In a time when the world seems like it’s about to end, who can save us now? Flash Gordon, of course! The King of the Impossible has received a brand-new 4K restoration from StudioCanal and Arrow Video, allowing fans to revisit the gloriously sparkly cult classic forty years on since its initial release.
Flash Gordon follows Flash (Sam J. Jones), a successful American football player who alongside travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) are caught up in a mission to save the Earth by disgraced NASA scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol). Taken via Zarkov’s rocket, the trio arrive in Mongo – dominion of Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), who seeks to destroy Flash, marry Dale and brainwash Zarkov. Only with the help of the seductive Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), the distrustful Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton), the larger-than-life Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed) and his army of Hawkmen can Flash Gordon hope to save not only Earth but all of Mongo from Ming’s sinister clutches.
In the years since its release, Flash Gordon has certainly had an impact on popular culture, seen recently in James Wan‘s Aquaman and Taika Waititi‘s Thor: Ragnarok. Queen‘s soundtrack album is just as iconic, if not more so, than the film itself, whilst Brian Blessed will always be remembered for bellowing “Gordon’s alive!” in his magnificent voice. The film’s appeal stems mainly from a ridiculously camp energy, with its corny dialogue (“Flash I love you, but we’ve only got fourteen hours to save the Earth“), spectacularly over-the-top costumes and incredibly dated visual effects work. It’s no surprise that this 4K remaster makes no effort to fix the effects work; fans love the “retro” and silly-looking visuals. Naturally the ‘Flash!’ theme song is terrific (as is the opening title sequence, inspired by the original comic book run), but the mix of orchestral and synth incidental music in the film is a highlight as well.
The story may be a little weak, but it’s with the characterisation of its leads where Flash Gordon stumbles slightly. Flash himself lacks much in the way of a personality, nor does he undergo a character arc in the film. Sam J. Jones is fine in the role, but he’s given so little to work with that the character constantly feels like a blank canvas ready to be whatever each scene needs him to be. The same can be said for Dale, Flash’s love interest, which leads to a rather stilted central romance.
While the leads may be bland, it’s with the supporting cast that Flash Gordon really soars. Brian Blessed is absolutely hilarious as Vultan, boasting not only a ridiculously over-the-top performance, but also a bizarre outfit and some absolutely terrible-looking flying sequences. If there’s one actor who could distract an audience from some terrible-looking wings, it’s Blessed, and he is an absolute joy to watch – A highlight of this set is sure to be Blessed’s commentary on the film.
Max von Sydow is a brilliant ‘boo-hiss’ villain, partly because he plays Ming completely straight. He’s a villain you love to hate – even if his overpowering influence on Mongo is only briefly explained in exposition dumps. Peter Wyngarde suitably underplays the role of the masked General Klytus, while Mariangela Melato has a lot of fun as the delightfully evil General Kala. Timothy Dalton plays Barin with a surprising sincerity, which only serves to contrast perfectly in his scenes with Blessed, and Ornella Muti is an incredibly charismatic Aura – even if her flirtatious relationship with Flash leads the saviour of the universe to seem quite neglectful to his supposed girlfriend Dale.
However, there are more than a few issues with the film which includes the outdated, xenophobic and racist “yellow peril” influences that created Ming the Merciless, along with the uncomfortable make-up on Swedish actor Max von Sydow. The small number of black characters in the film are all dressed in tribal, African-inspired costumes, and after their leader (Prince Thun is played by George Harris and only gets a couple of lines) is murdered by Ming, completely disappear from the story altogether. The otherwise light-hearted film is also interrupted by an attempted rape scene, which feels tonally jarring and unnecessary.
As for this new Blu-ray release, I was unfortunately not able to watch the 4K UHD disc itself, but I was very impressed with the standard 1080p disc. The colours are strong and vibrant – especially the reds in the sets and costumes – with natural-looking skin tones and a healthy amount of 35mm film grain present. The optical effects appear unchanged (there’s some blue lines around characters at various points), while the Mongo sequences have a terrific “sparkle” effect. I’d love to see how much better the 4K disc is with the added HDR (High Dynamic Range), though.
Most of the special features have been taken from earlier releases, aside from a new feature Lost in Space: Nic Roeg’s Flash Gordon. The DVD and Blu-ray releases feature two full discs with the film and most of the extras, but fans will have to buy the 4K Collector’s Edition in order to get a bonus disc with the 2017 documentary Life After Flash, as well as the soundtrack CD, a 32-page booklet, 16-page Titan mini book (The Story of Flash Gordon), a reproduced booklet of the first strip of original comic books and a poster. Unfortunately, all this costs a whopping £49.99, which a considerable amount of money – even for a 4K release. For those who want the 4K disc at a cheaper price, a 3-disc Steelbook edition is being stocked by Zavvi for £29.99 – which includes the Life After Flash bonus disc, but none of the other Collector’s Edition exclusive extras. It is currently sold out, but additional stock may arrive soon – or by the time you read this review. It’s a shame a cheaper 4K alternative is so hard to find, but the Collector’s Edition does appear to be the definitive – albeit very expensive – release.
Overall, this new release from StudioCanal is very impressive. It’s great to revisit a film as ridiculous as Flash Gordon – especially now with such a strong-looking 4K transfer – and there are plenty of special features to appease hardcore fans. StudioCanal have clearly put a lot of effort into curating a definitive release for this now-iconic film. Gordon is alive, and he’s looking better than ever.
Flash Gordon is re-released in UK cinemas from Friday 31 July.
The Flash Gordon 40th Anniversary Edition is available on DVD, Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray from Monday 10 August. Pre-order now: https://amzn.to/2DiZDxK