Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy (US - BD)
Gabe revisits the wonders and horrors of the planet of Tau Ceti in glorious HD...
In an unspecified future, space-faring peacekeeper Barbarella (Jane Fonda) is assigned by the President of Earth (Claude Dauphin) to retrieve the demented Dr. Durand Durand (Milo O'Shea) from the planet Tau Ceti. Durand Durand is the inventor of an impossibly powerful weapon called the Positronic Ray, which threatens Earth’s longstanding bout with utopian peace. Things quickly go to pot, however, and Barbarella crash-lands on Tau Ceti, where many wild and wacky adventures await her.
Critics continue to act as if the last decade-plus’ influx of comic book adaptations is some kind of new phenomenon. Though films based on comic properties have arguably never been quite this big of a money-making venture, there’s nothing new about popular movies based on funny pages. Following decades of black and white serials that chronicled the exploits of Superman, Batman and Flash Gordon, there was an influx of garish and adult-oriented properties inspired by the fashions and pop culture of the 1960s. The harbinger of this campy and garish subgenre was the ‘60s Batman television show, which is a decided chunk of Americana, but there were many similarly futurist and psychedelic Italian comic adaptations like Corrado Farina’s Baba Yaga (aka: Kiss Me Kill Me[/I]), Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik, and Piero Vivarelli’s Satanik (not to mention a bevy of less beloved Turkish and Mexican ‘60s comic adaptations). The real culmination of this is this whole comic/serial movement is arguably Star Wars, but, stylistically, arthouse director Roger Vadim’s comparatively more expensive Barbarella is pretty much the apex of hippy era’s tongue-in-cheek visual excess. Unfortunately for Vadim and producer Dino De Laurentiis, actual hippies were more interested in Stanley Kubrick’s far more measured and realistic sci-fi trip, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Barbarella was a flop when released in 1968. But time is kind to the patient and Barbarella has evolved into a full-on cult classic.
Modern audiences might not understand the value of production design camp over convincing special effects or story, and the exceedingly late ‘60s-ness of the whole thing will baffle most of the younger viewers, but one has to respect the madness which convinced De Laurentiis and company this insane mess of fever-dream ideas could be a commercially viable production. It was a hell of an era. Those not already charmed by the bright colours and flimsy set decoration will probably be further alienated by the plot, which is just barely more involving than a relatively ambitious porn flick. There’s no ‘heroes journey’ here, no turning the genre on its head, just a sexy woman moving listlessly from one troubled sexual escapade to another. I’m not enamored enough by the eye-candy to ignore the lack of mind-protein (no matter how many times I see the film, I find it difficult to recall the order of the plot points or the climatic point of it all), but I’ve always loved the way the film changes up its lavishly corny sets from scene to scene. It’s easily the most joyous celebration of paper mache, plaster and inflated plastic bags ever put to film.
Fonda has complained about the film for years, but she’s actually quite good in it, acting with a perfect balance of straight face and genuine awe, rarely giving away the knowing goofiness of the role. The role really only requires her body, but one only needs to see her counterparts in the many Barbarella rip-offs (most of them softcore porn…) to understand exactly how much wit she brings to the character and wittily daft dialogue. Her deadpan also dulls the film’s near-misogynistic streak, which may’ve otherwise threatened the fun of the whole affair. John Phillip Law (who, in a perfect world, would’ve played Captain America in a ‘60s iteration of the film) had a particularly fantastic year in ’68, appearing both as the blind angel Pygar here and as the title character of Bava’s aforementioned comic-camp classic Danger: Diabolik. Really, the only other role Law is remembered for is Bill Meceita in Giulio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse, which was conceived as a vehicle for Lee Van Cleef. Like Fonda, Law is largely cast for his angelic physique, but he regularly manages to camp it up without ever betraying the character’s doe-eyed innocence. Milo O'Shea is often marked as the cast’s MVP, but the fanboy in me can’t help but credit David Hemmings as the number one scene-stealer. Hemmings channels a perfect sense of awkward pride in the face of constant humiliation and his confrontation with Barbarella remains the film’s most side-achingly funny sequence.
When I first noticed the PG rating I was a little confused and afraid that somehow Paramount had released an edited version of the film. I guess I just never realized Barbarella wasn’t rated R, because all that wonderful nudity is readily displayed. The sex scenes have always occurred off-screen, with tongue implanted firmly in cheek. I’m pretty sure there aren’t any other PG-rated movies featuring this many bare breasts.
Fans expecting some kind of miracle of utter clarity from 35mm footage this old should probably stop holding their breaths. Those expecting a movie to look like a movie should be plenty happy with this natural 1080p transfer. This appears to be a simple clean-up job, not a top-to-bottom digital remaster, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of grit and grain, so long as the overall effect remains true to the source material. When presented with a film so outrageously unrealistic, Paramount must’ve been tempted to DNR and colour time this transfer into cartoon insanity. Here, they even avoid ‘correcting’ the grain size during optical zooms, which was even a problem for Universal’s otherwise natural release of To Kill a Mockingbird. Detail levels are more impressive than a DVD could manage, though there isn’t much call for particularly harsh contrasts or sharpness. Often things are shot in soft focus to maintain a sort of dreamy state (and probably to disguise any possible blemishes on Fonda’s face) or to help the illusion of the not particularly incredible special effects. One of the more amusing effects of the detail increase is that you can now plainly see where the painted background planks meet, making a delightfully unconvincing effect just a bit more unconvincing. Occasionally, the grit of the 35mm film dulls the film’s excessive and varied Technicolor palette, but essentially things are quite vibrant and the colours pop and set against each other without much bleeding or compression artefacts. Rich black levels help define the brightest of the colour elements and white levels show no real sign of blowing out, thanks to the even-handed contrast levels.
For whatever reason, Paramount went with Dolby TrueHD rather than DTS-HD MA for this 2.0 Mono soundtrack and the effect is perfectly satisfying, if not particularly spectacular. The sound design is simple in terms of layers, setting music and dialogue ahead of the consistently sputtering rock score (save those pieces where lyrics are involved). Sound effects are usually kept to a minimum, aside from anything excessively sci-fi related. This leads to some pretty thin dialogue-heavy sequences, but the electronically created blips, chirps, beeps and screaming whips are plenty rich and clear here, without any real distortion on high end volume levels. Some of the lip-sync is a little off, though I’m not sure it’s ever been particularly convincing, and the overall clarity is occasionally wanting, but nothing is ever so heavily muffled it becomes difficult to discern. Sometimes it seems that sound effects are missing from explosions, laser beams, etc, but I don’t own a copy or know the film well enough to make a trustworthy comparison, so I’ll just give Paramount the benefit of the doubt. The music turns a bit mushy when too many instruments are involved, but rich bass levels help create enough punch to assist clarity a bit otherwise, creating something basically equal to any well-mastered ‘60s rock track that has been limited to a single channel.
The only extra here is the original trailer in HD. So sad.
Barbarella producer Dino De Laurentiis tried to strike oil twice (and eat into some of George Lucas’ money pie) with Flash Gordon in 1980. Barbarella and Flash Gordon have so much in common (they’re both campy, colourful and ended up box-office disasters) they make a perfect double-feature, though real men and women throw in Danger Diabolik into the mix and make a mind-bending triple-feature. Paramount’s Blu-ray release is sadly lacking in special features, but they’ve done a great job of cleaning the film up for 1080p without unnecessary digital enhancements.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may not be suitable for children
Release Date: 3rd July 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-Hd Mast Audio 2.0 Mono English, French and Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Easter Egg: No
Director: Roger Vadim
Cast: Jane Fonda, John Phillip Law, Anita Pallenberg, Milo O'Shea, David Hemmings, Marcel Marceau
Length: 98 minutes
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