Some things don’t get better with age. Bell bottoms. Reaganomics. SmashMouth.
But there is something that is timeless, no matter the decade: Fun. And that’s what the 1980 “Flash Gordon” movie is. Just pure, unadulterated fun. From the bombastic score by Queen (“He’ll save every one of us!”) to the melodramatic dialogue (Hawkmen! DIIIIVE!”), “Flash Gordon” stands the test of time by keeping the audience fully enrapt throughout its classic confrontation of good versus evil as our heroes try to SAVE THE EARTH.
The film adapts the classic pulp hero from the ‘30s for a retelling of his origin. New York Jets quarterback Flash Gordon and journalist/future love interest Dale Arden – through a series of mishaps because of an unexpected eclipse – crash near the home of disgraced scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov. Zarkov, natch, is the only person who, according to a radio report we conveniently get to hear, knows what is really going on with the eclipse and other un-natural disasters: Earth is under attack!
Fortunately, Zarkov has a plan. He kidnaps Flash and Dale as they head to the source of the disturbance in an attempt to tell whomever is behind the disasters to knock it off. But instead, Flash, Dale and Zarkov end up on the planet Mongo and are taken prisoner. Because of course they are. They’re to be brought before the leader of this and all the other worlds – a villain named Ming the Merciless. Because of course he is.
Immediately we get to see a court of all the peoples Ming rules over, giving us a glimpse of the supporting characters we’ll spend more time with later in the film – Barin, Aura and Vultan! as well as secondary villains Klytus, head of the secret police, and General Kala, the no-nonsense leader of Ming’s armies. But our heroes are going to be split up – Zarkov is to be mind-wiped to become an agent of Klytus’s and Dale is to be “prepared for Ming’s pleasure.” Flash dares to defy Ming and it’s on!
But how does an NFL quarterback fight an entire room full of loyal soldiers? One at a time, he throws steel balls in their faces, of course! It’s this fight scene that really sets the tone for the rest of the movie. In this scene we find out more about our supporting characters in a way that is infinitely more exciting than any amount of exposition. Aura, Ming’s daughter, has her own schemes behind her father’s back. Meanwhile, Vultan!, leader of the Hawkmen, quietly and continually bashes one of Ming’s soldiers from behind, then looks away as if nothing happened. The rest of the court is amazed at Flash’s audacity, Dale cheers him on (“Go, Flash, Go!”) and even Zarkov tries to get in on the action by supplying Flash with the metal spheres he needs to take out each goon. Until he throws one and it his Flash in the face. Sigh. Gamers, this is what rolling a 1 looks like. For his defiance, Flash is to be put to death.
Enter Aura, and her aforementioned schemes, as well as her revealing and sparkly outfit. She conspires to fake Flash’s death by using her primary weapon – her sexuality – to convince a doctor to do her bidding. And it works because Aura is sexy as hell. All so she can bring Flash to her true love, Barin, and convince them to work together to overthrow Ming. But just how is Aura going to talk Flash into helping her? Again, her sexuality. And it works, because Aura is sexy as hell.
But Barin, played by equally sexy pre-Bond Timothy Dalton, isn’t quite as vulnerable to Aura’s charms. After all, how is this off-worlder chump going lead all the people against Ming? What qualifications does he have? Who does he think he is? Well, Barin, he’s Flash fucking Gordon; and even when Barin tests Flash in a game of wits, it’s Flash who comes out victorious. Is that good enough for Barin? Hell, no! Fortunately, someone else has their eye on Flash: Vultan!, whose name may or may not be spelled with an exclamation point at the end.
Meanwhile, back at the palace, Zarkov is able to resist his mind wiping in a scene that visually recounts the doctor’s entire life. Klytus watches the video and when Hitler shows up, gives us the aside, “Hmm, now HE showed promise.” Klytus is an asshole. Dale is indoctrinated into Ming’s harem and we see her in a revealing and sparkly outfit – because it’s the 80s!. But Dale is a New York City girl, and doesn’t tolerate that shit. She gets her trainer drunk and makes her escape. Faking his brain-washing, Agent Zarkov helps her escape but they are captured by patrolling Hawkmen.
Vultan! brings Flash and Barin to his city in the sky, because of course that’s where the Hawkmen live. And guess who’s there? Dale and Zarkov! Immediately Flash proposes, because heroes win by marrying their girlfriend. The reunion is short-lived, however, as Barin challenges Flash to a one-on-one fight. Flash accepts and even as they’re about to throw down, Flash still wants everyone to unite together to stop Ming. But we haven’t had – and we absolutely need – a fight scene at this moment, because people need to work out their issues. So Flash and Barin go at it with whips. Vultan! grows bored of this ridiculousness and decides to make the fight more interesting by tilting the ring our combatants are in. A single misstep will send Flash or Barin falling to their death. And you know what else this fight needs, Vultan! Wonders? … SPIKES!
Back at the palace, Klytus has discovered Aura’s treachery and he enlists General Kala to whip (again, with the whips) the truth out of her. When Ming enters to find out what Aura knows, she pleads with her father (“Father!”), but Ming tells Klytus to proceed. Seriously, Klytus is an asshole. Then Klytus calls for the bore worms. We don’t know what the bore worms are, but Aura sure does and she freaks the heck out. “Not the bore worms!” Whatever bore worms are, they work and Klytus the Asshole and Kala the General figure out where our heroes are hiding and Ming himself leads the assault on the Hawkmen city.
Vultan! and his Hawkmen flee. Then Klytus the Asshole goes down to the city, but Flash is able to kill him by throwing him on the fighting ring where there are still SPIKES! Ming decides he’s had enough of this, and goes down to the city. Everyone is taken prisoner, but Ming has decided this Flash character might make a better ally than an enemy. Nope. Flash wants none of it. So he’s left alone in the city as Ming orders the whole thing destroyed. But will Flash escape? Maybe you haven’t been paying attention. He’s Flash fucking Gordon.
Flash finds a rocket cycle (a what?!) and contacts Vultan! (How is this even possible? You know what, it just doesn’t matter, because it’s leading up to something awesome and Queen music has us jazzed up!) Flash finally convinces Vultan! that they need to unite their forces to overthrow Ming and SAVE THE EARTH. So Flash attacks Mingo City on his rocket cycle (?!) and General Kala has had enough of this so she dispatches War Rocket Ajax to “bring back his body.” Flash lures them into the clouds, where Vultan! and his men are waiting. The Queen music is amped up and this battle is awesome (“Hawkmen! DIIIIVE!”). Flash commandeers the rocket and heads back toward the city. He’s going to crash it into the city. Vultan! tells him he won’t survive, but Flash tells him it doesn’t matter, because he’s going to sacrifice himself for the good of all people. Cause Flash is our hero.
Ming decides this is a good time to upgrade Dale from harem girl to spouse (“Until such time as you grow weary of her”). Because villains win by marrying their enemy’s girlfriend. The ‘30s were strange times for storytelling and the 1980 movie preserves that. But none of this matters because you know who is playing the wedding march? Brian May, the greatest guitarist of all time. Side note: I tried to talk my wife into letting us use this for our own wedding march, because it’s awesome. Apparently a harpist playing “Canon” is more romantic and weddings are not a time for awesome. Did I mention it’s BRIAN MAY?!
Princess Aura escapes, using her sexuality to convince a guard to pick up something she dropped. And it works because Aura is sexy as hell. She frees Barin and Zarkov and they head to the control room, because General Kala has activated a lighting field that will keep anyone from entering the city. Why? Because Flash Fucking Gordon is attacking the city with the War Rocket Ajax (which would be a great name for just about anything). Barin, Zarkov and Aura defeat General Kala and deactivate the lighting field as Flash approaches …
Look, the movie came out in 1980. At this point, no one can fairly protest spoilers, if you can even count this as a spoiler. This is a classic tale of good versus evil. If you don’t know how this movie ends, that’s your fault. But even if you haven’t seen it, I’m going to make a deal with you. I won’t tell you exactly how it ends if you watch it.
Because everything about this movie is fun. The characters are fantastically over the top, but everyone plays it straight, so it never actually feels ridiculously campy. The music hits the right notes at the right times to keep the audience engaged. The action is engaging and every fight keeps you at the edge of your seat. And it’s amazingly sexy, without actual nudity, for a movie that predates the PG-13 rating. But the best part about “Flash Gordon” is that it doesn’t matter how old the movie is. It’s an absolute thrill that isn’t just awesome because of nostalgia. It’s still a genuine romp and if it were made today would have its own franchise. And isn’t it too bad we never found out what happens after The End?
The movie: 4.5 rocket cycles out of 5
The soundtrack: Infinitely better than a harpist.