Friday, August 10, 2007

Flash Gordon

Wow, that was bad.

Tonight I watched the 90-minute premiere of the new Flash Gordon series on the Sci Fi Channel, and that is the last time I'll be making that mistake.

Everything about it was just awful, beginning with the casting of the lead. Eric Johnson used to be a slab of personality-free nothingness when he was Whitney in the early seasons of Smallville, and he carries on the tradition here. To invest in a show like this, a science fiction action series with robots and aliens and rayguns and whatnot, you need to have a charismatic actor leading the way, someone who can assume the mantle of a dimension-traveling hero and make you believe in him and the absurd story, someone who, preferably, has a little bit of weight and a little bit of humor. Johnson is just some tall blond guy who can recite lines.

Not that the other actors benefit from the comparison. None of them are in the slightest bit compelling; most of them are flat-out bad. And they all seem to think they're acting in a different kind of story. Johnson and Gina Holden (who plays Dale Arden) seem to be on a WB teen soap, though their flirtations are painfully lacking in chemistry; Jody Racicot (who plays Hans Zarkov, though I swear I missed anybody calling him by that name in the show; when it was over, I actually asked myself, "Isn't there supposed to be a character called Dr. Zarkov?", which maybe says more about my lack of attention than any particular flaw on the show's part. Has this parenthetical aside gone on long enough?) seems to be playing a mad scientist in a sci-fi satire; John Ralston (as Ming) seems to be reaching for (but failing to grasp) the gravity of Max Von Sydow (who was Ming in the 1980 movie); and Anna Van Hooft (as Ming's daughter Aura) is aiming her performance at about the Disney Channel level. The clash in tones between the performances is jarring, and deadly.

The writing is similarly weak. Forget there's not a memorable line spoken; that would be too much to hope for. It's the exposition and plot advancement that really chafe. The explanations given by these characters, the obvious clues ignored, and the conclusions inexplicably leapt to when it's convenient, are insanely ludicrous. And not in a campy, intentional, wink-wink parody of early 20th century science fiction; it's simply dumb.

And the show just looks bad. Never mind that Maryland, and the planet Mongo, for that matter, couldn't more obviously be Canada. That's so common these days, it barely registers. No, it's the effects, the sets, the monsters, the gadgets -- they're all so incredibly cheap. I'm not expecting Star Wars-level effects, by any means; I'm just looking for a little effort.

Many other sci-fi shows have labored under limited finances; Farscape was never rolling in money, and I'll wager the current Doctor Who has a comparable budget to Flash Gordon, as does another Sci Fi Channel show, Eureka. But those other shows make an attempt at using their funds in the best way possible, by making genuinely interesting and original effects with what they have, and then disguising their limitations with creativity and clever direction. Here, all the cheapness is right up there on the screen for you to enjoy. For example, the robot sent to Earth by Ming is laughably bad. And again, not in a charming, Buster Crabbe-era throwback fashion. It's just cheap as hell, and it doesn't work at all, and nothing is done to work around that fact. The direction never makes it look cool, or menacing, or interesting; it just makes it look like nobody cared.

The action is equally incompetent. The few scenes which could generously be described as "action" scenes look poorly rehearsed, and are badly staged, and totally fail to sell the action. Flash's fight with Aura and the bounty hunter Baylin (I had to look up that name and character description here) looks like an eight-year-old choreographed it; it's clumsy as hell and devoid of excitement.

I honestly have to make myself stop now, because it's just going to be more of the same. This is a total misfire on every level. What a shame.

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