'Life After Flash' Review: An Overflowing, Heartfelt Celebration of Fandom

Documentarian Lisa Downs celebrates the passion that went into creating 'Flash Gordon' as well as the passion that deemed the oddity a cult classic.

Spare Change Films

There are many reasons why one film strikes a chord with a viewer where others do not. Obsession can hit as the result of the particular mood you brought into the theater before showtime, a loose connection you make to your own life, or the base physical response you have to the chiseled jaw of the film’s protagonist. Passion is a curiosity, and often I do not like to dwell on what sparks it. Take it as magic and move on.

Pop culture love affairs are deeply personal relationships. They represent too many hours spent in intimate contemplation. After the mind-numbing drudgery of daily life, escape into fantasy and their paraphernalia is necessary; absolutely crucial to my well-being. It’s what I do. Don’t you worry about it. I’m good.

Where emotions become complicated is when you meet the like-minded. Flash Gordon was made for me, you see. What some dismissed as camp, I latched onto as a wholehearted space adventure on par with similar dead-serious science-fiction like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, and Saturn 3. Ah-hem. Not kiddie stuff, people. Not to my 10-year-old self. Not to my adult self. The filmmakers understood where I wanted to take these characters, and they navigated them across Mongo in the same fashion I would march my action figures across the sandbox. No one else shared this psychic connection to the storytellers, or at least, it took a while before I encountered others that did.

Knowledge of those with such affinity creates two emotional reactions: confrontation or relief. No one likes a fight, so the best and most mature response is to embrace your fellow weirdo. Hug it out. Celebrate the connection you share, maybe even loan out some of that sweet paraphernalia you’ve acquired. Well, let them browse through it, at least.

Life After Flash is an excitable, aggressive hug of a movie. Overflowing with appreciation, or downright passion, for the exuberant adaptation of the comic book serial, director Lisa Downs gathers not only every accessible voice that contributed to the cult classic but seemingly every ear that absorbed that craft. Yes, we hear from the expected involved players. Everyone from star Sam J. Jones to supporting actors Brian Blessed and Deep Roy to special effects technician Geroge Gibbs gets their moment to regale us with their experience before, during, and after the production. Their anecdotes range from humorous to morose to thoughtful. A better behind-the-scenes picture of Flash Gordon has never been drawn, and it’s doubtful the film will ever see such attention again.

The documentary exceeds in marrying the heart and soul that went into creation with the heart and soul that received its gift. Downs traces Flash Gordon from its inception as a four-color comic strip to a bombastic wannabe blockbuster to a confection devoured by an audience hungry for bold, grand depictions of science fiction and fantasy. We witness how mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis‘ supposed monetary failure fed the imaginations of future creatives like Alex Ross, Robert Rodriguez, and Mark Millar. We bask in the brilliance of obsessive fans who’ve thrown life savings into the collection of Flash Gordon memorabilia, and rather than ridicule, we understand.

How can one not engage with such obvious and heartfelt enthusiasm? Decades since the film came and went, the artists involved and the fans touched are as eager as ever to share their love for Flash Gordon. They are not exorcizing their demons; they are celebrating their victories. Just stare at Brian May, the Queen guitarist and the composer that weaved the most infectious cinematic theme song in history, arrive at his interview sporting a bright yellow Flash Gordon t-shirt. He’s a proud puzzle piece, happy to fit alongside other contributors, and even happier that obsession erupted around their art.

Downs had no trouble tracking down subjects. If anything, Life After Flash is drowning in zealous conversations. The documentary spends an exorbitant amount of time explaining fandom to a possible outsider audience member. Interviews with random comic-con guests like Michael Rooker, Sean Gunn, Jon Heder, and even a cameo from Stan Lee distract from the larger Flash Gordon making-of/cult reception narrative. At the same time, would you turn down the chance to talk to Stan Lee for your doc? Hell, no.

Contemporary pop culture is consumed with capturing fannish attention. We’re mining the Marvel Universe for every A, B, C, D, and Z list character. Their attraction is mysterious and less formulaic than we dare give them credit. If easily replicable Warner Bros. would carry as much confidence in their stride as Disney. Hah. In this current glut of superhero content, we forget what it was like for an oddball kid desperate for his favorite genre to enjoy mainstream notice. When a quirky abnormality like Flash Gordon stumbled before cameras, it gobbled our attention and twisted our interest for the rest of our lives. Life After Flash is not here to explain it as much as it is to observe, honor, and salute this unlikely entertainment that erected a ravenous cult of worshipers.