What Today’s Sci-Fi Should Learn from ‘Flash Gordon’

When Disney acquired 21st Century Fox, many of the latter studio’s projects were canceled, including a Flash Gordon reboot that was to be directed by Taika Waititi. I understand that Disney wants to maintain a monopoly over the science fiction genre, but their Star Wars franchise has become fixed in its ways, and today’s sci-fi could learn some serious lessons from a certain ’80s cult classic.

Based on a long-running comic strip, Flash Gordon was actually the movie George Lucas originally wanted to make. But when he couldn’t get the rights to do so, he ended up making Star Wars and in the process probably made a lot of executives feel like idiots. The actual Flash Gordon movie came out in 1980, directed by Mike Hodges, and features an amazing theme song by Queen.

The plot follows the eponymous Flash Gordon, a football player who, along with an attractive travel agent he’s just met, gets dragged into space by a discredited NASA scientist. Upon arriving at the palace of the galactic emperor Ming the Merciless, Flash is set to be executed as a traitor but is quickly rescued by Ming’s daughter. What follows is a wild space adventure to overthrow Ming set to rock guitar riffs and fantastic, imaginative visuals.

So, what could modern sci-fi possibly have to learn from such a crazy, campy space opera? Well, to start with, today’s science fiction is too concerned with establishing a lot of rules and world-building. All the better to set up franchises, right? Yet, in focusing on such setting-oriented storytelling, these films neglect the character drama that is necessary to a compelling narrative.

Take, for example, the 2017 flop Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Luc Besson’s film, which is itself based on comics originating in the 1960s, spends way too much time explaining stuff that never becomes relevant. The eponymous City of a Thousand Planets is a space station broken down into multiple districts, as the exposition explains, but the action of the film barely takes place in any of them.

Flash Gordon, meanwhile, understands that drama is built between characters and then focuses on them. Everyone in the movie, from Flash to Ming to Flash’s larger-than-life ally Prince Vultan, has their own distinct wants, and the story emerges from these characters interacting and trying to reconcile these wants. This movie gets at the humanity behind these characters, even if they happen to be aliens.

Following that train of thought, modern technology has spoiled us. We create these excellent-looking aliens out of CG and prosthetics, yet something of their expressiveness is lost. Captain Marvel’s Skrulls look amazing, for instance, but even Ben Mendelsohn has trouble emoting through a faceful of plastic. Guardians of the Galaxy, on the other hand, actually understands how much of an actor’s job is done through their beautiful face. That is why Gamora is just green-painted Zoe Saldana and, as such, is one of the most expressive and well-played characters in the MCU.

The same principle applies to environments. Green screen and CG have enabled us to generate whole planetscapes, but how often do those feel as alive or lived-in as the planet Arborea or the halls of Ming’s palace? The colorful, expressionistic sets of Flash Gordon are almost a part of the characters who inhabit them, and that lends them a unique physicality that the empty desert of Jakku in Star Wars: The Force Awakens lacks.

Because they’re physical sets, the actors can interact with the environments of Flash Gordon in a way that’s impossible with the keyed-in backgrounds of modern sci-fi. The spikes protruding from the floor of the tilting arena where Flash battles Prince Barin look genuinely threatening in a way that digital dangers just don’t; Barin even uses one as a handhold when he’s climbing back up!

The movie can’t be discussed, of course, without also talking about Thor: Ragnarok, which is the Flash Gordon-iest movie of this decade and likely the reason Waititi was picked to direct the reboot. Thor: Ragnarok understands that fantasy and science fiction are quite similar and that crazy costumes and colorful sets convey character far better than any amount of prosthetics or CG.

Technology doesn’t have to be locked into a particular look, and it doesn’t have to be explained. A galactic dictator’s weapon can be as complex as a laser sword or as simple as an ostentatious ring or a melt-stick. And the screentime given to character drama, like the Hulk’s personal issues and Valkyrie’s troubled past, make Ragnarok one of the best Marvel movies out there.

That’s not to say that Flash Gordon doesn’t have its issues. The racism needs to be addressed: Ming the Merciless is an Orientalist caricature of Asians with some deeply problematic undertones. And while the women in the movie have a bit of agency, they are ultimately relegated to stereotypical damsel-in-distress and femme fatale roles. To its credit, modern science fiction has made a distinct effort to put women and POC in main character roles where they can be heroic and make decisions, although the reception of these roles can be… mixed, at times.

But as a whole, Flash Gordon has a grasp of movie fundamentals that modern science fiction has lost track of in pursuit of superior visuals and special effects. We’ve got alien characters that are more bizarre and fun to look at than ever before, but they lack the humanistic spark of life that makes the characters of Flash Gordon feel so alive and real. They live in spaces that look and feel fake, because, well, they are.

Space is cool. It’s fun to imagine what kind of universes and worlds could be out there, and technology has provided an increasingly advanced way of depicting them. But drama and characters are the best way to make an audience care about that stuff. Modern technology makes our aliens and spaceships look more real, but doesn’t necessarily make them feel more real, and that feeling is, ultimately, what we should be remembering from retro sci-fi like Flash Gordon.

Hans Qu: All I do all day is think about cartoons.