By putting Jane Fonda in a skin-hugging spacesuit, the 1968 film Barbarella created one of the most iconic images to emerge from that decade’s science-fiction films, a preview of a sexy, star-bound future seemingly just within our reach given that a trip to the moon was just one year away. The film itself proves that iconic images are often best as just that: images. Directed by Roger Vadim, Barbarella opens with a famous zero-gravity striptease sequence, then piles on other sorts of eye-popping imagery, as Fonda’s title character explores an alien world in search of a missing scientist named Durand Durand (Milo O’Shea, unwittingly helping to name one of the biggest bands of the ’80s). But while production designer Mario Garbuglia keeps throwing inventive visuals and remarkable sets at the heroine, the journey itself is an unrelenting trudge.
A famed appreciator of the female form who made Brigitte Bardot a star and was married to Fonda at the time, Vadim directs the film like a cross between a Playboy spread and an installment of Star Trek’s troubled third season. The product of a peaceful, sex-averse Earth of the future, Fonda quickly finds herself resorting to both sex and violence—and developing a taste for the former—as she goes about her galaxy-saving task. Screenwriter Terry Southern, who’d already borrowed from Candide for his novel Candy, looks to Voltaire as a model again here by making Barbarella an innocent who grows wise to the ways of the world through a series of episodic adventures (most of which end with Fonda in mussed-hair post-coital bliss).
It’s at once smirky and tedious, and a missed opportunity to boot. Jean-Claude Forest’s comic book, which provided the source material, was part of an emerging wave of European comics for adults, and behind Vadim’s winking take on the material it’s possible to glimpse the combination of science-fiction tropes, psychedelic imagery, and a not-for-kids take on sex and violence that would find expression in the ’70s via magazines like Métal Hurlant and films like La Planète Sauvage. It’s there in the twisting urban spaces that Vadim films indifferently, and in the way the blind, angelic alien played by John Phillip Law combines open eroticism with images of Catholic saints. Too bad the film in front of it keeps trying to tamp down the reckless imagination.
Key features: Plenty, so long as plenty means a theatrical trailer.