Retro Review: Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy (1968).
In a previous article, I called Barbarella trashy fun. I was wrong on both counts. Barbarella (kinda, sorta) tries to be more than titillating trash, and forsakes any fun in the attempt.
Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy is a cult classic that doesn’t merit the devotion. Much like our protagonist (played by Jane Fonda), the movie wears a ton of different outfits. It just doesn’t look good in any of them. I can’t be sure if Barbarella was a cynically half-hearted attempt at sexy sci-fi, or if it was an earnest yet inept creation. The end result is the same: Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy is a joyless slog through a ton of failed ideas.
Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy (1968)
It’s the 41st Century, and Earth is a Utopia (if you’re not poor; I guess Jeff Bezos won in this reality). This bliss is threatened when genius scientist Durand Durand (yeah, the band is named after him) escapes to Tau Ceti with a superweapon. The president of the Earth tasks space adventurer Barbarella with retrieving Durand Durand and his positronic ray.
Jack of All Trades, Master of None
Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy tries to do everything under the sun. It tries to portray Barbarella as a female James Bond: outlandish gadgets, poorly executed death-traps, and a sleep your way to success ethos. The movie also attempts Star Trek science fiction, using nonsensical technobabble to comment on society and what mankind should stand for. It has go-go boots, shag carpets, and a psychedelic soundtrack, like some Softcore Porn version of The Banana Splits or Laugh In. The problem is that Barbarella fails at all of these.
The two biggest problems with Barbarella are the writing and the acting. Both are high-school level in planning and execution. Jane Fonda doesn’t do much acting, although I will give her credit for Adam West-iness: the one thing she does well is look at the camera in exasperation and mutter variations on “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!” But if I had to assign blame I’m giving the lion’s share to the writers. All 15 of them. They constantly contradict and hamstring Barbarella as well as the universe she bounces around in. I would stand around in impotent befuddlement at this illogical mess as well.
Definitely Not Bringing Sexy Back
The contradictions in Barbarella are fundamental, if not exactly fun, and the biggest one is whether it wants to be a sex-positive social commentary or just a Male-Gaze fantasy. There was a tonal tug of war behind the scenes, and it’s painfully apparent in the final product. In the first 20 minutes Barbarella is just a sex-doll: the movie starts with a strip-minus-the-tease and proceeds to a local Tau Ceti cabbie asking Barbarella to pay for the lift with sex. The movie then proceeds to try and pivot off this problematic quid-pro-quo by trying to show Barbarella awakening sexually. While future trysts always give lip service to Barb being sex-positive, it’s still the same old tits-for-tat transaction.
This design decision ruins the film. The film is no 1960’s women’s empowerment flick; neither is it pulpy pornography. It doesn’t build up any erotic tension: Barbarella gives it all away in the first ten seconds and never does so again. It also doesn’t have anything coherent to say, negating any social satire that might have been intended. Barbarella is highly unsatisfying no matter what you were hoping to get out of it.
The film isn’t completely without merit. The sci-fi is silly Dr. Who style shenanigans, and it has some nifty fantasy elements a la Flash Gordon (to be frank Flash pretty much spends most of his movie as a bystander while other people get shit done, just like Babs). But Flash had campy fun whereas Barbarella has creepy “erotica”. The original script (at least as far as Writer #15 states) was to have a pulpy, social satire in space; one that basically pitted space-hippies against techno-yuppies. That version should have found a way to exist. The seeds for some funny moments are just visible enough in Barbarella to lead to a lament at their failure to germinate.
This film comes in at a brisk hour and thirty eight minutes. I spent aproximately none of them amused or aroused. The only good thing about this film is that VUDU finally got it’s act together on Xbox, and this movie was free… with commercials. I looked forward to the commercials.
*Nope, still not doing a full Flash Gordon Review.