The 1980 big-screen Flash Gordon never improves on its first five minutes, which follows a cackly villain with a pulse-pounding credits sequence, setting Queen's rock-operatic title song to rapid flashes of Alex Raymond's original comic strip. That opening is beyond awesome, establishing a classic heroic sweep and modern thump. But Flash Gordon quickly turns to self-conscious camp, as was the habit of its producer (notorious cheese-merchant Dino De Laurentiis) and screenwriter (Batman TV scribe Lorenzo Semple Jr.). Director Mike Hodges, taking a break from gritty British crime pictures, adds the overly pompous tone, familiar to far too many '80s science-fiction/fantasy films. The screen bulges with bloat.
Since its debut 27 years ago, Flash Gordon has drawn devotees, including superhero comic-book artist Alex Ross, whose effusively appreciative interview on the new "Saviour Of The Universe" DVD edition—along with Semple's disarming defense on same—makes a better case for the movie than the feature itself. Ross and Semple are right—Flash Gordon has a lot going for it. Danilo Donati's art direction and costume design remain stunning, recreating Raymond's vision of alien worlds and rococo spacecraft, with just a dollop of sexual kink. (At times, it's hard to tell the difference between Flash Gordon and Flesh Gordon, the softcore parody made six years earlier.) The movie's other key virtue is that Queen score, which kicks the climactic 20-minute battle scene into high gear every time Brian May's mammoth guitar fires off another fanfare.
But Queen's music is absent for much of the film, replaced by deadpan dialogue that strains to be funny. Aside from one arresting montage that shows a mad scientist's life in reverse, nothing in Flash Gordon has any lasting sting—least of all titular star Sam J. Jones, the ex-marine and Playgirl centerfold whose bouncy hair is more expressive than his line readings. As Jones adventures across the planet Mongo, aided by sexy cipher Melody Anderson and morally ambiguous genius Topol in the fight against super-villainous emperor Max von Sydow, it's easy to be impressed by how the images pop. And it's hard not to be insulted by Semple's smart-ass chatter, which shows a lack of respect for the source material and its fans. "Camp" isn't the problem with Flash Gordon. "Stupid" is.
Key features: In addition to the Ross/Semple appreciations, the disc contains the first episode of the first Flash Gordon serial, from 1936.