I never had the pleasure of watching Flash Gordon on DVD. It was in my collection for some time, but it was one of those discs that I never got round to watching. Therefore I can't compare this disc to any previous releases. What I can say, however, is that the disc is most certainly a mixed bag. However, the negative comments which have been made in other reviews are not necessarily deserved in my opinion. I can not imagine that Flash Gordon has ever looked any better than it does here.
The image is preaented in a 1080p theatrically correct 2.35 ratio and for it's age and budget it looks so much better than I expected. The level of detail is much more than I expected. You only need to look at the costumes, to pick out detail that was never present before. The feathers on the birdmen, every strand on Ming's frankly awesome beard, and the text on the newspaper Flash is reading at the beginning. All are brought out in a level of clarity previously not seen. The scene where Zarkov is being brainwashed and his memories are played out on a small screen, you can see so much more of what is going on amongst the jump cuts.
This level of detail does introduce a light disadvantage to the transfer. The budget was not high, so the special effects were done on the cheap. This new transfer really shows the joins. Strings holding people up, matte backgrounds all are visible on this transfer. Of course, in a way is is quirkily charming, adding to the spirit of the piece - but you need to aware of the situation.
Flash Gordon was never particularly good looking as a film originally, with bright colours and a scheme of mainly red and greens that were quite glaring. The fact is that this transfer is very good at rendering the director's intentions with the colours. This means that the colours can be quite harsh and heavy on the eyes at times. This is the way the film is supposed to look, so you cannot criticise the disc for representing the director's intentions accurately. Indeed, the colour scheme is so garish that it could have proved problematic for the transfer, and it is to the credit of the disc that the colours are represented with so little blooming.
However, there is one major drawback that people will not like. Personally, on this disc it doesn't actually bother me so much as it usually does, but the transfer has undergone extensive DNR work. This has had the effect of reducing the grain to non-existant levels but has also made a lot of the long shots seem flat and overly processed. This is a shame, but sadly the average viewer will simply look at the image and eulogise about how clear it is. Those of us in the know will miss the grain, and the more natural feel of an un-processed image but to be honest, although I have deducted a few marks for this, I was still very pleasantly surprised by the whole image package presented here.
Flash Gordon was originally released in stereo to cinemas, but for the Blu-ray the soundtrack has received a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix.
Right from the start, the mix sounds muddy and lacks definition. The famous Queen title track fails to really ignite the atmosphere, sounding far worse than it does on CD. The mix lacks full range, being far too bassy - and the vocals are rather lost in the mix. This is a problem all the way through the film. Instead of paying attention to individual sounds in the mix and placing them where they should be, the overall atmosphere is of a stereo mix simply widened across five speakers.
There is very little in the way of front seperation, although the dialogue is generally clear and well defined from the centre. The surrounds are generally well used but almost as mirrors of the front. There are a couple of notable exceptions to this, such as when the plane is flying overehead, and when the hot hail is falling - but these moments only serve to remind the viewer how good the mix could have been. During the music the sub gets a good workout, but during the rest of the film it doesn't get a great deal of use at all.
Now, I can see arguments developing about the sound on this disc, and I have to put things into perspective. This is probably the best that the film has ever sounded, and we have to remember the age of the source. Of course, some will argue that soundtracks should not receive the remix treatment. Personally, I am not against it as long as you give the viewer the option of the original mix. Unfortunately that is not done here so you have no choice but to listen to the remix.
The Extras is the major way that this release differs from the UK one. Whereas neither disc contains all the extras from the UK DVD release (the infamous Brian Blessed commentary is missing on both), the American disc frankly shames the UK one in what else is offered. Of course neither offers any deeply revealing insight into the making of the film, or new interviews with the participants, so you will have to be content with extras that focus on the inspiration for this film rather than the film itself. This means old-school Flash Gordon fans will be in their element here – and the casual viewer will get more insight into why the film makers took the direction they did.
The first extra presented here is Alex Ross : Renowned Comic Artist on Flash Gordon. This is a 14 minute interview presented in SD. Now I do not pretend to be any expert on the history of comic-books, but within the field I am told that Alex Ross is highly regarded. Whatever the situation, he is a joy to listen to as he talks about this film. He teases out rather more about the film that the average viewer might give it credit for. He speaks intelligently about the film, and is genuinely enthused about the whole enterprise. This is a joy to watch and the only shame is that he isn’t given more time.
Next comes the ironically titled Writing a Classic : Screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr again presented in SD and this time lasting 9 minutes. Ironic because he freely admits that he was not aiming to write a classic, but rather something akin to the classic sixties Batman series that he also wrote. This interview is as fascinating as the previous one, explaining what was going on behind the scenes of the movie – and some of the tales are hilarious. Another very worthy and entertaining interview.
On top of this, we also get the first episode of the Flash Gordon 1936 Serial. Presented in the original 4:3 black and white this is entertaining from start to finish. Anyone who wonders why the film took the direction it did, should watch this. Rip roaring adventure at it’s…….errrrr……..best
The extras package is rounded out with the Theatrical Trailer.
Flash Gordon is most certainly an acquired taste. The whole film is played very tongue in cheek, and is camp in the extreme. The dialogue is deliberately clunky, the action hokey, and the special effects are ropey. Yet at the same time this is most definitely part of its charm, and is what has made it such a cult favourite over the last thirty years.
This disc, however, can only be classed as a disappointment. The picture and sound is certainly the best the film has ever been graced with, but those who bemoan DNR are not going to like what has been done on the picture. Soundtrack purists will be disappointed that the original stereo soundtrack isn't included.
However, despite lacking the Brian Blessed commentary the extras here are excellent. Once you’ve navigated Universal’s usual horrible menu system you will find nothing but quality here. It certainly puts the UK disc to shame, even though the Mike Hodges commentary is also missing.
If you are a fan of the film who is not interested in the Mike Hodges commentary - then this is certainly worth picking up. If you are not a fan of the film you may want to think twice before making a blind process. If you can accept the humour and the campness here, and enjoy that kind of film then this is certainly a fine example of the genre. If you are looking for deadly serious sci-fi then you are best off looking elsewhere.
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