I have seen this movie more than a few times, so I wasn't that eager to revisit it, although I knew it must inevitably be covered on this site, if it is to be considered credible at all. I saw this soon after it came out, whereupon I was amazed at how astonishingly awful it was, the only positive being Brian Blessed's bear icon turn as the king of the hawkmen. I became re-intrigued when I discovered, to my shock, that it is directed by Mike Hodges, of the amazing Get Carter and the quite nice Pulp (but also of the horrid Terminal Man). WHAT could Hodges want from directing such a thing? This was made more comprehensible once I learned that the rights were bought by Dino De Laurentis (which does kind of explain everything) and that Hodges was a late choice after Nicholas Roeg and others had turned it down. And then upon learning that the production was such a mess that Hodges once quipped that this was "the only improvised $27-million movie ever made."
Other interesting tidbits before we get started are that George Lucas went ahead and developed Star Wars only AFTER learning that the rights to Flash Gordon were already acquired, and that THIS movie was developed only AFTER the success of Star Wars. One other personal reminiscence is that I can recall all the hoopla building up the fact that Queen was delivering a fantastic new single which was the Flash Gordon theme and then hearing it for the first time and thinking... "This?..... THIS???" Yes, it was a bizarre, unappealing aberration even then.
Okay! So we open with some space-targets on Earth and hear a deep, evil voices talking about it in that old sci-fi cliche: "The inhabitants refer to it as the planet... EARTH." This is apparently Ming the Merciless and his buddy, who go around toying with planets for their personal amusement. They have buttons that set off earthquakes, typhoons and, most mysteriously, "hot hail." Is the such a thing as hot hail? If so, I was unaware of it. Flash arrives at an airfield where he meets the comely Dale Arden, who is not a brilliant scientist or a sizzling supermodel or an accomplished actress, but a TRAVEL AGENT. Hmmm, I guess we have to remember that the origins of this thing are in the 1930s. They get in the air and start flirting, where we learn that Flash is the nationally-known star quarterback of the New York Jets, a fact I kept misunderstanding as that star Sam Jones himself was the quarterback, because his acting skills certainly seem to be what you would expect of a quarterback. The pilots say "Look! At ten o'clock!" then we have a shot out the front and see... nothing. Later, a ball of something with Ming's face superimposed on it hits the plane and next thing you know, the pilots are gone. Flash takes the controls and crashes the plane.
Meanwhile, in his lab, we have Topol (Yes, of Fiddler on the Roof) as scientist Hans Zarkov, who has been expelled from the scientific community because he said someone is coming to attack the Earth, why, just like this. Dale and Flash come in, and he woos them into his rocket because... he needs someone to hold their foot on the pedal? Something any heavy object could do? But uh, yeah, that's the deal, and soon the rocket takes off. They end up in some strange set of planets and stuff defined by these bizarre swirling colorful clouds made by dripping different kinds of paint into water. If you're onto this technique (also notably used in the first two Star Treks and The Black Hole) you are literally just sitting there looking at paint in water. What I mean is that the illusion is not created for even one second. But it does look crazy, skies of bright red and blue and green, I have to admit. Anyway, the rocket crashes, and they're brought to Ming's palace.
There they see that Ming has thousands on his side, but Zarkov says says this is actually awesome, because "Look at these wretches--they're just waiting for someone to lead them in revolt!" Personally I find it unwise to bet on the success of revolutions based solely on the facial expressions of a few guards, but wouldn't you know that revolt against Ming turns out to be the very plot of the movie. So after Flash blurts "This Ming guy is an idiot!" in his dumb declarative voice, he has a fight in which he uses football techniques to defeat several of Ming's guards, like by launching this egg-thing at their heads or suchlike. He is defeated when Zarkov tries to toss him the ball and bonks him full in the face. Dale is upset, until Ming shoots her with his sex beam, and she finds herself overcome with pleasure. "What happened to me?" she asks, and Flash, in his dumb jock voice, says "I don't know--but it was pretty sensational!" Apparently Sam Jones had a disagreement with Hodges toward the end, and refused to come back to loop some lines. This resulted in another actor being hired to dub his voice throughout the entire movie, and given the voice they ended up with, it's a decision I suspect Jones has come to regret. We'll never know, but I suspect that if Jones had spoken his own lines, he wouldn't sound like a TOTAL idiot, the way he does here. The result for the movie is to have a hero who is a giant blank, and seems completely incapable of being heroic, simply by virtue of being a really big dumb jock. If you know that Jones is dubbed, it's quite obvious if you watch his lips as he speaks.
By now, less than halfway in, you have had to realize that this movie is a turkey and it's not going to get any better. Flash now has various adventures and battles, gathering up followers to rise against Ming everywhere he goes. Zarkov's mind is supposedly emptied of memories--we see him being taken all the way back to birth--but then a second later he is fine, saying he held onto his memories by reciting Shakespeare and the Beatles. Flash wins over Timothy Dalton and his band of merry men. He gains the allegiance of the hawkmen. And soon Dale is shouting the immortal line "Flash, I love you! But we only have 14 hours to save the Earth!"
It's a total piece of garbage as a movie, but the further we get from it, you have to admit that it is bizarre and colorful enough to merit a special place. Pauline Kael is one of the few critics at the time if release to give it a positive notice, and this is largely because it's just one of those crazy, off-the-wall things that she admires. She seemed to like (justifiably) things that may not be great, but are at least unique and different. Similarly, she liked Excalibur for its images, even though the story was a total mess. The difference is that we already have ideas and imaginings of Arthurian knights and suchlike, whereas here we have no frame of reference and sure, it has insane set design and candy colors and wacky costumes and something crazy everywhere you look, but without a story one can become emotionally invested in at all, at a certain point it just becomes a bit of a chore. This is also why I'm saying that it gets better the further it recedes into the past, as one stops expecting it to be GOOD in any way, and can enjoy it simply as a wild relic of an earlier age.
I see that about half of the people on the IMDb love this and consider it an adorably wacky comedy with a cockeyed sense of humor (the other half consider it a total piece of shit). The people who love it assume it is intending to be funny, which may be giving it more credit than it merits. I'm not sure this was MEANT to be funny overall, so much as it just ended up that way. Surely it is content to be quite casual and extremely silly, and there are several instances where you say "Okay, they can't possibly be serious." But that doesn't necessarily mean that there's a coherent sense of parody or humor here. I think we should take Hodges at his word that it was largely improvised and they didn't have much in the way of a script, and assume that mostly this is cobbled together from what they could piece together out of the footage they ended up with.
Nevertheless, agreeably silly and visually outrageous, which is kind of enough, if only for once. If you're expecting an even somewhat coherent sci-fi action movie that makes sense, well.... But if you go in asking nothing more than a wild time without much substance, this will, umm... fulfill your expectations.
I think you should see it once, if only to see how nutty it is.