Super Movie Monday – Barbarella



I mentioned last week that Starcrash was influenced by Barbarella, the French comic-turned-campy sci-fi movie. Looking back at Barbarella, the influence may be less extensive than I remembered, but it is still there. Both feature gorgeous heroines clad in very little, both are confusing and episodic, both involve a quest to alien planets to find a lost someone with knowledge of a mysterious superweapon, and both climax with the heroine watching men fighting on a viewscreen.

The big difference is, Starcrash wants to be an action film, while Barbarella is a sex comedy. The film stars Jane Fonda and was released in 1968, the same year as Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey. I mention this because it’s rare nowadays to see a science-fiction film that was not influenced by 2001 in some way, but Barbarella clearly was not.

The film starts with a striptease in zero-G, a clever effect that was accomplished without resorting to blue-screen or wires. You can see it in the title screen above. A close-up during the sequence gives us a better idea of how the effect was accomplished. Notice the circled reflection.

Yeah, Jane Fonda just basically laid on a big sheet of glass over a tilted set. Still, between the way she writhes around as if she’s weightless (a pretty good physical performance) and ┬áthe way they reposition her between cuts, the illusion of floating weightless is pretty well done for a very low budget. They do something similar with the space scenes at the beginning, in which they superimpose Babarella’s spaceship over a close-up of bubbles suspended in liquid to simulate stars and planets.

The effect is not convincing, but it is visually interesting, and at the very least tips us off early that Barbarella lives in a weird kind of psychedelic fantasy universe that probably shouldn’t be taken at all seriously.

The screenplay is credited to Terry Southern and director Roger Vadim (Fonda’s husband at the time), with six other collaborators listed, including original comics creater Jean Claude Forest. So it’s not as if this is a total Hollywood bastardization of Forest’s masterwork. In fact, from the few panels of the original Barbarella I’ve read, the movie seems pretty true to the spirit and plot of the comic.

Barbarella is contacted by the Space President or whoever to find a missing scientist named Duran Duran (and the answer to the obvious question is yes). Duran Duran has invented a mysterious superweapon known as the Positronic Ray, but has disappeared on Tau Ceti, legendary planet of evil. Although the movie was released four years before Fonda became infamous as “Hanoi Jane” for her visit to North Vietnam in protest of the war, Fonda’s character is a clueless peacenik herself and is flabbergasted that anyone would want to invent a weapon.

So imagine her confusion when the Space President sends her an armload of guns in support of her mission to find and recover Duran Duran. Oh, and gun sez hi.

This being the 60’s, Barbarella changes clothes (get used to this) and takes a sleeping pill before settling on the most uncomfortable bed ever to sleep until she gets to Tau Ceti. She wakes up just in time for a magnetic storm to disable the ship, and she crashlands on a lake of ice.

She changes clothes (again) and goes outside to check on the damage, where she meets a pair of creepy twins who knock her out with a snowball and kidnap her to the wreckage of a spaceship–Duran Duran’s ship, to be precise. More kids are here, creepy twins all, who try to kill her with creepy dolls with sharp steel teeth which rip her clothes to shreds.

She is saved by Mark Hand, the Catchman, who works as a kid-herd. He’s scruffy and bearded and rough and tough, dressed in a fuzzy gorilla suit-sans-mask that looks like it would indeed keep him warm in the frigid climate. When Barbarella thanks him for saving her, he asks to make love to her as a reward. Then he pulls off the gorilla suit to reveal…

Yergh. Cue musical interlude (of which the movie has a lot, and which owes much to the horn-heavy hipster pop that was popular for about five minutes after Tom Jones hit it big with “What’s New, Pussycat?” and “It’s Not Unusual,” both of which are ripped off in this movie). Afterward, Barbarella sings tunelessly in the afterglow, while Mark Hand repairs her ship. And since her clothes were ripped to shreds by the dolls, she dresses in some of Mark Hand’s furs.

She takes off in her ship once more, but there’s a malfunction, so she ends up traveling underground (with some more creative liquid effects). She surfaces in a stone labyrinth, and changes clothes again before venturing out. Once there, she meets Pygar, an “angel” who has lost the will to fly.

Pygar is played by John Philip Law, who would later star as Sinbad in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad with Starcrash star Caroline Munro. Barbarella also meets Professor Ping (Marcel Marceau), who tells her Duran Duran is in the evil city of Sogo. She asks Pygar to take her there, but he says he can’t fly. Turns out, the only way to get him up is to have sex with him, if you’ll pardon the pun (which prompts more tuneless humming from Barbarella).

Oh, and by the way, to show you how different times were when I was growing up, although I never saw Barbarella until I was in college, I did own two frames from the movie. A clever entrepreneur at a science fiction convention cut up prints of the movie into individual frames, mounted them as slides, and sold them individually for a buck apiece or so. I bought two, although it was years before I saw the movie to know what scenes they were from. One was of the zero-G striptease, and one was of the moment above, as Barbarella toys with one of Pygar’s feathers in the afterglow. And another fan comes of age.

Barbarella changes clothes again, and they take off. They are attacked by the Great Tyrant’s airships, but she shoots them all down, experiencing an odd wondering joy when she blows the first one up. Because Hanoi Jane may talk peace, but inside, she’s a little bloodthirsty.

They land in Sogo. Barbarella is captured by thugs, but saved by a myserious black-haired woman, while Pygar is cornered by a menacing mob. Barbarella saves him by leading him into a suicide chamber. Oops.

But they are saved by the tyrant’s Concierge, who sends Barbarella down a chute to a strange cocktail party where Barbarella runs into the creepy twin girls she met when she first landed, now dressed like Fred Flintstone.

She discovers that the Great Tyrant is not a man, but actually the Black Queen, the woman who saved her from the would-be rapists just moments earlier. Barbarella tries to save Pygar from her through a bluff with an unloaded pistol, but the Concierge sees through the trick.

Barbarella is placed into a deathtrap where she is nearly nibbled to death by parakeets and cockatiels, but she escapes down a secret passage to the headquarters of the Revolution, where she meets rebel leader Dildano. He asks her to have sex with him the Earth way, by using pills and touching hands. Barbarella has a hair-curling orgasm.

Afterward, Barbarella changes out of her parakeet-shredded uniform and Dildano gives her the key to the Queen’s secret bedchamber in exchange for providing the rebels with the remaining weapons from her ship. The rebels will strike while Barbarella distracts the Queen and her guards.

But Barbarella gets lost trying to find the bedchamber and is instead captured by the Concierge again, who puts her in his Excessive Machine, a kind of musical intrument that kills with pleasure.

And this is yet another example of how simultaneously good and bad the movie is. Because on the one hand, that is an impressive set for a low-budget film, and the idea of the Excessive Machine is kind of cool. But the execution is lame, with dated bombastic music and an odd performance by Fonda that makes it seem as if she had never actually experienced an orgasm and had no idea how to act one out.

Anyway, in theory, Barbarella is too powerful for the machine, her appetite for pleasure too insatiable. She defeats the machine like John Henry beating the Inky-Poo, only with her coochie instead of a hammer (and we should all know what the hammer is).

Oh yeah, plot. Turns out that the Concierge is Duran Duran, and he plans to use the Positronic Ray to seize power. But first he must kill the Black Queen, and the only way to do that is to send in Barbarella with her invisible key (after she puts on another outfit, of course).

Barbarella enters the chamber, but is double-crossed by Duran Duran, who traps her in there with the queen and no way out. He then tries to seize power, but is interrupted by the revolt led by Dildano and Professor Ping. Barbarella watches on a viewscreen as Duran Duran uses the Positronic Ray to kill the rebels, then the Black Queen releases the evil Mathmos to destroy the city.

Everyone dies except the Queen and Barbarella, protected from the Mathmos’s evil power by Barbarella’s “innocence.” When they emerge from the lake of evil, they find Pygar, whose innocence has also protected him. The evil city of Sogo is destroyed and Barbarella flies away with Pygar and the Black Queen for a threesome or something. Happy ending!

So in the end, it’s a weird film that’s hard to classify, because on the one hand, it’s campy and fun and not to be taken seriously. And some of the intentional comedy works. But on the other hand, it is entirely a product of its trippy times that hasn’t aged particularly well. Barbarella just kind of wanders around the plot, changing into different outfits (total number of costume changes=eight), sleeping around, taking drugs, and watching other people actually do stuff until the bad guys are all dead.

And speaking of weird and hard to classify… Ah, but that’s next week.

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