My mom was a big Buster Crabbe fan and as a kid, the non-PBS UHF channel (I’ve had to explain to the kids the whole concept of over-the-air TV just to get to the whole UHF thing) used to show silents and, yes, old serials, like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers which I absolutely adored. I loved the struggle of good vs. evil, and the crazy Art Deco spaceships with sparklers coming out the back, and the planet models and so on. And back in 1980, when this came out, I loved it, too, to the point where I didn’t get why it wasn’t more popular (23rd for the year, making about the equivalent of $100M today).
These are situations where a parent might feel a bit…trepidatious…in taking his kids to see a film which, in retrospect, is currently regarded as a campy, cult classic (enough to where star Sam J. Jones ends up in Ted as kind of extended punchline) and which they might not appreciate the way said parent did at a young age.
Worries abated. This movie is non-stop fun, start to finish. There’s not a moment of pretentiousness to be had in this tale of a football player who finds himself shot into space with a crazy (but right!) scientist and a sexy (but sexy!) girl journalist, accompanied by music from Queen. And man, does Freddie Mercury sell it with absolute sincerity—like the whole movie start to finish. The underlying message, if a movie like this can be said to have one, is that people are good, Earth is awesome, and all you need to overthrow tyrants is to show people that it’s possible to be fair and put the interests of all above your own individual needs.
And a lot of things that are “campy” about the movie are really more about how jaded things were back in 1980 (not unlike Superman).
I still think, even now, that Sam J. Jones and Melody Anderson were under-rated here. Sure, they’re earnest, even ridiculously so—except that it’s impossible to be too earnest in the context of an evil space emperor who’s destroying your planet because he’s booooorred. Silly? Well, if that means we’re spared a trilogy of movies about how young emperor Ming was turned to the Dark Side by a series of pretty ordinary events, I’ll take it.
What’s more, this may be the most beautifully designed, decorated and costumed sci-fi/fantasy film since Wizard of Oz. That is, between 1940 and 1980, I can’t think of a single film that comes close to this in looks. Star Wars has better camera effects to be sure, but it’s positively drab compared to this.
There’s a whole lot of bold composition here: The design of space is organic, colorful, and alive, instead of a bunch of boring black cloths with holes bunched in it for stars. The costumes are late-era disco mixed with ’30s art deco (and there was a lot of similarity there, so the blend works).
The aliens are…well, who even knows what the heck’s up with those lizard dudes.
Do I even need to mention the post-disco/pre-’80s space babes?
Fun fact, the little dude that followed Princess Aura around was named “Fellini” because de Laurentis wanted Fellini (who famously used little people in his dream movies) to direct. The guy playing Fellini is “Deep Roy” who was all the Oompa-Loompahs in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Random inexplicably posed slave girls? (Or maybe Amazonians. We’ll never know ’cause there was no sequel.)
We loved it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cheer, you’ll boo, you’ll boggle and you may even fly blind on a rocket cycle!