‘Flash Gordon’ Review: Too Much Camp

Posted in The Screening Room by - November 18, 2014

Flash Gordon is indulgently over the top, from the costumes to the soundtrack composed and performed by Queen. It doesn’t want to be taken seriously and often times when a film yearns to be campy it comes across as desperate. This film is campy on a whole new level, rivaled only by the 1960’s Batman TV show in levels of camp.

Topol. Let me clue you in who Topol is. Topol is the Fiddler in The Fiddler on the Roof. He sings “If I Were a Rich Man”, a catchy tune that was butchered by Gwen Stefani.

Topol plays one of the three main characters in Flash Gordon, and every time I saw him on screen all I could think of was Fiddler. He distracted me because I really wanted him to bust out into song with the weird aliens of the film. Along with Topol, Sam J. Jones plays Flash, the star quarterback of the New York Jets and budding pilot. He is the stereotypical blond clean-cut jock that can do no wrong and probably has no brain between his ears. Just to reinforce the lack of brainpower behind Gordon’s character, his name is proudly emblazoned on the front of his shirt, as if he forgot who he was. Gordon is vapid and dull; a more dull Luke Skywalker if that’s possible. Jones was the least exciting character and whenever he was on screen it slowed down the film substantially.

The two best actors in the film are a baby-faced Timothy Dalton and Max Von Sydow with a crazy Fu Manchu mustache. Timothy Dalton plays Prince Barin, a prince from Aurboria who is the rightful heir to the throne of Mongo. I feel the same way about Dalton that I do about Sam Neill; he is a wholly underrated actor who steals any movie he’s in. He is cocky and brash as Barin, a precursor to his time as James Bond, yet is extremely loyal.

Von Sydow plays Emperor Ming the Merciless and is the true star of the film. He chews the scenery every chance he gets, seemingly relishing every chance he has to ham it up. He is costumed to reflect a Chinese emperor yet since Von Sydow is white, it looks goofy as hell. It is hard to take him seriously as a villain when he mustache touches his chin. For a evil emperor however he is not the least bit intimidating or imposing, coming off more harmless than deadly. His over the top performance and borderline racist costume make him a memorable villain, if only in title alone.

Along with Von Sydow’s performance, the true draw of the film is the soundtrack by the legendary band Queen. If anything of value has come from Flash Gordon its the theme song from the film. It is played throughout the film in a several variations, but Freddie Mercury’s falsetto singing of Flash Gordon’s name persists throughout. It will stick with you long after the film and most likely be stuck in your head for days.

The costumes and sets are quite impressive as well, looking as if they had been pulled straight from the pages of the comic. The costumes are all very vibrant and colorful with a focus on red and gold which plays off Flash’s iconic colors. Ming’s costume is the best in the film with it mirroring a Chinese emperor expertly, even if Von Sydow is white. The sets, like the costumes, are vibrant as well with bright colors and shiny metal. They do a good job of reflecting the pulp nature of the comic and making it distinct from other science fiction movies of the time. No other science fiction films were as bright and colorful which really makes the film stand out. 

Unfortunately, Queen’s soundtrack, Von Sydow’s performance, and the costumes cannot save the movie from its host of problems. The film is too long, it clocks in at 111 minutes and could have been thirty minutes shorter. It drags in the middle of the film and then wraps up so quickly that you’ll wonder if that’s really the end of the film. The plot is also rife with gaping plot holes and sub plots that go no where. In a better film it wouldn’t be a real issue but this film suffers from the dead end sub plots. The dialogue is also poorly written and while there is some value to camp, the film crosses the line from camp to just plain bad. If they were going for the endearing quality that the 1960s Batman achieves then they went too far and it hurts the film.

It’s too bad that this film goes too far with the camp factor since it irrevocably hurt the film for me. I know people who enjoy this film and see it as a cult classic and I wanted to feel that same way but I just couldn’t bring myself to. It doesn’t have the same endearing qualities that many cult classics that I enjoy do, and it tries too hard to be campy. The only redeeming qualities of the film are Max Von Sydow and Queen; if you’re a fan of either then check out Flash Gordon if not, skip it. 

Final Say: Skip It

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Chris Stachiw is the Editor-in-Chief and co-host of the Kulturecast. He’s a native Californian with a penchant for sarcasm and a taste for the cinematic bizarre. You’ll often find him wandering the wasteland of Nebraska searching for the meaning of life and possibly another rare Pokemon.

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