Viking Night: Flash Gordon
By Bruce Hall
February 1, 2011
Most consumers have no problem loving a huge budget blockbuster. Movies that are meant to appeal to the widest possible audience usually do just that. But some films have a narrower vision, or simply contain more complex meaning than meets the eye. They aren't always art, and they aren't always even very successful. But for a devoted and eccentric few, they're the best entertainment money can buy. Once, beginning with Erik the Viking, a group of dedicated irregulars gathered weekly in a dingy dorm room to watch these films and discuss how what pleases the few might also appeal to the many. Time has separated the others in those discussions so that I alone remain to ponder the wider significance of cult cinema. But while the room is cleaner and I no longer have to skip class to do it, I still think of my far off friends whenever I hold Viking Night.
Don’t worry, Jets fans. Big Ben might be going to the Super Bowl but your quarterback has bigger fish to fry. I’m not talking about Mark Sanchez; I’m talking about a guy who can actually pull off a throw into press coverage at the goal line. I’m talking about Flash Gordon. That’s right, Flash Gordon, King of the Impossible! Right now, one of two things is happening. You either have no idea what I’m talking about or you’re rolling your eyes trying not to remember one of the biggest box office failures of the past 35 years. Either way that’s too bad, because you’ve either missed out or you’ve missed the point. I’ve always had a problem with the way we tend to judge films primarily based on box office rather than whether the thing accomplished an aesthetic goal. Hollywood is a business, of course, and the bottom line is the bottom line. But making movies is also an art – and what makes a work of art successful is whether or not it connects with its intended audience.
When it doesn’t, sometimes it is the artist’s fault but occasionally you have to blame the peanut gallery, too. Sometimes a film has trouble hitting the target because it is so exceptionally unique and incomparable it is almost doomed to fail from inception. If there’s one thing rank and file moviegoers appreciate it is familiarity, and when they have no point of reference for something they usually have trouble identifying with it. This is the legacy of Flash Gordon, a movie so unlike anything you’ve ever seen that you’ll want to hate it immediately. But if you can let go of your cynicism and embrace what makes it so special, I promise you’ll have the time of your life. In fact, there are times when I’ve wondered what it would be like to quit my job and just watch this movie over and over again until I pass out. Stay with me, and you’ll find out why.
By 1980, the movie business was in a state of change. The unprecedented success of Star Wars meant that every studio with more than one camera was trying to figure out a way to get on the sci-fi bandwagon. The results were profound; Star Wars itself (1977) was breezy fun, but grounded in a universe we could all understand. Superman (1978) proved that a superhero film didn’t have to be bad to be good. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) managed to become almost as popular as it was pretentious. Alien (1979) was a dramatic, frightening, awe inspiring opus to everything that makes great movies great. And then there was Flash Gordon.