When Ruler of the Universe, Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) is seeking fresh toys to play with, he decides to destroy the Earth - but gradually, over the length of a few days. One human who can stand in his way is quarterback Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones), but first he must reach the planet Mongo where Ming and his armies are situated, and to do that he must land the plane he is in after the massive disruption wrought by the power-crazed Emperor places him and fellow passenger Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) in jeopardy....
Hot hail, anyone? When Star Wars was an enormous success, there were many cash-ins, from Starcrash to Battlestar Galactica. The year The Empire Strikes Back was released, producer Dino De Laurentiis updated the old Buster Crabbe serials (and Alex Raymond comic strips as seen in the thrilling opening titles) for his space opera, which was directed by Mike Hodges after Nicolas Roeg left the project. The screenplay was written by Lorenzo Semple Jr, but according to Hodges there was a mighty amount of improvisation conducted on the sets, an atmosphere more chaotic than conducive to blockbuster movie making.
A camp classic, the film was lavishly decorated and filmed in eye-straining colours, as if the point of the Danielo Donati's art design was to be as over the top as possible and who cared if it was in any way convincing or not? This was fantasy, after all. Therefore everything about it was kinky or kitschy, from the alluring Princess Aura (Ornella Muti) to the all-American hero who leads the revolt. Everyone played all this to the hilt, winking at the audience in some cases but always conveying the belief that the planet Earth really was in peril, no matter which side they were on, as if having to overact to be noticed over garish scenery and impractical costumes, and the blaring music courtesy of Queen (the best thing they ever did, if you ask me).
As Ming, von Sydow was ideal, delivering his lines with relish ("Pathetic Earthlings!"), the very picture of comic book villainy. The great supporting cast included a way-over-the-top Brian Blessed, perfect for this sort of thing, whose line "Gordon's alive?!" went down in history thanks to it being sampled on the hit single of Flash's theme song; in fact nobody hit a wrong note. And how many other films have a respected playwright and former Angry Young Man (John Osborne), a Blue Peter presenter (Peter Duncan) and a James Bond (Timothy Dalton) - all in the same scene? Add in Mariangela Melato who graces us with a dominatrix-style villainess and the line "What do you mean, Flash Gordon approaching?!" and it was surprising the movie elicited so many grumbles at the time it was initially released.
Watching Flash Gordon is a bit like having birthday cake for a starter, birthday cake for the main course and birthday cake for pudding, but it's so full of quotable lines, hilarious moments and larger than life characters that its pure pulp science fiction is irresistable. And there's something life-affirming about the way the trio of Earthlings endorse the more noble aspects of humanity: note how Topol's mad but actually brilliant scientist Dr Zarkov never joins in with the killing of the baddies, so we see where his priorities lay. Why wasn't there a sequel? Could it be because almost every character behaves as if they are insatiably horny at least once during the adventure - and in the Princess's case, just about every time she's onscreen? With a blithely sexual but slightly sickly hue to the proceedings, a tone quite unlike anything much, not even Flesh Gordon, was achieved that has made this the cult favourite it continues to be. Did I mention it was funny, too? Come to think of it, why wasn't Topol in more movies? He's great in this!
British director, from television, with an interesting take on crime movies. His first film was the gritty, gangster cult Get Carter, but the offbeat follow-up Pulp was not as successful. The Terminal Man was a Hollywood science fiction thriller, and Flash Gordon a gloriously over-the-top comic book epic which showed Hodges' good humour to its best effect.