My favorite kinds of movies are big, bombastic aesthetic films — movies like Batman v Superman, The Holy Mountain, and Skyfall — so I was pretty excited to watch Flash Gordon. It has something of a reputation as a cult hit, in part due to its famous Queen soundtrack.
Flash Gordon follows the adventures of the titular athlete, a girl named Dale, and an old scientist after they’re captured by the intergalactic warlord Ming the Merciless. Ming wants to destroy the earth or subjugate, and it’s up to Flash and his compatriots to stop him. Throwing a wrench into things, Ming’s daughter wants to keep Flash for herself.
Flash! Savior of the Universe! He saved…every one of us! is kind of an iconic refrain, and I really enjoyed this aspect of the film. Also, one of the film’s biggest strengths are its fantastic establishing shots in its cinematography. A space opera like Flash Gordon needs to have great moments where we take in the fantastical settings; they definitely succeeded here.
Another strength in that vein is the film’s commitment to opulent, kitschy, stylized set design and costumes. Much of the production design as a whole reminds me of the sets and costumes of Star Trek: The Original Series.
For me, the film really succeeds in the moments when it gives in to the kitsch. Stuff like Brian Blessed’s delightful turn as the winged Prince Vultan, an antagonist to Flash who becomes an important ally. One of my favorite moments comes fairly early in the film, a fight scene where Flash Gordon uses his athletic skills to win. It’s very obvious that the scene’s modeled after a football game, and I loved it.
What I did not love was the movie’s uncomfortable reliance on the threat of sexual violence. Ming wants to make Dale his concubine, and she’s forcibly dressed in extremely revealing clothing for the majority of the film as a result. One scene even includes Ming entering the boudoir Dale has escaped, ready to rape her before he realizes she’s been replaced by an unconscious servant girl.
Additionally, Princess Aura doesn’t understand consent any better than her father; she saves Flash’s life because she wants to have sex with him, and does things like straddling his lap and kissing him without him showing any interest in her. I realize that at the time the movie came out, people didn’t see that as predatory, because people see men as always having physical sexual power in that situation. It still made me really uncomfortable to watch, though.
The other big problem with this film is that it does a lot of racist things. I understand that the comic strip was written a long time ago. And I get that the movie came out during the Cold War. The Yellow Peril tropes associated with Ming don’t begin with this movie. That said, they still cast Ming, a clearly East-Asian inspired character, with a Swedish man in yellowface. Princess Aura, too, speaks with a heavy Eastern European accent, implicitly linking her to the Soviet Union. Contextually, I get why these choices were made. But they make it impossible to enjoy the film from a modern perspective.
I’m really disappointed that these problems mar Flash Gordon the way they do. Without them, I would love this film. With them, I can’t. I suppose, though, that I can always hope for a remake to do it better, but since Flash Gordon 2 seems to be in Development Hell, who knows?