I owe all seven of my faithful readers an apology. This is not supposed to be Mystery Science Theater 3000, but three out of the last four weeks it’s kind of worked out that way. But sometimes that’s the deal with cult movies. These are films known by many, but often loved only by a strange and devoted few. But just as with people, the quantity of love you get isn’t nearly as important as the quality, and in that regard movies and people aren’t really all that different. Good, bad or in between, you can always find someone somewhere who loves them - and trying to figure out why is what we do here at Viking Night. It’s not easy to sit through everything but it’s almost always fun - even the worst movies contain something of value so while I can’t always recommend what I see, I almost always come away with a degree of understanding.
Viking Night: Barbarella
By Bruce Hall
July 5, 2011
Unfortunately, it’s hard to understand much of anything about Barbarella. This is one of the most unique and visually unforgettable adventures you will ever see, and yet it’s propelled by one of the most uniquely forgettable stories ever written. And it revolves around one of the most spurious cinematic characters ever created. That’s kind of a shame, because the movie is actually peppered with some pretty cool ideas, and Jane Fonda really does somehow rise above it all. It’s not a “bad” film so much as it is a one of a kind product of its time, a shagadelic calling card from a place and time now as alien as the very depths space itself. More important, it’s (technically) the first feature film based on a graphic novel and like many such things, it is a love letter from a talented nerd to a woman who doesn’t, and couldn’t possibly EVER exist.
Barbarella *the movie* is based on a series of comics first published in the early '60s, about a futuristic space explorer who travels the galaxy in a spectacularly plush starship encountering one lusty, madcap adventure after another. Our title character is commissioned by the President of Earth to locate a missing (and completely insane) scientist named Durand Durand. Durand is in possession of a devastating experimental weapon that could plunge the galaxy into war, wiping away thousands of years of universal harmony in one stroke. So, Barbarella is instructed to use her “incomparable talents” to find Durand and retrieve the weapon before it’s too late. She tracks the wayward researcher to the Tau Ceti system, where her ship crashes following an unusually sexy malfunction. For some inconceivable reason, Barbarella is immediately attacked by a group of feral children armed with metal, fanged, animatronic dolls. She is rescued by a hairy guy in a land yacht who forces her into sex in exchange for fixing her ship - which immediately crashes again after he leaves. I know, it sounds like a raw deal. But the hirsute grifter has taken the girl’s virginity, opening up a whole new world of possibilities in her mind.
And this is supposed to be the funny part. Now acutely aware of her own sexuality, Barbarella adds it to her list of “incomparable talents” and begins using it to manipulate men, women, robots - whatever - into helping her achieve her goals. She’s supposed to transform before our eyes from a doe eyed child into a smart, savvy woman who can hold her own against anything. She’s ostensibly taking ownership of her sexuality and beating a universe accustomed to objectifying women at its own game. The problem is that Barbarella never REALLY grows up. Jane Fonda is without a doubt the best thing about the film and the unskeptical innocence she radiates is actually highly effective. But as far as I can tell, Barbarella’s “incomparable talents” consist of getting captured a lot and falling into bed whenever the ground shakes. She stumbles through her mission like an oblivious little lamb as her mission spontaneously unfolds around her. And rather than distinguishing herself as the true heroine of the story, she just happens to be standing there at the end when it’s all over.
The idea - so far as I can tell - was to explore the evolving role of the independent female in society through a satirical lens. To me that sounds like a great idea, and science fiction is a medium tailor made for that kind of thing. Of course women are just as capable as men are. Of course men have been threatened by this for centuries, subjugating the fairer sex in order to keep them uncompetitive. Of course women have their feminine charms, and with the right combination of cunning and seduction they can make stupid boys do whatever they want. But both the comic AND movie versions of Barbarella were created by men. And when men attempt to empower women through art, they invariably end up objectifying them anyway. Rather than celebrating the emergence of the modern woman, horny young artists usually pull a Weird Science and create the dream girl they can never have - aggressive, slutty and shaped like two balloons tied to a pear.
Ladies, only a woman can tell us what it’s like to be a woman. So, if you don’t like the way you’re depicted in the comics then please, write more of them yourselves. Otherwise, randy teenagers everywhere will continue to think that two square feet of spandex makes for suitable body armor and that all rebellious, attractive women are easy. As it is, the humor behind Barbarella falls flat as our heroine never entirely develops beyond a walking, talking sex doll. The series of events leading up to her confrontation with Durand seem designed not to tell a story but to put Barbarella in random situations where she loses her clothes or ends up the somewhat willing object of someone’s mistreatment. The costume and production design of the film are stellar (for the time), the special effects are surprisingly effective (for the time) and the cast really put their all into the production. But it all revolves around a leggy, impossibly attractive woman willingly submitting herself to abuse while an inappropriately lurid soundtrack hovers over the whole thing like a sadistic, dirty old man.
Simply put - and pardon my bluntness - Barbarella is little more than an extended rape fantasy disguised as an irreverent comedy. I hardly consider the comic to be a work of art either, but at least over time it made a serious attempt to add depth, strength and quality to the character. The film version is merely candy colored soft core porn. And it gets away with this only because the graphic level of smut it implies wasn’t an option in 1968. But Barbarella isn’t completely without merit - there are some interesting sci-fi concepts explored in the film that seem somewhat novel for the time. Among them are the precursor to the “mood slime” seen in Ghostbusters 2, as well as the most unfortunate use of Isaac Asimov’s “positronic” technology that I can recall. Plus, the movie does make a sincere attempt to highlight Barbarella’s inherent kindness and generosity. But any value present here is purely academic. If you’re a casual viewer seeing this film for the first time, it’s hard to imagine you coming away anything other than confused at best, appalled at worst. Save yourself the trouble and get yourself a subscription to Heavy Metal. Your eyes - and your conscience - will thank you.