Film reviews

Flash Gordon: 40th Anniversary 4K Ultra HD Collector’s Edition – Blu-ray Review

According to Dale Arden, Flash Gordon had only 14 hours to save the Earth, which is just about enough time to be able to make your way through everything contained in the new Flash Gordon Collector’s Edition set, marking four decades since he saved every one of us.

You either love Flash Gordon, or you are wrong: there just is no quarter nor middle ground when it comes to this film. It has recently been described by John Walsh, the author of forthcoming tome Flash Gordon: The Official Story Of The Film, as the “overnight hit that took 40 years”. This film has become such an ingrained part of our pop culture, Seth MacFarlane did a homage by bringing Sam J. Jones back to play Flash (along with a significantly less-reputable version of himself) in Ted and Ted 2.

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Its influence can be seen in movies like Guardians Of The Galaxy, and Taika Waititi named Flash Gordon as being a major inspiration when it came to doing Thor: Ragnarok; Waititi was even announced in 2019 as being attached to an animated film adaptation of Flash Gordon for Fox and Disney, but it seems this may have gone by the wayside for now, following the recent news Waititi is now co-writing a Star Wars film, which he is also intending to direct (which strangely mirrors George Lucas, who wanted to make Flash Gordon, but ended up creating Star Wars).

In marking such a significant anniversary, StudioCanal have decided to give us a 4K remaster of Flash Gordon, approved by director Mike Hodges, which has recently had a theatrical re-release; the remastered film has also now been released onto streaming platforms to buy, as well as in a number of physical media formats – DVD, Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD & Blu-ray Steelbook, and 4K Ultra HD & Blu-ray 5-disc Collector’s Edition as well. It seems that if Flash Gordon is not already part of your collection, there really is no excuse for you not to remedy that now.

The movie perfectly captures the pulpy comic book origins of the character, with its brightly-coloured and even garish costume and set designs, as best seen in the four colour art featured in the opening titles. Earlier home media releases sadly have not done this justice, with the previous versions seeming dull or muted; StudioCanal’s restoration is simply little short of spectacular, seeming so bright and vivid that watching the 4K restoration is almost like seeing the film for the first time, so significant is the transformation here, thanks to the dramatic colour regrading.

Even if you happen to be unable to watch the full 4K Ultra HD version on Disc 1, the Blu-ray version on Disc 2 (which mirrors exactly the contents of the 4K Ultra HD disc) still shows a marked difference, and major improvement upon what has been put out on DVD previously – the step-up in picture quality is so pronounced, it almost feels as though you have been viewing it all these years through cataracts. The only slight downside is that some of the VFX are more noticeable now, with blue fringing around the edges, but it feels a minor quibble, and a reasonable trade-off.

To say that earlier DVD releases of Flash Gordon seemed a little sparse or underwhelming in terms of extras is rather an understatement, and failed to truly serve the film well. Some of these have been ported directly across here – the two commentary tracks by Brian Blessed and Mike Hodges, as well as the theatrical trailer, and a half-hour interview with Hodges. Thankfully, there is more substantial content to be found this time round, such as a fascinating look at Nic Roeg’s abortive version of the film, including details of the plot, and a look at some conceptual art.

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The third disc contains the bulk of the content, such as the interview with Hodges, along with an episode of the 1979 animated Flash Gordon series; this is a somewhat random inclusion, as it comes from the second season, rather than being the premiere episode, which would make much more sense. It does not come across as essential content, unless your definition of ‘essential’ is seeing Flash being aided by a diminutive pink space dragon which makes Godzooky seem rugged and burly in comparison.

The remainder of the features on this disc (also included in the Steelbook and standard Blu-ray editions) hail from the unused material shot for Lisa Downs’ superb documentary Life After Flash, a true labour of love from somebody who grew up understandably adoring the movie. One of the big bonuses of the 5-disc Collector’s Edition set is that Disc 4 is a copy of Life After Flash, meaning that it deservedly gets exposure to a much wider audience. For anybody who does not own Life After Flash, it helps to makes this set a ‘must have’, along with the other extras derived from it.

However, the flipside of this is that without all of the Life After Flash content, the Collector’s Edition set would feel rather empty, showing how much heavy lifting Lisa Downs’ contributions are doing here. It feels a curious omission not to have any of the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials from the 1930s included within the set, or perhaps an in-depth overview of Flash Gordon’s place in popular culture, which would certainly help offer some context to the 1980 film in relation to the other iterations of the character which have been presented to us over the years.

Besides Life After Flash and all of the associated material, another big win with the Collector’s Edition set comes with Disc 5 being a copy of the film’s Queen soundtrack. Simply put, this is maybe the best movie soundtrack, bar none. No correspondence regarding the matter will be entered into. Rounding out the set are a few nice – but not on the whole truly essential – pieces, like an embroidered ‘Flash’ patch, a replica movie poster, and some art cards. It all feels like the sort of material you would not in itself use as a reason to go and buy the set, but is fun to have all the same.

Finally, there are three booklets tucked away in the pack: a replica comic; a 32-page look at the film, including reproduction info taken from the original press kit; and a 16-page preview of Flash Gordon: The Official Story Of The Film. Given the latter is a taster, meant to entice you to purchase another piece of anniversary merchandise, the preview booklet falls a bit flat – there is virtually no text, only a nice selection of photos, so it fails to give any indication of what to expect (unless it actually happens to be just a pretty picture book). A slight misfire, as well as a wasted opportunity.

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So, is the Collector’s Edition set worth buying? Well, if you need to plug a Flash Gordon-shaped hole in your personal collection, then the answer should be an unequivocal ‘yes’. For anyone out there who already owns the film, as well as Life After Flash, it might need some careful consideration as to whether or not those other extras constitute enough value for money to justify forkIng out the not insignificant amount required, and if it might be better to go for one of the other, cheaper versions in order to be able to enjoy the greatly improved picture and sound quality.

As definitive a version of Flash Gordon as we have had so far, but this Collector’s Edition may leave you feeling even more could have been done, to deliver the ultimate release on physical media. Still, Gordon’s alive, and he has frankly never looked better.

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