Not even his worst enemy could accuse producer Dino De Laurentiis of being a trend-setter.
Eight months after "The Godfather" revived both the gangster saga and a slumping American movie industry, De Laurentiis dumped a stiff called "The Valachi Papers" on the marketplace. Observing that "Jaws" had electrified the public, De Laurentiis produced an overblown remake of "King Kong." Long after "Earthquake" and "The Towering Inferno" had capitalized on the craving for disaster spectacles, De Laurentiis responded with an expensilve, inept remake of "Hurricane."
Given this uncanny instinct, it was only a matter of time before De Laurentiis caught up with science-fiction adventures. Predictably, the catch-up vehicle is a lavishly motley remake of a prototype filmed with far more charm and resourcefulness in the 1930s.
No one is likely to confuse the new production of "Flash Gordon," opening today at area theaters, with a good movie. The idea of comparing it to the best contemporary work in the same genre -- "Star Wars," "Superman," "Alien," "The Empire Strikes Back" -- would never cross a discerning mind. But it can be enjoyed as a diverting sort of inferior spectacle.
While it follows in the overproduced, uninspired footsteps of previous De Laurentiis remakes, "Flash Gordon" manages to tread a trifle lighter on fundamentally ponderous cinematic feet. It might even justify the fromation of a ridiculous new movie cult on the "Rocky Horror" model: Danilo Donati has dressed the inhabitants of the planet Mongo in such gaudy and outrageous costumes that a new following could develop around the Mardi Gras aspects of the production alone.
The movie seems surprisingly buoyant for the first half hour or so. The great Israeli actor Topol is a tower of comic strength in the opening sequences, which establish the Emperor Ming's renewed determination to destroy the Earth and which propel Flash, Dale and Dr. Zarkov to Mongo in a desperate attempt to stop him. Topol plays Zarkov as a madeyed scientific pariah, ostracized by respectable colleagues because he has deduced that a series of calamities (including a hurrican illustrated by outtakes from De Laurentiis' greatest flop) is being caused by a mysterious force from a distant planet.
Surviving a Ming-induced tempest, Flash (Sam J. Jones) and Dale (Melody Anderson) crash-land in Zarkov's aboretum.Zarkov has just been abandoned by his assistant, who flees rather than accompany the obsessed scientist in a spaceship to Mongo. "We'll go up and counterattack them!" Topol roars. "Get your toothbrush and whatever!" Timely arrivals, Flash and Dale are lured aboard the spaceship and then trapped into joining Zarkov's expedition.
The supporting cast is amply reinforced by adroit, rich-voiced actors. The elation you feel when Topol turns up as Zarkov is echoed at the first sight and sound of Max von Sydow as Ming, Peter Wyngarde as his metal-faced flunky Klytus, Brian Blessed as the bellowing winged Viking Prince Vultan and Timothy Dalton as the dashing Prince Barin, a far more plausible romantic hero than Jones' Flash Gordon. Unfortunately, the production proves too slapdash to captialize on the presence of such supporting players and allow them to take performing pressure off the inexperienced young costars.
Sam Jones and Melody Anderson lend themselves all too easily to campy ridicule. Jones projected more sexual authority in the easygoing role of Bo Derek's unfortunate bridegroom in "10." Transformed into a beefed-up platinum blond and required to impose himself in the brusquely athletic style of Buster Crabbe in the old "Flash Gordon" serials, Jones looks ill at ease rather than humorously heroic.
Anderson isn't as fetching as the original Dale, Jean Rogers -- a somnambulistic blond who was always at her sexiest when falling under one of Ming's persistent, thwarted erotic trances. But Anderson's squared-off baby face and zestful nature are potentially good equipment for a comedienne. She fares better than her costar at implementing comic business or reading deadpan lines. (Recapturing the flair that made his reputation on "Batman," screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. succeeds in making Flash and Dale sound serenely knuckleheaded.)
Once the action shifts to Mongo, the arbitrary turns of the plot and the unsightly aspects of the production become more and more difficult to shrug off. The camerawork goes inert in order to take in too much of the glitzy sets built to represent Ming's court, and the process photography and models look extremely primitive. mThe outlines are so pronounced in process shots that they might as well be a deliberate form of stylization, aimed at making the actors resemble cartoon cut-outs. De Laurentiis' productions never seem quite assimilated; this one is no exception. Even the music pulls in separate directions, with a strident rock theme by Queen competing for prominence with a fleeting orchestral score by Howard Blake.
When the initial fun begins to dissipate, neither Semple nor director Mike Hodges seems to possess the needed restorative powers. In retrospect you realize that the talent at hand might have been coordinated into a more satisfying entertainment. Still, as derivative interplanetary clunkers go, "Flash Gordon" is good for a few laughs -- some of them intentional.