Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Jumping Jack Flash

Flash, Flash I love you. But we only have fourteen hours to save the earth.”

So yells Dale Arden (Melody Anderson – nice parentin’ calling your newborn Melody) to the eponymous hero (Sam J Jones) in the 1980 campstravaganza Flash Gordon. Symphonies should be written to the banality of the line, sure, but I just love the way it sounds – it encapsulates the trite dullness of the whole enterprise by bringing it down to earth. It’s like saying “Flash, Flash, I love you. But if you don’t save the earth, I’ve got men queuing at the door mate!” The world might be on the brink of total apocalypse, but let’s get the human emotions out of the way first. The juxtaposition of the grand (intergalactic destruction) with the bizarrely regular (fourteen hours to save it) defines the film. That’s what makes it fun. But, also, once you’ve seen the film, there’s pretty much no way you want to revisit it ever again. At least sober. So, thank you, whoever submitted this to The White Elephant Blog-a-thon.

Straight out of Tolstoy, the plot follows the misadventures of Flash, Dale and their hirsute companion Dr Zarkov (played by Topol – the character is meant to be Presbyterian, I think) as they try to save the Earth from the apocalyptic intentions of the evil Ming The Merciless (Max von Sydow). Like any intergalactic dictator with a serious manicure problem, Ming is bored, y’see, and he’d like to play with things for a while. Unlike the rest of us who can think of playing with only one thing when we’re bored, Ming’s mind wanders elsewhere. It turns out, when he’s alone, and life is making him lonely Ming always goes to his Grand Vizier or whatever that Vader knock-off dude is called, who, in turn, offers his master a new planet to destroy. That planet happens to be Earth, and it is up to Flash Gordon and his two new BFF’s to stop Ming in his tracks. The rest of the movie develops in the way one might expect from an Edgar Rice Burroughs knock off – Hawkmen with wings in one scene, then a football game in the other; huge rockets attacking floating fortresses, and rudely interrupting a wedding. It’s as if the screenwriter, Lorenzo Semple, got fired up coming up with an incredible set up, only to be interrupted by his wife to take the trash out – when he came back, he’d lost all his concentration, and just let his fingers do the typing. Kind of like what I am doing right now.

But I am being purposefully glib. Which is unfair because the film is meant to be trash, a cheeky little wink at the old Flash Gordon serials. Sample Dialogue:

Prince Barin: Do you know where you are?
Flash: Up the creek.

It has no pretensions, and is closer in tone to the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks of the past few years. In fact, I am surprised they decided to remake Flash Gordon as a late summer TV show on SciFi instead of a big budget summer movie extravaganza. God knows they revisit enough tripe.

Nonetheless, there is something slightly cynical about the film, too. It opened around the same time as Popeye in the US (the inimitable Odienator reckons it opened on the same day, and that IMDB has it wrong – who am I to argue with his OdieTude), and both films tried to cash in on the crowd who had grown up with the originals, as well as their children who had been watching the reruns on the telly. Unfortunately, Flash Gordon was subpar entertainment for anyone old enough to remember the old serials, and not hip enough for the generation who had, that very summer, found out about Cool Handless Luke’s parentage. So the film failed.

Even though there are moments of pure joy – any film that has Tevye, James Bond, and Death’s Chess Partner (looking like a cross between The Wizard of Oz and Mr Miyagi) can’t be dismissed completely – eventually, it falls flat. If you can get a hold of them, watch the old serials instead. If not, there’s always Flesh Gordon.

Note: No review of the film is complete without mentioning the soundtrack by Queen, which is reason enough the band should never have foregone their “No synthesisers” rule. It has a few good tracks – Football Fight, for example, the tune that launched a thousand HR training videos in the eighties, is brilliant not just in itself but also in the context of the scene – but, on the whole, it is a mess. Kind of like the movie.

This review is part of the second annual White Elephant Blog-a-thon hosted by Ben Lim at Lucid Screening.
Update: Here is the infamous Football Fight sequence:


Spine said...

I like the comment from `bill' in this: http://tenser.typepad.com/tenser_said_the_tensor/2004/06/flash_gordon.html

Ali Arikan said...

Spine's link.

Sarah D. Bunting said...

Queen's "Flash" is actually a rockin' three-minute audio summary of the film that saves you from having to watch it.

I saw it in the theater when it came out; I was seven. The beheading had me up nights for a month.

Unknown said...

Two words: Brian Blessed.

Ali Arikan said...

Sarah - I love Queen's Flash. In fact, it was a Kiss This Guy song for me for years. I thought Mercury sang, instead of "He's a miracle," "He's American." I prefer my version better.


Anonymous said...

Ali - You did a great job with this, which was my suggestion. I remembered it as being bad, but fun. I didn't want to inflict maximum pain, and it sounds like you didn't feel any. Thanks.

Kza said...

Aw man, Ali, I'm so jealous you got this for the White Elephant. I love this awful, awful movie.

I've said this elsewhere, but I can't believe this movie never gets referenced in cartoons like Family Guy, Simpsons, the Adult Swim bloc, etc. The stump monster game and the fight on the tilting disc are dying to be parodied. Those writers must be around my age; didn't they see this a million times on cable as a kid?

Ali Arikan said...

Marilyn - Thanks. And guess who put forward Theodore Rex? Hint, hint, nudge, nudge, wink, wink...

Kza - You are right - the film seems to exist to be parodied. It was referenced in an episode of the UK sitcom Father Ted.

Steve C. said...

I guess I better get off my duff and see this thing some day. Who would I be without cinematic atrocity, etc.

Adam Ross said...

I like this movie more every time I see it -- and dammit if I'm able to resist putting it on again this weekend after reading this.


Anonymous said...

Ali - "This is the end of a beautiful friendship." Argghhh.

outside dog said...

I first saw this film in the theater when I was 10 years old and even then I knew it was cheesy as hell.

I still don't understand how anyone cannot love this movie.

Robert T. said...

Hey Ali, as a young teen in the early '80s, this movie made a lot of impressions on me. I confess that I enjoyed the film very much. And apparently, so did the rest of the audience. As I remember it, there was an instantaneous round of applause that roared throughout the moviehouse when the closing credits began. I kid you not. This was ever the only movie I had been to where that happened. Not even Indy and His Last Crusade garnered that much appreciation. (Indy's third movie, btw, was the other movie that left a deep impression. I played truant that day just to see it, and of course was duly punished when I got home. The school blew my cover.)

Looking back at the film now, I realise how trashy it was. But like what Marilyn said, it was fun; and from the point of view of an impressionable young teenager, it offered a leap into otherworldly imagination. Or maybe, it was just my freaky love for science fiction. Where other people didn't enjoy the first Star Trek movie, I spent hours reconstructing the movie in mind just to blab it to friends, who unfortunately, didn't share my interest in V-ger and its galactic exploits. Like Count Orlok, I did lead a lonely teenage life. *Sigh*

P.S. Jumping Jack Flash is the title of another little-known '80s movie. Just wondering if you used that intentionally as blog header. Happy weekend.

Ali Arikan said...

Robert - I, too, remember seeing this as a young kid, and enjoying it a fair bit, though I did enjoy the Filmation cartoon more, I seem to recall.

And you are right about the first Star Trek. It's great. To take such a hard sci-fi turn threw a lot of people for a loop, but I've always thought it was kind of ingenious.