The superhero genre has, in recent years, dominated the global box office. Bringing the comic book to the big screen hasn’t historically been so successful or easy to produce. As old as Superman himself, Flash Gordon debuted in 1934 with readers captivated by the futuristic space landscapes filled in the pages.
Adapted in 1980, Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon heightens the space opera themes inherent to the source material. Further elevated by the iconic soundtrack by Queen, Freddie Mercury’s vocals and Brian Mays guitar – alongside the colourful visual palette – helped the film achieve a defined cult classic, especially in the UK. After 40 years away from cinemas, Flash and co return to the big screen in a popping new 4K restoration, courtesy of StudioCanal.
Flash (Sam J. Jones) is a New York Jets player who boards a small plane, upon which he meets travel agent Dale Arden. Mid-flight, the cockpit is hit by a meteorite and the pilots are lost. Flash takes control and lands into a greenhouse owned by Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol). The doctor believes the disasters are being caused by an extraterrestrial source forcing the moon towards Earth and has secretly constructed a spacecraft that he plans to use to investigate.
Flash and Dale are lured aboard a spacecraft that will take them to the planet Mongo, where they are captured by Emperor Ming’s (the late Max von Sydow) troops. Blurring the lines between camp and fantasy adventure, the opening sequences are filled with wondrous joy towards space. Primarily a result of Gilbert Taylor’s work, who worked on Star Wars and with Stanley Kubrick, his cinematography blocks characters in fantastical surroundings with deep colour schemes to them.
The narrative beats of the film feel symmetrical of all superhero genre films in the rise of the hero to his maintenance of power against an evil tyrant. However, it is chiefly in the craft, aesthetic camp style, and genuine fun nature that makes Flash still endure to this very day. It’s a testament to all the creative teams involved that the sets and character design so still hold up today in its manner. Adapted from the page to screen by Michael Allin, who rose to prominence penning Bruce Lee’s star-making machine Enter the Dragon, there is a sense of the redemptive quality of the hero throughout this tale.
Known for the production of some of Italy’s most iconic films, including Fellini’s La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, Dino De Laurentiis was influential in securing Queen’s music. The main title theme is arguably one of the most famous theme songs of all time in its slow build and dad guitar rock. Further into the soundtrack, the band capture through their music to marvel to which is reflected in the images with slow violins and methodic synths forming space capsule songs. The enduring quality of the character is reflected in Seth MacFarlane’s similarly absurd film Ted. The iconography which is deeply associated with the film in its beaming rays of light and electric riffs plays out in a sequence where Mark Wahlberg meets Flash himself at a party. It’s a scene that underlines the beloved nature of the character but also its retrofuturism and sheer avant-garde flourishes of space adventure.
A kaleidoscopic trip, Flash Gordon remains a cheerful tale of rich textural spaces. There is a deep nostalgic touch too, harking back to the period where Hollywood and producers did not incessantly feel to create franchises out of any preexisting series to squeeze every last ounce of creative passion for fan bases. Even after 40 years, its cunningly camp charm still has not worn off.