FLASH GORDON. Campy, kitschy, science fiction masterpiece

Humor and eroticism influencing the tone. The stylistic elements defined by a mix of colors, surrealism, and camp.

Jakub Piwoński

26 December 2023

FLASH GORDON. Campy, kitschy, science fiction masterpiece

A playboy from women’s centerfolds – Sam J. Jones – along with Max von Sydow and Timothy Dalton visible in the foreground. The cherry on top of this colorful cake? The Queen band with an unforgettable soundtrack. However, these are not the only distinctive features of Flash Gordon, the iconic science fiction film from 1980.

Contemporary film adaptations of comics have accustomed us to discussing the unreal and grotesque as if they were part of our world. Everything must have its justification, its causality. In Flash Gordon, the screen comic has the opportunity to realize its stereotypical meaning – being a partly naive, partly crazy form of escapism into a fantastic narrative space. That was the understanding of this art, and that was how it was once adapted.

Flash Gordon Sam J. Jones Melody Anderson Topol

Flash Gordon, a comic created by Alex Raymond in 1934, alongside the adventures of Buck Rogers, is considered an ironclad classic of space opera – a subgenre of science fiction that aims to portray the fantastic adventures of a hero in space. Due to its popularity, Flash Gordon turned into a television series over the years – either live-action or animated. However, in the 1970s, it was decided to create a full-length cinematic adaptation. George Lucas, for example, planned to do it, but when he learned how expensive it was to acquire the rights to adapt the famous comic, he decided to create something original. And so, Star Wars was born, stealing the audience from the adaptation of Flash Gordon before it even came to life.

The film was produced by Dino De Laurentiis, the legendary Italian producer fond of fantastic spectacles. He was behind films like King Kong (1976), Conan the Barbarian, and Army of Darkness. However, he was also a producer of Federico Fellini’s films, including La Strada. Interestingly, the famous Italian creator was considered as the director for the upcoming Flash Gordon. Although he was ultimately not engaged (one can only speculate about how interesting the result of this collaboration would have been), his spirit is present in the project because the film showcased the skills of a long-time collaborator of Fellini – Danilo Donati, as evidenced by the surreal visual design in line with the comic book vision.

Flash Gordon Sam J. Jones Melody Anderson

Several other candidates were considered for the director’s position (including Sergio Leone), but it ultimately fell to Mike Hodges (Get Carter, Damien: Omen II). The casting of the title role was also similarly uncertain – ultimately landing on the relatively unknown model, Sam J. Jones, who was well-known to readers of the Playgirl magazine, looking as if he had been cut from the comic book pages, although Kurt Russell and Arnold Schwarzenegger also auditioned for the role. Hodges, the director, later reminisces about the numerous production problems of the film, stating that it remains the only improvised film to date that managed to earn $27 million. The creators were not satisfied with the final result. The film received mainly unfavorable reviews. The cast had contracts for a series of films set in this world, but they decided not to continue the story (the situation is different regarding a potential remake, which has been in the producers’ plans for years). One can only speculate that if the premiere of the film had taken place before Star Wars, its reception would have been entirely different. But let’s face it – Flash Gordon is in a completely different league. So, what makes it exceptional?

Flash Gordon Sam J. Jones

Years later, the film still achieved cult status, humorously referenced in the 2012 comedy Ted. Many critics acknowledge that films like Flash Gordon gave rise to the concept of guilty pleasure. The whole spectacle stands entirely on camp, a form of expression that creatively plays with what is commonly considered part of bad taste. Therefore, it takes a peculiar aesthetic sense or a cultivated tolerance for stylistic absurdity to accept the visual and narrative carousel presented in Hodges’ film. This ability to inspire is remarkable – for example, a single glance at the color palette of Guardians of the Galaxy or the third Thor film is enough to understand what they reference.

By the way, Matthew Vaughn, the director of the long-planned Flash Gordon remake, admitted in a recent interview that if the film is ultimately not realized, it will be because the aforementioned films showed exactly what could be found in such a remake.

Flash Gordon Max von Sydow Ornella Muti

Surreal decorations and psychedelic colors, enhanced by Todd-AO technology, give the impression that everything we face while watching Flash Gordon evokes a dreamy reverie. Therefore, it is very challenging to take the whole thing seriously. Fortunately, the breakneck pace of the film does not allow even a moment to contemplate the plot nonsense in which an Earth football player thwarts the destructive and erotic intentions of the Universe’s Emperor. This lack of time to catch a breath was, I believe, a fully intentional move by the creators.

The greatest strength of Hodges’ film is that, as a colorful space opera, it is fully aware of the absurdity of the costume in which it appeared at the masquerade ball. This is precisely how all films become cult classics. Because they radiate distance and focus on participating in the adventure, regardless of the weakness of the goal and the presence of other compositional weaknesses, which are essential from the point of view of composition but not emotions themselves.

Jakub Piwoński

Jakub Piwoński

Cultural expert, passionate about popular culture, in particular films, series, computer games and comics. He likes to fly away to unknown, fantastic regions, thanks to his fascination with science fiction. Professionally, however, he looks back more often, thanks to his work as a museum promotion specialist, investigating the mysteries of the beginnings of cinematography. His favorite film is "The Matrix", because it combines two areas close to his heart - religion and martial arts.

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