Flash Gordon (1980)


Savior of the universe!

Savior of the universe!

(1980) Science Fiction (Universal) Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Max von Sydow, Topol, Ornella Muti, Timothy Dalton, Brian Blessed, Peter Wyngarde, Mariangela Melato, John Osborne, Richard O’Brien, John Hallam, Philip Stone, Suzanne Danielle, William Hootkins, Bobbie Brown, Ted Carroll, Adrienne Kronenberg, Stanley Lebor, John Morton, Robbie Coltrane, Tessa Hewitt.  Directed by Mike Hodges

Sci-Fi Spectacle 2015

Flash Gordon began life as an Alex Raymond comic strip which was later made into serials in the 1930s. You may have seen them, with the phallic sparks-shooting space ships that made the annoying electric whine whenever they flew. In 1980, a movie version from Italian uber-producer Dino de Laurentiis made an indelible splash.

Audiences to this day are fairly divided about how they feel when it comes to the 1980 film. Some feel it’s campy to the point of silliness. Others admire the sumptuous visuals, the rock and roll soundtrack and the slithering performance of veteran Swedish actor Max von Sydow (who is incidentally cast in this December’s Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens). They’re both right.

“Flash” Gordon (Jones) is the starting quarterback for the New York Jets. He and Dale Arden (Anderson), a travel agent, are taking a private plane from Canada back to New York when a freak storm buffets the plane. Flaming meteorites impact the cockpit, sucking out the pilots. Gordon, who has taken flying lessons, manages to crash land the plane into the solarium of Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol), a disgraced NASA scientist who thinks the Earth is under attack from an extraterrestrial force.

The problem is, he’s right. Ming the Merciless (von Sydow), emperor of Mongo, has decided to amuse himself by shoving the Moon out of the Earth’s orbit to crash into the Earth. Zarkov, knowing the only way to stop the catastrophe from happening is to go to Mongo for which Zarkov has conveniently built a rocket ship. Flash and Dale aren’t terribly enthusiastic about going but Zarkov insists – at gunpoint.

Once on Mongo they are captured and brought to the Emperor, who decrees that Zarkov is to be brainwashed into his service, Dale is to be used for his carnal pleasure and Flash is to be executed. Of course, none of these plucky Earthmen are going to go down quietly and with the help of Princess Aura (Muti), Ming’s oversexed daughter, Flash enlists the help of Prince Barin (Dalton) of Arborea and Prince Vultan (Blessed) of the Hawkmen to help overthrow Ming and save the Earth. But the clock is ticking, Ming is about to marry Dale and the Moon is getting ever closer to the Earth. Can Flash save the day?

Of course he can. This is a movie that has the cheese factor of an old pulp serial with none of the suspense. There is a cartoon-y element to it, with the vivid color palate used by the production design team and Hodges; this can be seen vividly on the wonderful video transfer on the Blu-Ray, one of the best ever. If you didn’t get to see it on the original theatrical run, by all means see it on the Blu-Ray. You’ll be glad you did.

Everything about this movie screams excess, from the lavish sets, the sumptuous visual effects and the S&M bondage costumes and of course, the Queen score. Given all of the elements of this film, I’m kind of surprised that the gay community hasn’t embraced this film more; there are a lot of themes going on here that seem to me to be complimentary to the ethos of the more flamboyant elements of that community.

A lot of the hardcore sci-fi fans have rejected the film, citing that it is about as scientifically inaccurate as the Republican party. In the film’s defense, it is based on a comic strip that never intended to be a science textbook; Raymond wanted his strip to appeal to the sense of adventure for kids more than to the sensibilities of a physicist.

The acting here is mostly over-the-top, with von Sydow in particular most delightful as the villainous Ming. Jones, on the other hand, is a bit wooden and a bit colorless; he simply doesn’t carry the movie at all considering he’s the title character. Methinks that he was distracted more by external issues than he should have been; in any case, this didn’t do any favors for his career.

I have to say that Queen’s soundtrack was as good as any soundtrack for any film; it perfectly fits the vibe of the movie. The propulsive theme song with its chorus “Flash…aaahaaaa…” and operatic guitars is almost iconic. Even those who haven’t seen the film have likely heard the song.

This isn’t rocket science (although it literally is). It’s just good old fashioned fun, with a winking self-awareness that tells us that the film doesn’t take itself terribly serious, which is in all likelihood a good thing. While the comic tone is the invention of the film (nearly every other film and TV incarnation of the comic strip has played it relatively straight), it seems to suit the material pretty well. If you don’t like camp chances are you’ll be irritated by this movie but if you don’t mind it and take it for what it’s worth, this is mind-blowing entertainment.

WHY RENT THIS: Visually gorgeous. Goofy fun. Queen soundtrack.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overdose on campy. Jones doesn’t carry the film the way he should. Less science and more fiction.
FAMILY VALUES: Some campy violence, a couple of disturbing images and plenty of sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of Jones’ dialogue was dubbed by another actor; he had a falling out with de Laurentiis during post-production over lack of payment and refused to loop his lines until the situation was resolved, which it apparently never was.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Both the Savior of the Universe DVD Anniversary edition and the Blu-Ray have featurettes on comic book artist Alex Ross (who was much inspired by the movie, which he terms his favorite) and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., as well as the first chapter of the 1936 Flash Gordon serial starring Buster Crabbe, whose plot is very similar to the movie.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $49M (just UK and USA) on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Blu-Ray/DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu (download only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Galaxy Quest
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle concludes!

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I Am Number Four


I Am Number Four

Timothy Olyphant and Alex Pettyfer discover that catering has run out of bran muffins.

(2011) Science Fiction (DreamWorks) Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Teresa Palmer, Dianna Agron, Callan McAuliffe, Kevin Durand, Jake Abel, Jeff Hochendoner, Patrick Sebes, Cooper Thornton, Judith Hoag, Emily Wickersham, Jack Walz. Directed by D.J. Caruso

Growing up is hard enough without moving from place to place, never being able to set down roots or forge deep connections with friends. How much worse is it when you’re being chased by alien killers bent on your destruction before you develop powers over which you have no control and no idea what those powers are going to be?

Ask John Smith (Pettyfer) all about it. That’s not really his name; he’s not even human. He is Number Four, one of nine young teenagers who are the last of their kind, bred to be protectors of their race, the Loriens, but a cruel, homicidal race called the Mogadorians wiped them out before the teens could develop their powers. They were then brought to Earth, each with a warrior-guardian to protect them until their powers manifested.

Unfortunately, the Mogadorians followed them to Earth and have started to kill the teens, one at a time in order. Each teen is wearing a pendant with a symbol on it; the Mogadorians are taking them with each murder. The first three are dead; John is next on the hit list. After John makes an unwanted YouTube appearance, he and his guardian Henri (Olyphant) are forced to relocate to the lovely Rust Belt town of Paradise, Ohio.

Despite Henri’s warning for John to stay home and skip school, he gets stir crazy and enrolls in the local high school. There he meets Sam (McAuliffe), the resident geek whose dad disappeared a few years back and who was something of a UFO nut. He also falls for Sarah (Agron), the town shutterbug which leads him to run afoul of Mark (Abel), the quarterback of the football team and something of a jock jerk (ah, the timelessness of stereotypes).

However, the Mogadorians are hot on his trail and so is a hot young blonde named Jane Doe (Palmer) who turns out to be Number Six. Together, the four young people will take on the Mogadorians and their monstrous creatures, a sort of combination between a rhino, a bat, a dog and a crab – only about twenty feet long and ten feet tall.

This is based on a book that was co-written by James Frey, who you may recall caused a stir some years back when Oprah ordained his alleged biography as a book about courage until it came out that he had fudged a number of the facts in it. He has since founded a writing collective called Full Fathom Five and this book, the first in a series, was credited to Pittacus Lore which is Frey and Jobie Hughes. There is actually quite a backstory to the writing and publishing of the book which in some ways is more fascinating than the actual book itself.

I had fairly high hopes for the movie not so much for who was onscreen but for who was behind it. Caruso is a highly talented director whose works include Suburbia and Eagle Eye. There is also writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar of “Smallville” and Marti Noxon of  “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,”  as well as Michael Bay in the producer’s chair and of course Steven Spielberg lurking in the background as the head honcho of DreamWorks.

Certainly of all the young adult fantasy novels that have come our way in recent years trying to create a franchise for themselves, this isn’t the worst of them. It isn’t the best either; certainly not along the lines of a Harry Potter or a Narnia (or some would argue, the Twilight series). Still it has a good deal going for it.

First and foremost is Pettyfer, a young British up and comer whose angular good looks and smoldering screen presence is certain to set a lot of young pre-teen and teenaged hearts a-flutter; certainly Hollywood has noticed, casting Pettyfer in a number of high profile projects in the coming months. Here, he is ideally suited to the role of John carrying off both the brooding angst as well as the yearning for normalcy that is present in most teenagers – needing to fit in and stand out all at once.

Olyphant is one of those actors who elevate most of the projects he’s involved in. Best known for his work in “Deadwood,” he is circling around a breakout role that will elevate him into stardom. He hasn’t gotten there yet but it’s only a matter of time. The two females, Agron from “Glee” and Palmer, who is set to appear in the new Mad Max: Fury Road, are gorgeous but while Agron is fairly disposable, Palmer has the makings of a solid female action star.

The problem here is that the movie spends a whole lot of time dwelling on the teen interrelationships that make it a lot like “One Tree Hill” and the like. I’m wondering if the filmmakers are consciously trying to appeal to the teen soap crowd as well as the action/sci-fi crowd; it’s only in the last 30 minutes that the movie really takes off and when it does, it’s a solid, fun movie with some nifty special effects and CGI beasties.

Unfortunately it takes awhile to get there. The set-up of the movie takes a bit too long, and too much time is spent with Henri acting like a mother hen to John and John brooding over Sarah, or raging at Mark and his goon squad. I haven’t read the book but from the synopsis I’ve read of its plot, the movie seems to follow it pretty basically and quite frankly, that element of the book doesn’t work well cinematically speaking.

Still, the last 30 minutes are quite a ride and if you’re willing to sit through the first 60 minutes, it’s worth the wait. Pettyfer is to my mind a future star – he has everything going for him, especially the screen presence which is an intangible you can’t teach. Caruso helped make Shia LaBeouf a star and despite the pretty much universally negative reviews of this one, I can’t help but think that what’s going to emerge the most from this film is not necessarily a new franchise for DreamWorks but a new star who is going to have a really good career ahead of him.

REASONS TO GO: The last 30 minutes are a great ride. Pettyfer has big star written all over him.

REASONS TO STAY: Too much exposition to begin with. Goes the teen soap route and really torpedoes the sci-fi action vibe.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some intense sequences of violence and sci-fi action. There are a few bad words, but not really in a pervasive manner.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shalto Copley was originally cast as Henri but had to drop out due to a scheduling conflict.

HOME OR THEATER: The last 30 minutes should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Collector