"FLASH!" *lightning strike*
*Daaaa, daa da daa da!*

Of course Dino De Laurentiis made a Star Wars knock-off. If there's a shock there, it's that he made just one, 1980's Flash Gordon, a big-budget version of the comic strip and movie serial from the 1930s that at one point, De Laurentiis had in mind for Federico Fellini, whose career, even at the end of the '70s and beginning of the '80s, hadn't declined enough where he was willing to direct the thing. Incidentally, it's said that owing to De Laurentiis's ownership of the Flash Gordon rights, George Lucas was obliged to redirect his creative energies into making a swashbuckling space adventure in the Flash Gordon mode, and so we find the snake hungrily devouring its own tail.

For his Flash Gordon, De Laurentiis did not acquire a Fellini, nor even a Lucas; the film was eventually directed by Mike Hodges, whose name remains well-known nowadays for exactly one reason: 1971's Get Carter, an outstanding crime drama that would not qualify as any sort of training for anything resembling an effects-driven action film. Hodges has been relatively candid in the years since about what a mess the shoot was, and to be perfectly frank, it shows onscreen: the movie is heavy with scenes that don't quite fit in with each other, with lines of dialogue that refer back to nothing we've seen, with plot points that appear and disappear at will, and one VFX shot opens with several frames in which one half of a massive space battle hasn't been composited in. And that's ignoring the broader conceptual problems with the film, the faintly wretched acting of the leads, and the refusal of the movie to adopt a workable tone, things that would have been issues even without a hectic production.

Indeed, where I can, will, and have defended many of De Laurentiis's adventures in tackiness as being secretly really good, I will not make that claim of Flash Gordon. It's pretty much awful and out-of-control in all ways, and the only thing holding it together is that it's astonishingly fun. There are bad movies where things are going wrong and you can see the filmmakers folding in on themselves; sometimes this can even result in a "so bad that it's good" movie; Skidoo, in which Otto Preminger explodes on the launchpad, leaps to mind. But Flash Gordon is more special than that. It is a film where things started going wrong, and the filmmakers answered by just going right on and being silly; not everybody in the cast quite managed to get there (one by being too miserably committed to for-real acting, a couple by being insufficiently talented), but for the most part, Flash Gordon feels very much like a sort of helpless but intensely enthusiastic high school drama production, in which everybody is sort of at a loss but so desperately happy to be there that they can't help themselves. "Can you believe we're getting paid to do this?" say the gigantic grins worn by BRIAN BLESSED! and a particularly hammy Topol in all of their scenes; Timothy Dalton's scheming prince doesn't grin much, but he's obviously relishing it, too (then again, Dalton always seems overjoyed to be playing every part he has that isn't James Bond).

It is, then, up to the individual whether this overwhelming sense of unabashed fun makes up for all the things that the film frankly gets wrong. The plot is simplicity itself: New York Jets star Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones), helpfully wearing a T-shirt with his name appliqued on, and his new ladyfriend Dale Arden (Melody Anderson), crash a plane right in the lab of mad (but correct) scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol), who kidnaps them on his rocket ship to try and stop the alien force throwing the moon out of orbit. That turns out to be the very cruel Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), ruler of some physically improbably cluster of planets in a psychedelic gas cloud, who kills civilisations for sport; Flash, accruing the inconsistent help of Ming's daughter Aura (Ornella Muti), and the petty princelings Barin (Dalton) of the forest world Arboria, and Vultan (BRIAN BLESSED!) of the Hawkmen, in a narrative structure that is clearly modeled on the episodic structure of the old serial, but nobody involved in making the film has the skill to carry off that kind of conceptual trick, so instead of feeling like either a send-up of the serial or an homage to the same, it's just a disjointed, episodic plot that doesn't hang together.

Certainly, people not having the skill to carry off their intentions is a pervasive problem with Flash Gordon, and the script especially is a disaster: the central relationship between Flash and Dale is so foggily expressed that it's never at all clear what's going on, for one thing; the degree to which either Barin or Vultan is a villain or hero in any scene is dictated largely by what will cause the plot to keep going. This could be defended as parody, but it's awfully muddy if that's the case; and while the film is extraordinarily kitschy, I never get the feeling that it's intentionally so, which would tend to invalidate any claim the film can make to self-awareness.

Thing is, if you're on the movie's wavelength at all, none of this matters. Not even Jones's braying performance of Flash, far too unpleasant to count as any sort of joke, matters. Not when the thing is so unfathomably brightly colored, with the sets and costumes both designed by Danilo Donati, and if his sense of the sublimely garish was good enough for Fellini Satyricon, it's damn well good enough for a De Laurentiis sci-fi picture. And boy, is Flash Gordon fun to look at, with its grandly over-designed locations that feel unmistakably like soundstages, but are so busy and lively that they are the fun, lavish MGM film of the '30s kind of soundstage, where the artifice is part of the appeal - you are meant to notice, and respect the craftsmanship, not lose yourself in the world.

Besides looking swell, the film moves like crazy: for having almost no discernible plot (Flash goes here, he goes there, he fights people with laser guns that try a bit too hard not to look like the ones in Star Wars, and the thing ends without it ever being clear what the motivations of three-quarters of the cast were), a whole lot of stuff happens, and it changes up frequently. At the very least, one would have a hard time growing complacent with the movie.

It's all just so giddy and childish. It's dumb as hell, dumb enough to make Star Wars look like the most nuanced and complicated of social dramas, and to be honest, I do not know half the time whether I'm laughing with the film or at it: whether BRIAN BLESSED'S! ebullience is terrible or wonderful, whether the wholly miserable way von Sydow delivers his lines (surely all those years with Ingmar Bergman were, at least, irrelevant training for saying something like "Halt, lizard man! Escape is impossible!" in voiceover, as a giant metal sphere) is tragic or hilarious, whether the general incompetence of the storytelling is a disaster or if it's a fun homage to the "what the hell do we care?" attitude of '30s matinee pulp. It probably doesn't even matter: this being a De Laurentiis production, we can be certain that the chief goal was for broad, fizzy spectacle, and oh! how it fizzes!