Flash Gordon Film Review
Wildly overacted, nonsensical, with cheap effects that haven't aged well at all, Flash Gordon is an unbelievably entertaining ride, held together by some tremendously over the top set and costume design and one hell of a score from Queen.
It shouldn't have worked, slipping through the hands of a number of famed and highly unsuitable directors - including none other than Leone and Fellini! - before it landed with Nicholas Roeg (an unlikely choice, but for perhaps his Bowie sci-fi The Man Who Fell From Earth), who would spend a year working on it before being kicked by powerhouse producer Dino De Laurentiis, who didn't like what he'd come up with. Dino was a few years away from Conan, but he'd produced Barbarella, and clearly wanted something to rival Star Wars (hell, every big producer wanted something to rival Star Wars post-1977), particularly since Lucas was actually inspired to make Star Wars when Dino wouldn't give him the rights to make Flash.
Eventually Dino would hire the perfect man for the job: Mike Hodges, who had done such camp, over the top sci-fi fantasy romps as... Get Carter. With the perfect director for the job, it was time to find the perfect actor for the lead. Would Dino choose Arnie - again, judging by Conan, a pretty good fit - or Kurt Russell (who could have nailed the action-comedy fantasy a la Big Trouble in Little China), both of whom were in the running to play the titular character? No, instead he would turn to semi-pro footballer and ex-Marine (and - technically - footballing Marine) Sam J. Jones. Jones had a huge back catalogue of extensive mainstream roles before taking on the lead in this 'blockbuster', including a momentous few minutes of screen time in the Dudley Moore comedy, 10. That's ok though, because at least he'll have some support from veterans like... Melody Anderson, making her debut.
Ah well, even without the right director or leads, perhaps the story and script could hold everything together? Based on the comic strip, there was plenty of source material, so they went with the simple, undeniable power of inexplicably evil Ming the Merciless, who - in boredom - decides to literally rain down hellfire on the distant planet Earth by invoking such natural disasters as... hot hail. This of course, catches the attention of a mad scientist who has built a makeshift space shuttle in his greenhouse but needs a second crew member to step on a pedal inside the shuttle otherwise he'll be melted by the G-force. Thankfully a brick comes to the rescue in the former of idiot football star "Flash" Gordon, who crash lands just in time for launch, and ends up on Ming's planet Mongo for his trouble, single-handedly sparking a rebellion by somehow uniting the woefully underequipped Hawkmen (despite living in a floating palace, they don't have a single battleship) and a swamp living Robin Hood and his Merry Men to battle Ming's melty-faced minions.
Sam Jones went the way of The Lazenby
Well, Dino blew it when it comes to the director, star, leading lady, and story, but he did somehow get a few things right, even if not by intention - drawing in none other than Queen (up until that point, almost no mainstream blockbusters had secured scores from known artists) to do the iconic - and ironic - score, and also picking the perfect actor to play his Fu Manchu villain Ming, in the late, great, Max Von Sydow, who seems to absolutely love going full evil for no apparent reason, as well as getting some decent craziness from the likes of Topol (a year before he'd do For Your Eyes Only, he was happy to go childishly inane here, to delicious effect), Brian Blessed (possibly the most memorable character, clearly drunk and having an absolute blast), and a young Timothy Dalton, making his US mainstream debut, all of whom know precisely how to chew out the hilariously bad script. Melody Anderson might have been a dead end, but Ornella Muti, making her English-language debut, was another story, enjoying her Princess Leia-esque garb several years before Carrie Fisher would get captured by Jabba. Indeed, the set and costume design were truly amazing, wildly over the top but totally invested in bringing these colourful worlds to life - Ming's red and gold empire, the floating cloud palace of the Hawkmen and the swamps of Arboria.
This wasn't really a matter of the good outweighing the bad, not least because none of the discrete elements *should* have worked together in any way, shape or form. Queen's score holds up the movie like no other score before or since, but it's also scoring a different movie, where everybody is in on the joke. Or where Flash isn't a hapless idiot who uses football moves to try and fight armies, and mostly rides on luck throughout the whole trip. Hell, even Sam Jones - Mr. Nobody, both before, and since - wasn't happy with whatever the hell Dino had in mind, ill-advisedly going to war with the powerhouse producer and walking off the set before the film had finished (his dialogue thereafter partly dubbed), which not only killed the chance of a sequel, but also killed his entire film career (he went the way of The Lazenby).
It's hard to blame him, nobody sober on that set could have possibly imagined that anything watchable could have come from all of this. Not Dalton in his green tights (watch the 'marriage proposal' bit to see some hilarious reactions from him). Not Blessed with his wings and furry nappy ("DIVE!!"). Not Max Von Sydow with his 90-degree eyebrows (although they did at least give him a cereal box power ring). And certainly not Jones, who was way out of his depth. It surely wasn't a comedy, at least not when it tried to go all Bond/Star Wars and raise the stakes - the scorpion wood-beast trial is pretty tense - but it also couldn't possibly be taken seriously. And just think what it must have been like unfinished, without that essential Queen score? No, this was a set of patently terrible - or at the very least wildly mismatched - ingredients which somehow, impossibly, miraculously, fused together into this undeniably entertaining fantasy romp that is just about one of the greatest cult classic 80s films of all time.
Flash Gordon 4K Video
Flash Gordon comes to UK 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray courtesy of Studiocanal (in the US, Arrow are releasing it, although judging by the accompanying extras alone, the 4K disc may be identical between releasing studios), with an utterly sublime native 4K presentation for this Ultra HD Blu-ray release.
The disc presents a native 3840 x 2160p resolution image in the film's original theatrical aspect ratio of widescreen 2.4:1, and uses 10-bit video depth, a Wide Colour Gamut (WCG), High Dynamic Range, as well as Dolby Vision, and is encoded using the HEVC (H.265) codec for HDR10.
We reviewed the UK Ultra HD Blu-ray release of Flash Gordon on an LG 55B7 Dolby Vision 4K Ultra HD OLED TV with a Panasonic DP-UB450 Dolby Vision HDR10+ 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player.
An absolute revelation on the format, with the wildly opulent costume and set design paving the way for an eye-searing colour scheme
Studiocanal had an absolutely tremendous 2019 roster of native 4K restorations including The Deer Hunter 4K, Apocalypse Now 4K, Don't Look Now 4K, Angel Heart 4K, and even the Rambo Trilogy 4K, Cliffhanger 4K, Lock Up 4K and Red Heat 4K, with the year capped off by Leon 4K. Whilst 2020 has been a bit quieter (Basic Instinct and Total Recall are still being teased, but all we've had thus far is the lavish 4K set of Elephant Man), the results are still consistently stunning, and all the more impressive for universally wielding Dolby Vision too. Easily the best these films have ever looked, Flash Gordon's 4K presentation - continuing the run of somewhat surprising and unlikely 4K candidates amongst this selection - is an absolute revelation on the format, with the wildly opulent costume and set design paving the way for an eye-searing rendition of the colour scheme, particularly with that added pop of Dolby Vision.
Right from the outset it is patently obvious that every last pixel of detail has been pulled from the source print, with no impinging, aggressive implementation of DNR, but just enough to make for a surprisingly clean image that is textured by the finest of grain. Skin textures are impressive - hell, Flash's tremendous hair is impressive - and the elaborate costumes are wonderfully observed (the hawk people like winged extras from Mad Max: The Road Warrior). Early shots on Earth are so damn good (the plane) that you wouldn't believe the film is 40 years old, but such is the benefit of restorations of older features shot on the format, with 4K able to make the most of the almost limitless depths afforded by the print.
Of course, HDR and WCG make all the difference, and here Dolby Vision too, and this is never more true than with something as wonderfully gaudy and garish as Flash Gordon, where reds and golds will blind you just as soon as you hit Mongo. The reds - which particularly benefit from HDR implementation - have simply never looked as radiant and rich as this, and black levels are excellent too.
Is there a downside? Well the film was always stylised to be somewhat soft around the edges, particularly in some of the Mongo bedroom sequences, and the blue-screen effects obviously stand out like a sore thumb. As part of the restoration some of the effects have been tidied up - including the removal of wires - but this has been seamlessly implemented. And the 'practical' effects still wow. The stunning clouds, with the battleship slowly cruising out of them are utterly jaw-dropping. Honestly nobody could have possibly expected this film to look this good.
Flash Gordon 4K Audio
Flash Gordon doesn't get any kind of Atmos upgrade, but that's not the end of the world, the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio - which has reportedly been reworked for this 4K release - is a punchy, engaging track that is understandably quite front-heavy, but enjoys prioritising Queen's tremendous score and revelling in the classic pew-pew effects of the time, providing an atmospheric accompaniment.
A punchy, engaging track
Dialogue remains firmly prioritised throughout, given clear and coherent dissemination largely across the frontal array, as with the rest of the elements on the track, with some decent coverage of the 80s special effects, bringing the post-Star Wars fantasy environments to life with enthusiasm, and expanding out over the array in a sometimes impressive although hardly comprehensive way. The score really makes this track, however (much like it makes the entire film work), affording that superbly memorable beat as a build-up to the main song (which, it has to be said, is actually never better than during the title sequence), and giving the surrounds and LFE channel more to do in what is a very good audio track considering the vintage - and budget - of the movie. A 2.0 alternative is also provided for comparison.
Flash Gordon 4K Extras
Although we were not provided with the complete set to review, it scores a provisional 10/10 based on what is on the 4K disc and the listings of everything else included. With a hefty price tag, you would expect a lot, and Flash Gordon's 40th Anniversary 4K set looks not to disappoint. The 4K disc itself, alone, offers two Audio Commentaries (one with the director and another, unsurprisingly more fun one, with Brian Blessed!), a half-hour Documentary on the original Nicolas Roeg Flash Gordon that we almost got, a quarter-hour Behind the Scenes Featurette, some Galleries and a Trailer.
With a hefty price tag, you would expect a lot, and Flash Gordon's 40th Anniversary 4K set looks not to disappoint
Amidst the other listed extras in the lavish 5-disc set are: Mike Hodges Interview, Episode 24 of Flash Gordon TV series, Sam Jones' Acting Start Featurette, Entertainment Earth on Flash Gordon Merchandies Featurette, Bob Lindemayer discusses Deleted Scenes and Original Endings, 35th Anniversary Greenroom, 35th Anniversary Reunion Featurette, Renato Casaro Extended Interview, Brian Blessed Anecdotes, Melody's Musings on the Soundtrack, Life After Flash Documentary, Soundtrack, 32 Page Booklet, 16 Page Titan Mini-Book (The Story of Flash Gordon), Reproduced Booklet of the first strip of original comic book, Poster of Original Artwork.
Flash Gordon 4K Blu-ray Review
Flash Gordon has no right to be so damn good; on paper it is a combination of some of the worst dialogue, storytelling, acting, casting, and producing, and yet somehow, unbelievably - fused to the most inappropriately appropriate score for any mainstream movie - it just works. It's an absolute hoot, laugh out loud funny (often for all the wrong reasons) and hugely, hugely entertaining.
Flash Gordon has no right to be so damn good
Studiocanal's UK 4K release of Flash Gordon is a stunning, 5-disc set, with a superb 4K presentation - and Dolby Vision too - that works wonders with the lavish source material, a stomping score, and a boat-load of extras to just about justify the hefty price tag. It comes highly recommended.
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