash Gordon feels like a visual sequel to the sexed-up ‘60s aesthetic of Barbarella. If it weren’t for the famous theme song by Queen (“Flash! AWWW”) you might think it was made in the ‘60s. This isn’t saying the special effects are bad. The movie’s budget was three times that of the original Star Wars, meaning, Flash Gordon is designed to look the way it looks: like a big-screen version of a 1930s comic strip.
When you consider the screenplay was written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. – the mastermind who wrote much of the ‘60s Adam West Batman — all of this starts to make a little more sense. The only problem is that former Playgirl centerfold Sam J. Jones lacks the dry wit of Adam West in Batman or the comic timing of Jane Fonda in Barbarella. In other words, Flash Gordon should be a self-aware send-up of itself, but because the leading man sells the plot more like a soap commercial, the tone falls somewhere between “we did this shittily on purpose” and a shoulder shrug that says “close enough.”
All of this might make you think I don't like this movie. That's not true! And even though Jones might feel like a discount Dolph Lungren, it's impossible to imagine Flash Gordon with a different cast. Reportedly, Dino De Laurentiis wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger to play Flash, but honestly, that would have given the movie a different kind of camp status as yet another weird "Arnold movie," kind of like The Running Man or The 6th Day. We're actually lucky this didn't happen, because the blandness of both Jones as Flash and Anderson as Dale, let you focus on where the real action is: the supporting cast.
At one point in a scene which seems taken out of erotic sci-fi fanzines from the '70s (or just, you know, regular comic strips of the '30s) Flash and Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) have to whip each other in a whip fight on a moving platform made of spikes. To be clear, Timothy Dalton plays none of this with any irony of any kind. Dalton looks like he's a cross between Westley in Princess Bride and the character he'd eventually play on Doctor Who in 2010.
Prince Vultan is like if Boss Nass was legit cool and his army actually kicked ass.
If you want a guy to play a fantasy/sci-fi prince who can rock an '80s porn mustache, cast Timothy Dalton every time. Imagine The Princess Bride without jokes, and you've got Dalton's performance here perfect. Every second he's on-screen you can tell he thinks he's in a different movie, which is part of what makes the movie he is in, so much more fun.
You probably already know that Max von Sydow plays Ming the Merciless, which, while not entirely memorable, does present an alternate dimension in which he was in better and bigger sci-fi movies. But the biggest presence here (other than Dalton) is easily Brian Blessed, who plays Prince Vultan, a dude with wings who is kind of a cross between Hawkman and a Viking. Star Wars fans probably remember Blessed best for his role as Boss Nass in The Phantom Menace, but it's in Flash Gordon that he gives a performance of a lifetime. Prince Vultan is like if Boss Nass was legit cool and his army actually kicked ass.
This is the link that proves Flash Gordon was The Phantom Menace of its time. The most crucial aspect of the plot involves Flash convincing Prince Vultan (Blessed) and Prince Barin (Dalton) to team-up to stop Ming the Merciless.
Structurally, this arc resembles The Phantom Menace as well: At the beginning of the movie, Flash and Dale are in the palace of Ming. Eventually, Flash has to escape (his death is faked, don't ask) but then, he has to return to the place where the movie basically began. Again, this is exactly like The Phantom Menace, and like that film, has the bizarre impact of making a "big" movie feel impossibly small.
And yet, it's in that smallness that Flash Gordon has charm. It ends where it begins, and convinces you — thanks to a few wonderfully bonkers supporting actors — that this tiny and bizarre science fiction world is worth caring about. Like The Phantom Menace, the style and tone of the movie suggest nostalgia for a less-sophisticated type of narrative. But, the end result doesn't have to improve upon that kind of two-dimensional story from a comic strip. The goal here is clearly just to replicate it. Copying something — even something bad — as any artist knows, is easier said than done. And in that sense, Flash Gordon might be the greatest pulp comic book movie of all time.
Flash Gordon is available to rent on Amazon Prime.