Director: Roger Vadim
Writers: Vittorio Bonicelli, Clement Biddle Wood, Brian Degas, Tudor Gates (created by Jean-Claude Forest)
Distributed By: Paramount Pictures
Starring: Jane Fonda, John Phillip Law, Anita Pallenberg, Milo O’Shea
Release Date: October 15th, 1968
Aside from the West Batman, the 60s were a dead time for comic book movies. Unless you happened to count Barbarella, which was based on a comic book strip by Jean-Claude Forest. The film was ahead of its time in terms of adapting a comic book that had nothing to do with superheroes, as well as pushing the erotic boundaries of popular fiction. Although it’s a cult classic now, it was a critical and commercial flop when it was released. Which begs the question. Was it just a film plagued with bad timing? Or is it actually a bad film that’s been well received by those stricken by nostalgia?
While pre-baby boomer critics have not always been the kindest to science-fiction films, there’s no denying that the plot is far from Barbarella‘s key strengths. The story doesn’t take the time to develop the characters, theme, or much of anything else. The plot’s sole purpose is to simply move us along from one fabulous set to another, and hope we simply accept its extremely pseudo tech babble and deus ex escapades. From a simple perspective, the plot is easy enough to grasp. Barbarella is sent by the President of Earth to take Durand Durand from Tau Ceti, only to find that Durand Durand has gone mad and plans to use the Positronic Ray, his weapon of ultimate destruction, to take over the universe. However, even a plot line as simplistic as this gets muddled and complicated from constant changes of direction and scenes, as well as long dialog that leads to nowhere.
Speaking of dialog, the characters, while interesting, don’t turn the film’s quality up a notch. Jane Fonda has comedic timing and is iconic as ever, but looks and quirks aside, Barbarella isn’t the most compelling female heroine of all time. The movie poster’s tagline asks “Who can save the universe?” The real question is “Can Barbarella save herself?” I’m not looking for a strong cave woman or an idol feminists can bow down and worship, but the story gets tiring after watching her get captured for the 90th time. All the other characters in the film are interesting (despite some overacting). And I believe that with stronger writing, these characters could’ve been utilized better and been more iconic aside from being known as the name of an amazing 80s pop band.
Chest hair level 5: Robin Williams hairy.
But I understand it. Nobody watches Barbarella for the story. Sometimes it’s all about style, and this film makes no attempt to be anything but. If you took Forbidden World, Flash Gordon, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and some Andy Warhol for good measure, you’d get the 60s psychedelia of Barbarella.
Willy Wonka and the LSD Factory.
There are some moments when the style completely pays off. The more sensual moments (extremely mild by today’s standards) are great examples. Barbarella‘s eroticism is more like a burlesque show. Even if you cannot appreciate the physical aspect of it, one can still appreciate the art and execution behind it. The opening scene is the best instance where the direction is absolutely brilliant. From a detached perspective, it’s just Barbarella undressing in zero gravity. But the way they reveal Barbarella to be a beautiful woman underneath the astronaut suit, the varying shots set to the kooky 60s theme song, and even the way the credit letters spill out, all leads it to be one of the best science-fiction film openings.
It’s not just about Barbarella being a playful tease. Many of the scenes, such as the space Warhol-esque people of Sogo (essentially Sodom and Gomorrah), have a certain craftsmanship to their design.
Unfortunately, moments of masterful execution are too few to turn the film’s style into substance. Its late 60s counter culture can be charming, but like other late 60s films of the time, its Easter color extravaganza can also be incredibly tacky. And tackiness aside, it often feels like they’re simply tacking on psychedelic light shows for the sake of it.
The question of whether or not you should watch Barbarella is more of a question of how much you like the 60s and/or film history. It’s not a terrible movie, but at the same time, you’re not going to lose any sleep missing out on this one. Even if Jane Fonda is really, really, really hot in this film. And it has lasers and liquid light shows.
The only reason you need.