Flash Gordon review – bizarre expressionist superhero panto

‘This place is a lunatic asylum!” says the square-jawed, peroxide-blond hero of Mike Hodges’ bizarre LSD pantomime Flash Gordon, adapted by Lorenzo Semple Jr and Michael Allin from the 1930s comic-strip serial – now rereleased on streaming platforms for its 40th anniversary. It now looks even madder and more expressionist than ever, with an operatic theme from Queen, bizarre 2D studio sets for alien planets and the kind of eyeball-frazzling colour scheme that generally only existed on old TVs of the era before you had to thump them.

Sam J Jones plays the Earthling American football star Flash Gordon (“Flash” appears to be his actual name, rather than nickname) who finds himself caught up in an intergalactic war when the evil Ming the Merciless (a dapper, derisive and weirdly ageless performance from Max von Sydow) launches an attack on Planet Earth. Swept along for this titanic battle is comely Dale Arden (Melody Anderson), who soon melts prettily into Flash’s arms, and a bumptious scientist called Hans Zarkov, played by Topol, who has a funny scene when his entire life flashes before his eyes. They must somehow incite the various outer-space princelings under Ming’s tyranny to unite and rebel – truly exotic turns by Brian Blessed, wearing a very brief pair of leather pants to play the Wagnerian Prince Vultan, and Timothy Dalton, sporting an outrageously soigné moustache as Prince Barin, one of a strange forest people whose manhood initiation ceremony sounds from afar like sex, and whose high priest is played, surreally, by the playwright John Osborne. (A personal friend of the director, and who famously played the villain in Hodges’ great debut, Get Carter.)

Hodges’ Flash Gordon, like Star Wars, was inspired by the old Saturday-morning movie shows and bears an obvious resemblance to the George Lucas flms, as well as, oddly, to The Wizard of Oz, and maybe even more oddly, to John Boorman films such as Zardoz. The film has a fondness for harems of attractive young women wafting about in a negligéed-state of semi-undress that is not dissimilar to Carry On films, though the robust Flash himself looks occasionally like someone drawn by the great homoerotic artist Tom of Finland. With the dizzying high-speed montage of Flash Gordon comic strip frames that starts the film, Hodges can claim to have inspired the signature images that begin every 21st-century Marvel movie. Perhaps, like many a superhero film, this one flags just a little in the final battle sequences, but Von Sydow is always there to keep things bizarre, playing it absolutely straight.

• Flash Gordon is in cinemas from 31 July.