Cult Classic: Flash Gordon

Stars: ★★1/2☆

“Flash!  A-ah!  Savior of the universe!”

Thats just amazing.

That's just amazing.

Review:  So the universe… er, actually, just Earth, is in big trouble.  The devious Emperor Ming of the planet Mong has decided to arbitrarily screw with Earth’s inhabitants, with the ultimate goal of destroying it.  “Pathetic Earthlings!” He gloats, “Who will save you now?”

Well, gee, Mister Ming, that’d be a dimwitted blond football player named Flash (A-ah!).  Be afraid!

So while Ming is screwing with Earth by dumping bizzare phenomena on them, such as hot hail, Flash is getting ready to fly Somewhere Else, with a reporter named Dale (who happens to be a girl).  Ming inexplicably vaporizes the pilots of the jet, and Flash crashlands it in a mad scientist’s greenhouse.  Dr. Zarkov, it so happens, has “figured out” that aliens are causing the disasters, through some contrived explanation involving shifting the moon’s orbit.  So he prepares a rocket he appearantly has lying around so he can blast off and tell the aliens that they are silly for messing with the moon.  Yeah, you tell ’em, Doc.  He wanted his assistant to go with him, but the guy freaked out when Dr. Zarkov pulled a gun and tried to force him into the rocket (like most sane people would).  When the jet crushes the greenhouse, it seems to kill Zarkov’s freaked-out buddy, which nobody acknowledges.  Ever.  So, anyway, Flash and Dale are tricked oh-so-cleverly by Zarkov into the rocket, and they all end up blasting off into deep space. Where, we find out later, you can breath.  Rules do not apply in ‘Flash Gordon’.  Common sense and logic?  What’s that?

So all kinds of ridiculous plot goes down.  Flash beats up Ming’s imperial guards with football (and teamwork!) and even dies and is brought back (by Ming’s daughter!).  Dale is taken to Ming’s harem and prepared to, well, you know.  She escapes and kicks more butt than Flash does in this entire movie (!).  Meanwhile, Ming’s daughter flies Flash to meet Prince Barin on a forest, er, planet (if you can call it that, it’s more like a floating, flat-topped rock.)  Prince Barin, incidentally, is played by Timothy Dalton,  who played James Bond for two movies, which arguably are some of the best of that long-lived series.  It’s completely odd that he’s in this movie, but there he is, swearing and stabbing away.  While we’re on the subject, it seems that everybody in this movie is more awesome than Flash, but inexplicably they all think he’s great.  The soundtrack (by Queen!) doesn’t help, either.  You have this awesome anthem for a character who… does… nothing.  Flash!  A-ah!  He’ll save every one of us!

So some stuff goes down on Barin’s forest world, which further cements how useless Flash is.  He then meets with Prince Vultan (BRIAN BLESSED!) of the Hawkmen, yada-yada-yada.  This movie just drags.  If you can’t tell already, this is a bad movie. As long as you expect nothing more, that isn’t a bad thing.  That’s why it’s a cult movie, especially in Britain.

So after all kinds of ridiculous stuff, Flash accidentally (yes, accidentally) skewers (yes, skewers) Emperor Ming with a spaceship (yes, a spaceship).  He then climbs out and threaten the wounded villain with a sword.  Ming just disappears, leaving Flash wondering what to do next.  A little floating robot shows up, and announces “Long live Flash!  You’ve saved your Earth.  Have a nice day.” and Flash answers, “YEAH!”  How’s that for dialog and plot resolution?  Hitchcock, eat your heart out.

This movie is just nuts.  Incidentally, it was written by Lorenzo Semple Jr., who was responsible for several episodes of the 1960s ‘Batman’ TV series and the subsequent movie, which is itself a camp classic.

“Flash!  A-ah!  You never did anything!”

Classic Review: The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)

Stars:  ***1/2 out Four

Summary:  A darker mythic adventure that raised ‘Star Wars’ from pulp to legend, excellent writing and talent abounds as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.

If you werent thinking of the Imperial March before, you are now.

If you weren't thinking of the Imperial March before, you are now.

Review:  After the unexpected success of ‘Star Wars’, George Lucas immediately put into development his first sequel, which he had planned out before ‘Star Wars’ was released.  Lucas again took a gamble with the audience, hoping they would stomach a darker sequel.

It worked.

Rather than trying to create a story that replicated the successful elements of the first film, the filmmakers pushed the story forward into a dark middle chapter.  The heroes weren’t going to triumph as absolutely as they had in ‘Star Wars’.  Unlike most sequels, where the same premise returns with thinner characters, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, by necessity, focused on the inner struggles and philosophies of each principal character.  Luke found out it wasn’t easy to defeat the Galactic Empire, and that the Dark Side of the Force was much closer to him than he realized.  Han and Leia’s relationship began to thaw, and they realized they were improbably in love.  Darth Vader would turn things personal, obsessed with finding Luke and turning him to evil.  There wasn’t a single, clear obstacle to surmount, no Death Star to destroy.

While it is undeniable that the fun, Flash Gordon-esque elements of the previous film are still there, the ‘Star Wars’ franchise had suddenly taken a turn into serious myth.  ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is not just a second act in a three-act narrative, it is a tragedy.  It has a downbeat ending, though not devoid of triumph.  Luke emerges from his battle with Darth Vader victorious in spite of seeming defeat, due to his refusal of Vader’s offer to rule the Empire.  Though Han is frozen in carbonite and taken by a bounty hunter with the Empire’s blessing, Leia still has the assurance she can find him again, alive.  Even for Darth Vader there is hope; famously, he reveals in his combat with Luke that he is the boy’s father, Anakin Skywalker.  This is what established him as the most famous film villain of all time.  He was now a tragic figure, and not just a dark sorcerer with no past and no future.  The audience is left wondering, if Anakin was turned to evil, can he be turned back?

The nature of the Force is truly explored for the first time, on the planet Degobah with the help of an old Jedi named Yoda (Played by Frank Oz).  Basically a glorified Muppet, with the limitations thereof.  This little guy doesn’t just inherit the role of Ben Kenobi from the first film; he has a very different approach.  Yoda helps Luke confront his own dark side, and even before we know that Darth Vader is Anakin, we know that Luke is in danger of becoming like him.  The Force is a murky spirituality indeed, so it is hard to say much about it other than, well, negative emotions lead to negative results and positive emotions lead to positive results.  In real life, though, it doesn’t take a genius to grasp that emotions are neither positive nor negative.  Hate, said to be a negative emotion by Yoda, can be a good thing.  Let’s say I hate slavery, or murder.  Then my hate is supporting my love of humanity, and is obviously not negative.  So even though it “works” in the ‘Star Wars’ films, the Force is far too simplistic.  To me, this just reinforces the fantasy aspect; it’s like applying rules to King Arthur’s sword and scabbard.  It works in the story as a spiritual thing, but it doesn’t have any bearing on real life.  Also, considering Lucas’ other works, like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, it would seem he doesn’t believe every word of the Force dogma anyway.

Once again, the film was a technical triumph.  The effects were slightly improved, as ILM figured out what the limitations were of their methods, and if their methods needed to be retooled all together.  The lightsabers are a good example; in ‘Star Wars’, they tried blending luminescent sticks with animated beams, which made the effect inconsistent.  Here, they ditched the luminescent rods and went the solely animated route.  It worked much better, and let the choreography loosen up quite a bit during the fight scenes.

John Williams’ music took on a new flavor, becoming much more the ‘Star Wars’ sound we are familiar with, especially due to the Imperial March, which stole the show.  There’s not a whole lot to say about it, really, only that it was excellent as always.

Overall, I like this film less than ‘Star Wars’.  I do appreciate the direction Lucas took the series with ‘Empire’, but on its own merits ‘Star Wars’ is slightly better.  But only slightly!  This is widely considered the best of the series, though, and if you’ve only seen the others in the series, you have to give this one its time of day.

Classic Review: Star Wars (Episode IV)

Stars:  ***1/2 out of Four

Summary:  With a simple but mythic story to tell, ‘Star Wars’ continues to captivate audiences and deliver an authentically adventurous cinematic experience.

Only half this poster is true.  Luke is not ripped, but Leia is very sexy.

Only half this poster is true. Luke is not ripped, but Leia is very sexy.

Review:  In the 1930s and 40s, people often flocked to theaters to experience the thrilling exploits of heroes such as Zorro and Flash Gordon, in an action-driven form of film known as the serial.  Serials are what they imply; episodic sections of a story, in this case usually about 20-30 minutes long, ending in a “cliffhanger” that sets up audience expectation for the next chapter.  These were shown before the main picture.  They focused on plot, action, and suspense, and were often done with stock footage and dismally small budgets.

People like George Lucas grew up watching Flash Gordon’s matinee adventures, though he was not around for their initial theatrical run, and they left an indelible impression on him.  When he started rising as a filmmaker, he tried to purchase the rights to film a ‘Flash Gordon’ feature length adaption, but he couldn’t.  Instead, he invented his own, and after taking many forms it became the modern classic ‘Star Wars’.

Unlike the more serious and grounded bent of science fiction in the late 1960s, ‘Star Wars’ was to be a throwback to the serials, with a mythic heart.  It is, more appropriately, fantasy than science.  As his later character Indiana Jones was prone to do, George made it up as he went along, inventing and reinventing methods of filmmaking, making flashy special effects henceforth connected to what became known as the blockbuster.  Along with his friend Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’, this film defined the summer movie and the idea that wide release was the best possible way to rake in the cash.  George wisely mixed high adventure with deep mythic tradition, using Jungian archetypes and ideas drawn from Greek theater.  That’s not to say that ‘Star Wars’ is strictly a game for the intellectual, it has a much broader appeal than that, catering especially to the youth market, causing impressions much like Flash Gordon had on young Lucas.

The film opens with a device that nearly all of the serials used; concise, dramatic text, framing the action that was to come.  Unlike its inevitable imitators, ‘Star Wars’ uses a very simple structure for its famous opening crawl, and doesn’t dump information on the audience.  After the yellow text vanishes into the starry background, we already know there are an EMPIRE, DARTH VADER, a DEATH STAR, a PRINCESS and a REBELLION.  Each word, though not completely telling, reveals enough to get us interested.

After this, we take in the battle between two spaceships, an Imperial Star Destroyer and a Rebel Blockade Runner.  The superior firepower of the Star Destroyer quickly overtakes its prey, and we quickly sympathize with the Rebels on board the captured vessel as they are stormed by, well, Stormtroopers.  The Evil Galactic Empire draws heavily from serial villains, which incidentally drew heavy inspiration from Nazi Germany.  The Nazis were a threat everybody could hate, and so everybody modeled their bad guys after the fascists.  The main villain, Darth Vader, with his black helmet and mask, evokes both the vampiric horror films of the serials’ era and the Nazi soldiers’ helmet designs.  With a baritone voice provided by the legendary James Earl Jones, Darth Vader is just about the most classic villain ever created.  It’s proof that execution, not concept, is key, as the serials had their own Darth Vaders, but none were anywhere near this guy’s level.

Despite all my glowing praise and desire to pick apart this beloved film scene-by-scene, I should look at this concisely and objectively.  Let’s be honest: ‘Star Wars’ isn’t Shakespeare.  It doesn’t try to be terribly clever, and really, the reason it goes over so well with kids is that it is gleefully archetypal and black-and-white.  The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good, and even though we would find out things are more complex than that in the sequels, this same tone of simplicity was carried on throughout.  It’s important to know there’s nothing wrong with this. Intellectualist film critics tend to dismiss films such as ‘Star Wars’ (at first glance) for somehow being less-than, since they don’t strive to be any more than fun.  The film received a mixed reaction upon release, but the audiences loved it.  It connected.  There is beauty and poetry in simplicity, and in straightforward, mythic storytelling, not just in the complexities and angst of hurt lovers like Romeo and Juliet.

In a technical sense, the film was extraordinary for its time.  I mentioned its effect on the summer blockbuster, how it created the pattern of “Wow!” films, which continues to be followed each year.  The battles in space, forgoing the scientific realism that Stanley Kubrick invested in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, allowed for sound and drama, again evoking World War II.  Lucas watched old dogfight footage for inspiration, and having viewed a few hours of similar footage myself, I can definitely see its influence.  After so many blockbusters pushing the envelope and blurring the lines between reality and special effects, you can see how dated ‘Star Wars’ has become, in one view.  On the other hand, the drama is so effective that despite the technical shortcomings, it has added to the charm.

Now, for music.  I keep reviewing films where John Williams was involved!  He’s definitely my favorite composer, which is probably why my mind keeps coming back to these movies in particular.  His work on ‘Star Wars’ shows much less of a Bernard Herrmann influence than ‘Jaws’ did, instead it takes influence from Gustav Holst’s Planets Suite.  This isn’t my favorite of his scores, and fans of the ‘Star Wars’ series that haven’t revisited this film in a long time will notice the absence of the Imperial March, which he wrote for the sequel, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.

One big stumbling block for the religiously concerned- particularly Christians -is the quasi-spiritual “Force” that ultimately helps Luke Skywalker, the hero, destroy the Death Star.  Now, it is true that George Lucas was interested in “reintroducing” spirituality to youth, but he has also stated his complete disapproval of the ‘Star Wars’ inspired Jedi Church, a really weird but real religion.  It’s only a movie.  Of course, we can say that about all kinds of things, from sex to violence to satanic rites, but the Tao-inspired, while ultimately fake, Force is just an invention to drive the plot, not to corrupt the audience.  It is part of the mythic flavor of the story.  If ‘Star Wars’ is taken as what it is- myth with a moral -then it makes balking at the Force seem silly.

After everything I said about complexity versus simplicity, it is ultimately a lack of complexity that keeps the film off the Four Star mark for me.  That’s just my personal feelings.  I don’t like it as much as ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, which is pretty much in the same vein, but I gave that film the maximum number of stars.  Why?  Well, it just seems more solid, better woven, and the complexity is a part of that.  Nevertheless, ‘Star Wars’ accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, bring back the spirit of adventure to film, and we should be tremendously thankful that George Lucas did not fail.