Flash Gordon (1980) Review

Flash Gordon can get away with anything it wants. Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) is trying to escape from Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow), and is tricking his guards. One of them shoots at her and misses. Dale flips forward while the guard not only turns the wrong direction, but actually fires a shot, leaving himself open to be killed.

That doesn’t happen on accident, and it’s not a bad take. Someone had to optically add in the green bullet in the proper direction, so this was given the thumbs up by all involved. Why wouldn’t it? This is film overloaded with lavishly stupid costumes, full of reflective gold and silver that it may have created a disco ball effect on the set. Flash utilizes rich, gaudy colors, the backdrop of planet Mongo constantly swirling and pulsating various primaries.

It is a wonderful intentionally campy early ’80s effort, the priceless segment being that of Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones), quarterback of the New York Jets, using objects in the throne room to play a football game against this captors. All the while, Dale cheers him on, screaming, “Go, Flash, go!”

Acting is hilariously hammy, Brian Blessed as the leader of the Hawkmen seemingly being the one who truly “gets it.” He is loud, boisterous, and overacts every line with gusto. He adds a sense of charm, while further cementing the film’s goofiness.

At times, it seems as if the film has a single song in its entire arsenal, but that one theme (by Queen nonetheless) is so awesome and epic, it makes everything right. Every time the screen lights up with the image of Flash on his hoverbike… uh, thing… and you hear Queen in perfect in harmony sing “Flash!” it makes everything far more epic than it is.

Flash (Sam J. Jones) himself is so undeniably awesome, he crash lands a spaceship through Ming’s palace with some perfect velocity and aim, stabbing the planet’s supreme ruler right in his stomach. He’s too cool for guns and swords. Who needs them when you have an entire spaceship with a single possible stabbing point?

Movie ★★★★☆ 

It doesn’t take long for Universal’s rather awful VC-1 presentation to take off into the realm of mediocrity. As Ming’s scope appears on screen, edge enhancement is immediately apparent, and the lines are riddled with aliasing. That’s a whopping 36-seconds in. It doesn’t get much better from there. Aliasing continues to be a random issue, including the computers at 8:22, and 1:30:12 as the ship appears in the clouds.

Halos are visible throughout, from these early Earth scenes to the brawl at 1:13:00, where all distance shots showcase significant outlines (and that has nothing to do with the effects). The sharpening is constantly a bother, and by itself, this would not be an issue.

Something else is missing, and that’s film grain in any capacity. Like so many of their other catalog titles, Flash has been wiped clean, taking any semblance of fine detail along with it. Faces are waxy and digital, the number of possible examples… well, it’s the entire movie. Ming seems to get the worst of it, his face at 40:33 so glaringly soft, his beard looks like it is composed of mud. Moving into the forests at 54:17, the trees and wood like they are made out of wax, and that has nothing to do with the effects or set designers. Wood planks should still look like wood.

Colors have been brightened, appropriate for sure, although this leaves the flesh tones warm. Reds are exceedingly bright. The sky of Mongo is consistently rich, although does occasionally show some artifacting. Black levels are deep and distinct, rarely crushing, and keeping firm shadow detail, one of the minimal positives.

It’s easy to say the costumes show off their individual parts without fault, the glistening robes and such seemingly delivering detail. They do on some level. However, it would be almost impossible for any disc with this resolution not to capture the large pieces of shiny material regardless of the manipulation. They still lack crispness, just like the sets and everything else. Faces hold almost no textures, the only scene coming even remotely close is 1:21:37 as Flash and Ming face-off. The camera is zoomed enough on Flash that something had to come through, and it does in limited fashion. Ming on the other hand retains his drastically processed, unnatural, featureless look, the DNR hardly helping. What a shame.

Video ★★☆☆☆ 

Universal’s DTS-HD effort seems to be tinkered with too. The 5.1 effort is woefully inadequate, and even unnecessary (no stereo option is available). Queen’s theme over the opening credits runs hot, and sounds a bit faded, still within the realm of acceptable. The problem comes from the overzealous surround use, which at 7:28 pushes some wind into the rears so loudly, it overwhelms everything else.

One of the final action scenes, around 1:32:00, is just a mixture of noise, not sound design. Fidelity is poor, so the laser effects, explosions, music, and anything else going on turns into an incomprehensible mess. It’s overly loud and lacking clarity.

That’s bad, but the surrounds seem to be nothing more than a clone of the stereo channels. Everything sounds hollow, devoid of directionality. Effects are simply copied when they occur in the fronts, and with the pumped up rear channels, it comes through as completely overdone. It’s a non-stop assault on the ears, while offering nothing of real value or improvement.

Flash was mixed with six-channel audio for its 70 mm presentations, but this seems to be mixed from the 35 mm stereo (best guess). When it comes down to it, with the exception of the dialogue, everything is happening in the stereo channels, with the surrounds cloned. At the very least, dialogue is firm, placed well, and always distinct.

Audio ★★★☆☆ 

Alex Ross on Flash Gordon features the comic book artist who simply gushes about this movie for 13:27, leaving little doubt about his appreciation for it. Writing a Classic is an interview with writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. as he divulges the process and the intended feel. The first episode of the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serial is included, but it’s a shame that it is only the first episode. Trailer and generic Universal BD-Live support are left.

Extras ★★★☆☆