Review for Barbarella
I recently reviewed Tank Girl, and now I’m going for an even earlier comic book adaptation to the screen featuring a female protagonist, Barbarella. I must be a sucker for punishment, as neither film is regarded as a timeless classic. But in the case of both films, it’s the same reason why I’m shelling out some money to own them on Blu-ray, nostalgia. Barbarella holds a particularly special place in my heart. Consider a young teenage boy in the nineteen eighties, in a world pre-Internet. Consider that boy, sneaking downstairs at night, with the rest of the family asleep, to partake of some late night TV with the sound down and the subtitles on. Consider the reaction of said boy, as he discovered Barbarella during a late night broadcast. I’d already seen Flash Gordon countless times, and this was Flash Gordon but all grown up. It’s fair to say that Barbarella was a formative experience in my adolescence. I doubt that it’ll have the same effect on me now, but I’m willing to give it a try.
It’s the distant future and the universe is at peace... except for the bit that isn’t. Earth has sent Barbarella there to find the rogue scientist Durand Durand, the man who created the positronic ray, a weapon of all things. The planet where Barbarella’s ship crashes is a lawless place, primitive in many ways, but educational in some.
Barbarella gets a 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD mono English, Dolby Digital 2.0 mono French and Spanish with subtitles in these languages plus Portuguese. The image is clear and sharp, with good detail and colour, although not a lot in the way of restoration. There’s very little print damage or dirt, but there is varying levels of grain, and moments of flicker as well. The production looks quite futuristic for a 1968 film. The decor and production design looks very 1970s, while space looks like a lava lamp. The audio is fine, the dialogue is clear, although given how much ADR there is with a multinational cast, it doesn’t look as if they bothered recording studio audio for this one. Unlike the look of the film, the music is very much of its time.
You get 1 disc in a BD Amaray case, which boots to a static menu.
The sole extra is the theatrical trailer, which lasts 3:21 and is in HD.
Barbarella dates from a time when comic book movies were expected to be, well comic. They were funny, silly, absurd and never dramatic or meaningful. In fact for the most of cinema history, that’s how comic books have been adapted, and it’s only comparatively recently, in this century that filmmakers have started to take the source material seriously. Once that happened, comic book movies started to work for Hollywood, and that’s pretty much all we get in the blockbuster season now. Barbarella is a daft bit of fun that’s not to be taken seriously, the textbook definition of camp.
Admittedly, Jane Fonda in her skimpies and less is still enough to get the blood pressure elevated, but it’s no longer enough to sell the movie to me. It’s a film with an Austin Powers vibe, but done without any cynicism or knowing winks. Barbarella explores this strange alien society, encountering all manner of odd people, and learning about the physical expression of love along the way (apparently future Earth people get by with pills and no touching, an idea that Demolition Man poached), something that serves her in good stead for the film’s climax.
Here’s the problem. Barbarella is the protagonist of the film, the heroine. She does nothing to progress the story. She stumbles from one situation to the next, with a vaguely non-plussed expression on her face (except when she’s post-coital humming), and every sticky situation she gets into, someone comes and rescues her. It’s infuriatingly uninvolving if you’re a viewer trying to invest in character. The people that she meets are more interesting than the main character; the narrative really only briefly sparks to life when the incompetent revolutionary Dildano appears, and watching the film is a wholly passive experience.
I don’t know what I saw in Barbarella. I take that back, I know exactly what I saw in Barbarella, but I’m not a teenager anymore. Barbarella is a quaint cul-de-sac in sci-fi cinema history. Its visual excess and sixties styling are more interesting than the film itself. It’s a film that you watch for its place in film history, not to be entertained. If you want to see this sort of thing done to better effect, seek out Luc Besson’s Valerian. They’ve been talking about remaking Barbarella for years now; having a heroine with agency would be a good starting point.