Flash Gordon, an outer space fantasy adventure, is based on the world famous comic strip, which comes to life with action, romance,comedy and music by popular rock group Queen. When energy waves pull the moon out of orbit, threatening destruction of the Earth, Dr. Hans Zarkov makes a desperate rocket flight with two unwilling passengers- Flash Gordon, quarterback for the NY Jets and lovely Dale Arden. Their destination is planet Mongo, the source of the strange energy waves. Ruling over Mongo with primeval brutality is Ming the Merciless, who must be destroyed. Only one person can do it. He is Flash Gordon..
"Go, Flash, go!"
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, an up-and-coming young filmmaker named George Lucas had an idea about adapting his favorite childhood comic strip and serial matinee character into a new movie. When he couldn't afford the rights, he instead created a little picture called 'Star Wars' as a tribute to those many Saturday mornings wasted in movie theaters. The result is cinematic history, and sparked a new resurgence in science fiction and fantasy adventure on the silver screen. Enter Dino de Laurentiis, a spectacularly successful producer with much deeper pockets. Hoping to cash in on the sci-fi fad, he scooped up the rights to 'Flash Gordon', the original Alex Raymond comic that so enamored young Mr. Lucas, and mounted his own lavish revival as a retro-fabulous fantasy swashbuckler with its tongue firmly in cheek.
"Flash – ah ahhhhhh
Saviour of the universe!"
From the far-off reaches of the universe, evil emperor Ming the Merciless (played by Max von Sydow with deliciously hammy glee), entertains himself by assaulting the Earth with freakish weather, earthquakes, and other seemingly natural disasters of his own creation. Only the loony Dr. Zarkov ('Fiddler on the Roof' Oscar nominee Topol) recognizes this as an attack from outer space, but he's been discredited by the scientific community for his beliefs. Through a fortuitous series of circumstances, Zarkov recruits (kidnaps, to be more accurate) all-American football star Flash Gordon (Dolph Lundgren look-alike Sam J. Jones) and his fetching love interest Dale Arden (Melody Anderson, who's a dead ringer for Carol Hughes from the 1940 'Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe' serial, and a pretty close match for the comic strip character) to accompany him on a rocket ship bound for planet Mongo.
While Flash may be a reluctant hero inadvertently caught up in a galactic conflict beyond his comprehension, he's not about to let his home planet get destroyed by some spacy lunatic. Like any good space-faring adventurer, our studly but dim-witted quarterback immediately dashes into action. After being captured by Ming, he must escape from captivity, seduce the Princess, unite the various factions of Mongo against their dictator, rescue the damsel in distress, and face off against the master villain with little time to spare before our moon crashes into the Earth.
"Flash – ah ahhhhhh
He'll save ev'ry one of us!"
If Jones isn't much of an actor, he nonetheless manages to convey an appropriate note of dopey earnestness perfectly in keeping with movie serial tradition. (Honestly, try watching one of those old Buster Crabbe serials and then tell me that Jones is badly cast.) Joining him are many favorite characters from the original Alex Raymond comic, including hawkman Vultan (Brian Blessed, bellowing his role with even more hammy delight than von Sydow) and the dashing Robin Hood-like Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton, future James Bond). Sharp-eyed viewers may spot Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid from the 'Harry Potter' movies) in a non-speaking bit part at the beginning of the film. And yes, that dwarf named Fellini is Deep Roy, the scene-stealing Oompa Loompa from Tim Burton's 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'.
Unfortunately, the audiences of 1980 – those not dropping LSD and grooving on the trippy visuals, anyway – had no idea what to make of the picture. Sure, they were eager for another big-budget epic filled with elaborate production design and special effects. But what was with all the goofy costumes and campy humor? The key element that George Lucas tapped into with 'Star Wars' was his recognition that, while the old movie serials may have been inherently silly, the people who made them (or, at least, the best of them) played them straight. Even if they had only a couple of toy rockets on strings, a pet iguana, and a budget of $1.50 each episode – by god, they were going to make those kids in the audience believe the fantasy. It was with that same spirit that Lucas made his own film, and obviously struck a deep chord that has continued to resonate even decades later.
On the other hand, 'Flash Gordon' doesn't take itself seriously at all. Virtually no one involved in its production plays it straight. The movie is a good-natured, big budget cheesefest that embraces and makes fun of all the corniest aspects of 1930s movie serials – the stilted acting, the gaudy costumes, the Art Deco designs and hokey miniature effects. It also has a fair share of de Laurentiis' own camp classic 'Barbarella' mixed in for fun, especially evident in all the swirling lava lamp skylines. The production is a riot of gaudy colors. The comic strip sets and costumes are as chintzy as they are ornate and expensive. And the whole thing is backed by a rocking soundtrack from Queen featuring some of the most ridiculous lyrics the band ever performed.
'Flash Gordon' floundered in the box office wake of 'The Empire Strikes Back' upon release. Fortunately, home video is often kind to such misunderstood projects. The film grew a cult audience over time who appreciated the way it recreated the goofy charm of old movie serials while also capturing the imagination of a new generation of children and their parents. The picture collapses into an overwrought spectacle at the end and doesn't have a brain in its sparkly little head, but it sure is fun to watch.
"Flash – ah ahhhhhh
He's a miracle!"
Universal Studios Home Entertainment last released 'Flash Gordon' on DVD back in 2007, with a disc called the Saviour of the Universe Edition. This new Blu-ray drops the Saviour of the Universe title, but is otherwise a port of that earlier DVD. You'd think Universal might want to play up the film's 30th Anniversary this year, but there's no mention of that anywhere on the packaging.
The Blu-ray is BD-Live enabled, so that the studio can stream annoying trailers from the internet before the main menu, and plaster a ticker feed of PR announcements and ads over that menu.
'Flash Gordon' is a cult item with a checkered history on home video. Its DVD debut came in the form of a non-anamorphic letterbox transfer recycled from an earlier Laserdisc. In 2005, the film was released by Momentum Pictures in the UK with a reasonably decent Silver Anniversary Edition DVD that came in a nice Steelbook package. That disc had a remastered anamorphic transfer that, although certainly an improvement over the earlier DVD, was too bright and washed out. It also suffered the usual PAL speedup artifacts. Back here in the U.S., Universal didn't get around to re-releasing the movie on DVD until the Saviour of the Universe Edition in 2007.
First, the good news: The Blu-ray can be called the best that 'Flash Gordon' has yet looked on home video. The 1080p/VC-1 transfer is easily more detailed than any previous standard-def disc. For example, we're first introduced to Flash reading a newspaper in his car. On the Blu-ray, you can clearly see that he's holding the paper upside down. The text is simply not that legible on DVD. Colors are more vibrant as well. The excessive brightness from the UK DVD has been pulled down, which helps to mask some of the wires holding up the models, and some of the optical compositing artifacts that were never meant to be seen by audiences. A few of the "garbage mattes" around Zarkoff's rocket ship are still visible, but less so than before; most now properly blend into the darkness of space.
Sadly, 'Flash Gordon' turns out to be one of those catalog titles that Universal has decided to whack with the DNR stick. Just about any semblance of film grain has been scrubbed away by Digital Noise Reduction, and with it many fine details and textures. Yes, the disc is still more detailed than DVD, but not as much so as the original 35mm photography should be. Some scenes, especially close-up shots, look very good. However, the 2.35:1 image has an overall mushy and "processed" appearance.
On top of this, the picture's contrast has also been artificially tweaked. As I mentioned earlier, this helps to correct some of the brightness issues with previous transfers. But it also leaves many scenes looking overly dark. The cameo by Robbie Coltrane is very difficult to make out here because of the dark picture. Another side effect of this is that a lot of the colors are oversaturated.
I'm at a loss to explain why Universal would treat some of its catalog titles (like 'Dune' and 'Carlito's Way') so well, and others like this so badly. Now, I'm not saying that this is a terrible Blu-ray, or anywhere near the worst of Universal's catalog titles on the format. But I'm disappointed with it all the same.
With that said, one thing that is not the fault of the disc transfer is the severe stretching of the opening titles sequence. The movie has always looked that way. The montage of comic strip panels were originally photographed at 1.37:1 and then simply stretched to fill the scope screen. It looks pretty terrible, but it's deliberate.
As an experiment, I used my video processor to squeeze the credit sequence back into 4:3 shape just to see how it would look.
The comic art indeed looks a lot better this way, but I don't advocate this as anything other than an interesting one-off experiment. The live action footage mixed in was all photographed in Todd-AO 35 format at 2.35:1. That is the appropriate aspect ratio for the movie.
During its theatrical run, 'Flash Gordon' was mixed in Dolby Stereo, and also had some 70mm blow-up prints with a 6-channel soundtrack. The DVD and Blu-ray sport a remix that sounds mostly like a 2-channel recording that's been tweaked a bit for 5.1. Although there's some directional movement across the front soundstage, surround activity is limited.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio track is set for a loud default volume. The songs by Queen fill the soundstage and have a fair amount of pulsing bass. However, they also seem to have about a 1970s level of fidelity. The opening title theme sounds very hollow and has muddy lyrics. That's true of most of the songs in the movie. ADR dubbing is often prominent. (Almost all of Sam J. Jones' dialogue was revoiced by another anonymous actor.) The big action scenes typically collapse into a mass of noise with no clarity or distinction of individual sounds.
The Blu-ray carries over the bonus features from the 2007 Saviour of the Universe Edition DVD.
I hesitate to call 'Flash Gordon' a guilty pleasure. Why should I feel guilty for enjoying a movie in the spirit it was intended? The picture is as dumb as its hero, but a great campy delight all the same.
Sadly, the Blu-ray is a mixed bag. It looks better than DVD, sure, but has an overly processed appearance. It would look a lot better with less tampering. The soundtrack and bonus features are no great shakes either. The disc merits a recommendation, but not as enthusiastically as I'd hoped.