Flash Gordon: 30th Anniversary Edition (UK - BD)
Flash! AAH-AAH!!! He'll save every one of us! Ahem, here's the Blu-ray Disc review
The story opens with Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) visiting great disasters on the planet Earth for his own amusement. As the chaos reigns, New York Jets football star 'Flash' Gordon (Sam J. Jones) boards a small plane where he meets travel journalist Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) who is also flying back to New York City. When the pilots disappear from the cockpit (thanks to Ming) Flash takes control and manages to crash-land the aircraft in a greenhouse owned by Dr. Hans Zarkov (Chaim Topol). Zarkov has long theorised that Earth would one day come under attack from an advanced civilisation, and has secretly been working on a rocket ship that would allow him to visit the source of the disturbance. After tricking Flash and Dale into the ship he tries to enlist their help, but in the ensuing struggle the rocket is accidentally launched into space where it falls through a black hole, eventually landing on the planet Mongo.
The trio are brought before Ming, who takes Dale as a concubine, orders Zarkov's 'reconditioning', and condemns Flash to death. Following his apparent execution Flash is revived by none-other than Ming's daughter, Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), who takes him to the kingdom of Arboria, home of Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton), ruler of the tree men and Aura's lover. Meanwhile Dale and Zarkov escape Ming's palace only to be apprehended by Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed) and his Hawkmen and taken to his Sky City. Eventually Dale and Zarkov are reunited with Flash, who manages to convince Ming's enemies to join forces in an attempt to overthrow him and liberate Mongo from his tyranny.
'Oh Flash!' exclaims Melody Anderson's Dale Arden. I might well make the same exclamation, but for entirely different reasons. I loved this film as a kid, but after viewing it again on DVD my rose-tinted spectacles were well and truly removed. Critically panned on its release back in 1980, Flash Gordon has more than its fair share of faults. For starters, both Sam J. Jones and Melody Anderson are more wooden than the cast of Thunderbirds. It doesn't help that Jones’ voice was dubbed by someone else in post-production, causing it to sound a bit ‘off’. The special effects (or lack of them) are another disappointment, especially in the wake of ground-breaking films like Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, which were released around the same time and are far more technically proficient. There's not a whole lot of character development going on either; pretty much everyone is a cardboard cut-out, but I guess that can also be seen as a positive depending on your point of view.
Thankfully there are a number of redeeming features that conspire to override common sense and prevent me from completely dismissing the film. Chief among these is Max von Sydow, who is having so much fun camping up as Ming it’s impossible not to enjoy his performance. There’s also much to like about the supporting cast, from the mad exuberance of Brian Blessed to the ever-lovely Ornella Muti (who still looks sensational in her fifties incidentally). While some of the effects are pretty bad others are quite inventive and, well, different. I particularly like the swirling, multi-coloured clouds that float in the sky above Mongo, and much of the set and costume design is wonderful in a garish sort of way. Of course Queen’s music is also a major highlight (and this is coming from someone who’s not a huge Queen fan), and the title track brings childhood memories flooding back. I think that’s part of the enjoyment of Flash Gordon. For every naff moment there’s a genuinely enjoyable one, with the end result of a film that manages to entertain far more than it has any right to.
If I cast my mind way back to Momentum's 25th Silver Anniversary Edition of Flash Gordon on DVD I vaguely remember it looking less than perfect, and this Blu-ray release appears to have come from a very similar source. The image is soft throughout, and although I can't be completely certain that it is the result of digital manipulation I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that noise reduction has been applied to the image. It would certainly explain the often waxy appearance of the characters' faces. Whether a result of filtering after the fact or just a problem with the master it is disappointing, although it's not as bad as a number of recent examples because there is at least some grain to be found and the Blu-ray is significantly more detailed than the DVD.
The biggest problem with the disc is actually that the brightness and contrast are way off. The image is so bright that it often obscures fine detail that would otherwise be visible, including grain. As an experiment I tried playing around with some of the screen shots in Photoshop and I was able to achieve a more natural look with some very quick tweaks. Comparing my shots to those from the US disc really magnified the problem, with the latter looking far less washed out. It seems that Universal's Blu-ray is based on a newer HD master, and although it's perhaps a little too dark it's preferable to what we have here. (I think the best version would lie somewhere in-between).
Elsewhere things are better. Colours are bright and bold, offering a perfect showcase for the inventive set design and outlandish costumes, although flesh tones are a little on the red side. The source print also looks to have been in relatively good shape, as there aren’t too many artefacts. As previously mentioned detail is markedly improved over the DVD, although to be completely honest it's probably more of a case of the DVD being particularly bad rather than the BD being exceptionally good. Unfortunately a side effect of the additional resolution is to reveal more flaws in the effects, such as the garbage mattes around space ships, and when compared to other catalogue titles of a similar vintage that have been properly restored the image just isn't that impressive. Ultimately that's where this release falls down. If it were the early days of the format some might hail this as a great transfer, but we’ve seen so many quality catalogue titles lately Flash Gordon really doesn’t cut the mustard.
Flash Gordon is furnished with both DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 Stereo soundtracks. I chose to watch the film with the multi-channel track, although I did sample sections of the Stereo track afterwards for comparison purposes.
Things get off to a great start with a rousing rendition of Queen's 'Flash', which few could argue is one of the most memorable things about the film. There are some neat surround effects peppered throughout, starting with Ming's attack on Earth at the beginning of the movie. This section also features some nice panning effects as the plane carrying Dale and Flash moves around the soundstage, and this panning continues throughout the film whenever a rocket takes off, or during battle sequences etc (although the surrounds are almost certainly mono). There's also some fairly solid bass when called for, although it's not employed as frequently as I'd have liked. Sound effects aren't exactly what I'd call Star Wars quality, but they're effective enough for the most part (especially the continuous barrage from Ming's palace near the end).
Dialogue is generally clear, if a little hollow sounding in that low budget 'eighties' way, and the looping is also fairly obvious (especially Sam J. Jones'). As previously mentioned the Queen soundtrack is probably the aural highlight (if not the highlight of the film itself), and it sounds pretty good for the most part, often spreading itself to the rear channels and surrounding the listening position (although sometimes a bit thinly). As mentioned earlier I also sampled the Stereo track, which actually held up very well, even sounding better in some areas (mainly dialogue reproduction). It lacks the directionality and bass of the the 5.1 track, but it sounds less artificial and I think it will be my preferred track for any subsequent viewings. Like the video before it Flash Gordon’s audio is a step up from the DVD release, and in fact it's arguably the most impressive aspect of the release.
Unfortunately the vast majority of the bonus material found on the Silver Anniversary Edition DVD are absent from this Blu-ray, including the Brian 'Mad as a Box of Frogs' Blessed commentary. I have no idea why so much was omitted and I'm not going to speculate, but it seems odd given that Studio Canal were involved with both releases. Anyway, here's what we do get:
Audio Commentary with Director Mike Hodges: Director Mike Hodges is on hand to offer his thoughts on Flash Gordon in this free-flowing, informative commentary track. There’s plenty of anecdotal information on offer (he points out a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Robbie Coltrane), but he also caters to those who prefer the technical side of things. All things considered I thought this was a good track.
Interview with Director Mike Hodges: This reasonably lengthy interview with the director is very informal and covers his upbringing, early films, and of course Flash Gordon. As with the commentary track Hodges comes across as a pleasant fellow with some interesting things to say, although I have to knock a couple of points off because he doesn't like Star Wars! Only joking.
Soundtrack: Although not included with my review copy, the retail release of Flash Gordon will supposedly include the film's soundtrack on a separate audio CD. Obviously I can't take it into account when considering the overall quality of the extras, which is a pity given the lack of said extras. I'm sure Queen fans will be very pleased though.
To me, calling this a '30th Anniversary Edition' implies that it's going to have some pretty special content, but there's nothing here that hasn't been seen before (I don't count the soundtrack). What's more, there are actually fewer extras than the 25th Anniversary DVD release, which seems unforgivable when there is around sixteen gigabytes of free space on the disc. This is plenty of room for everything that came before, even if only in standard-definition form.
Whether this is worth the upgrade is largely dependent on your love for the film. Sure the definition and compression are better than the DVD, but the image is still blown-out and filtered. However, it is nice to have the audio in lossless and uncompressed formats, especially the two-channel mix. Me, well I like the camp tone and I have fond childhood memories, but if I was watching the film for the first time on this Blu-ray I’m not sure that I’d be terribly impressed.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 23rd August 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, LPCM 2.0 Stereo English
Extras: Audio Commentary, Interview with Mike Hodges, Original Soundtrack
Easter Egg: No
Director: Mike Hodges
Cast: Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Max von Sydow, Topol, Ornella Muti, Timothy Dalton, Brian Blessed
Genre: Action, Adventure and Sci-Fi
Length: 111 minutes
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