“You’ve seen The Day The Earth Stood Still? Well, what did you think of it? Okay. How about 2001: A Space Odyssey? You worship the ground Kubrick walks on for that, right? Okay. What are your thoughts on the original Planet Of The Apes with Charlton Heston? And how about The War Of The Worlds or any other films that came from George Pal? You know who George Pal is, and you can name his films by heart, right? Which of the original Star Wars films do you prefer? It had better be the first one … or we can’t be friends!”
While there might be some exaggeration here and there, my general point is that like-minded folks prefer establishing just how like-minded they truly are, as friendships can be predicated on such nuance. Back in my youth – yes, folks, I’m definitely talking about the days before home video – it was obviously a bit more difficult to establish a playing field as all of us were subject to the rotation of big screen releases and small screen broadcasts; if you missed a flick the first time around, then you never really knew when or even if you’d get a chance to see it. Thankfully, that’s changed, and each of us has a veritable catalogue at our fingertips.
But a project as cultish and elusive as 1968’s Barbarella?
Well, not long after I graduated college, I made the acquaintance of an extraordinarily rabid SciFi junkie, and – yes – he was vastly more schooled in film titles than I was. (On the other hand, I’d seen far more classic dramas and comedies than he had, and such is life.) Still – with all that he had seen either whole or in part – one project that he absolutely worshipped was Barbarella, and – for the life of me – I couldn’t say why exactly. To consider the film a great representation of Science Fiction – much less one of the genre’s (cough cough) crowning achievements – was just beyond me then as it is today. I’ve given up even trying to understand any audience’s affection for the film as I think it only speaks to fringe elements of society for all the wrong reasons … most of which have nothing to do with good filmmaking and great storytelling to begin with.
Yes, yes, and yes. I’m happy to explain.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“In the 41st century, an astronaut partakes in sexy misadventures while seeking to stop an evil scientist who threatens to bring evil back into the galaxy.”
Simply put, Barbarella is a bit of a narrative mess.
While it has a reasonably simple story – basically Barbarella is a government operative (or sorts) who gets sent to “rescue” a scientist who has turned bad – there’s so much else stuffed into nothing more than ‘silliness on parade’ that I’m not intrigued by the world-building.
For starters, the script – which is credited to an astonishing nine participants including director and Fonda’s husband Roger Vadim – postulates that the world of the 41st century is nothing more than peace and love. In some ways, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek was built on this same foundation to a degree, and it was then psychoanalyzed weekly by Captain James T. Kirk and his crew as they’d go about righting the wrongs of the galaxy. Unlike Trek, however, which gives its crew a chief mission of exploration, Barbarella apparently serves a government whose operatives simply exist to roll around in four-minute sequences of disrobing in zero gravity. To my knowledge, this agent of peace has no central purpose until one comes into being (think of it all as a script contrivance). If the universe has peace, then why would it need agents to enforce said peace?
If we set that aside for the moment, then I’m still left with the central question of just who is this Barbarella and what is her purpose in life? Vadim’s adaptation of the Jean-Claude Forest creation never quite explains anything in any small or great detail, instead encouraging the audience to accept the world, its people, and its planets at face value; and – dare I say? – Science Fiction fans have always longed for a bit more. Yes, I know full well that all of this evolves from a comic strip with a light-hearted and titillating backbone, and that’s precisely why I bring it up: films and their scripts are movies, and they require a bit more substance than apparently any of these nine writers were willing to provide.
As a consequence, Barbarella – the film, not the character – is pretty much at the mercy of its writers; and I think a bit more was needed in that department. Nothing develops organically – audience meets girl, girl crashes on planet, girl meets people of increasingly bizarre cultures, girl can’t stop having sex, etc. – and very little transpires without the objectives of giving Barbarella – the character, not the film – the chance for either a costume change or a sexual escapade, either in that order or vice versa. For all of its presumed forward thinking, Barbarella – not the film again, not the character – shows us a tomorrow where sex has become a way of life as well as a form of currency, one usually chosen over actual legitimate currency that can be used to buy things … things like food, clothing, and shelter. Apparently, none of that is needed in the future, and never forget that in Hollywood (of all places) sex sells.
So far as that’s concerned, Fonda is a comely talent. She fills the part out of a somewhat sexually innocent and morally misguided do-gooder just fine and probably about as well as anyone else could do with what slim pickings the script provides. The fact that this is little more than bloated cosplay apparently never kept her from pursuing the part – I’ve read that her acceptance did require some convincing from Vadim – and I can’t help but wonder what the actress thinks of the film decades later. She puts her goods up on display sparingly here, and it would seem that she bought into the whole ‘tongue-in-cheek’ camp quality from conception to delivery. So good for her in doing something that probably couldn’t get made in today’s hyper-conscious marketplace.
Also, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that Barbarella has some impressive practical work in terms of set, costume, and prop designs. Clearly the artisans had a certain look they collectively set out to achieve, and I can’t help but wonder how much of this could’ve been inspired by the original comic strip. (I’ve seen panels of it online here and there.) I’ve read some commentary from film scholars who’ve suggested that Barbarella and 1980’s Flash Gordon – both were produced by Dino De Laurentiis – stylistically exist in the same universe; and solely from the look of things I couldn’t quite argue with that comparison. However, I’d still insist that Flash was given a hero’s journey to go upon in his bid to save his homeworld and stop Ming the Merciless, and the fact that he’s an active leader and not merely existing at the whim of those around him (and the screenwriters) will always put him head-and-shoulders above Barbarella … even though they might have similar hairstyles.
Films are always the sum of their parts, and Fonda’s parts nonetheless – tempting that they might be – were never great enough to elevate Barbarella to anything more than the cinematic exploitation of the male fantasy. If you find wholesome bimbos erotic, then this film achieves its camp classic title just fine. Me? Well, I prefer characters – men and women – of greater substance, and on that barometer there’s just not much to celebrate in here. The film’s obvious practical brilliance will always get a solid thumbs up from me – I do love so much of its look and feel – but the hollow core leaves me feeling like I missed the ultimate reason to take this ride … even though Jane gave it her girly best.
Barbarella (1968) was produced by Marianne Productions and Dino de Laurentiis Cinematografica. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the fine folks at Arrow Films. As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert, I found the sights and sounds to this 4K Ultra HD release to be exceptional at all times; the film quite probably looks and sounds better than it ever has, and that’s wonderful, to be sure. If you’re looking for special features? Well, folks, this is Arrow Films that we’re talking about, and – so far as I’m concerned – they’ve damn near cornered the market on producing some of the finest physical media out there. Just take a gander at what you’ve in store (copied and pasted from their press release):
- NEW 4K RESTORATION OF THE FILM BY ARROW FILMS
- DOLBY VISION/HDR PRESENTATION OF THE FILM
- NEW DOLBY ATMOS AUDIO TRACK, plus original lossless English audio and lossless French mono (featuring the voice of Jane Fonda)
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Audio commentary by film critic Tim Lucas
- Alternative opening and closing credits (in 4K with Dolby Vision)
- Isolated score
- Another Girl, Another Planet, an appreciation of Barbarella by film critic Glenn Kenny
- Paul Joyce's behind the scenes featurette, Barbarella Forever!
- Love, a two-hour in-depth discussion between film and cultural historians Tim Lucas & Steve Bissette on the impact and legacy of Barbarella
- Dress to Kill, a 30-minute interview with film fashion scholar Elizabeth Castaldo Lundén on Jacques Fonteray's world-changing costume designs
- Framing for Claude, an interview with camera operator Roberto Girometti
- Tognazzi on Tognazzi, actor/director Ricky Tognazzi discusses the life and work of his father and Barbarella star Ugo Tognazzi
- An Angel's Body Double, actor Fabio Testi discusses his early career as a stuntman and body double for John Phillip Law on Barbarella
- Dino and Barbarella, a video essay by Eugenio Ercolani on producer Dino De Laurentiis
- US TV and radio spots
- Image gallery
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tula Lotay
- Double-sided fold-out poster featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tula Lotay
- Six double-sided collector's postcards
- Illustrated collector's booklet featuring new writing on the film by Anne Billson, Paul Gravett, Véronique Bergen and Elizabeth Castaldo Lundén, and select archival material
Just so’s you know, as a professional reviewer I’m only provided a media copy of the discs, so I can’t speak to the efficacy of the printed materials as I’m given no access to those extras. But this collection with featurettes and interviews and commentaries is wonderful, and this release should please fans who clamor for such attention.
Alas … only mildly recommended, and – even then – only for purists.
Make no mistake. Barbarella (1968) is not a good movie. It barely has a story, its central character never quite fulfills the tenets of a hero/heroine, and its pacing needed some serious tightening in order to keep viewers from possibly falling asleep. Oh, I’ll concede that it has some relevance for having been made at a certain time and a certain place; but beyond a few artistic elements it has nothing but guilty pleasures to offer any serious aficionado of either Science Fiction, Fantasy, or just plain film in general. Seen entirely as an oddity, it’s perfectly ok for a one-time viewing – get in and get the experience out of the way – and I suppose there’s nothing wrong with recommending it solely on that level.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Films provided me with a complimentary 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray of Barbarella (1968) for the expressed purpose of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.