'Barbarella' Takes You On A Journey Beyond Space, Time, And Common Sense Review

If you need visual evidence as to the sea change that occurred in science fiction in the 1970s, look no further than Barbarella, and consider how inconceivable its release would be today. In the years before the moon landing, Hollywood's vision of space differentiated little from its vision of fantasy, with Buck Rogers and company living in a world that never seemed to wear, age, or obey even the slightest rules of physics. That goes double for Barbarella, which was released the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and reads as a bizarre synthesis of the Hollywood space adventure and the European art film. Right before the universe itself appeared to open up, Barbarella imagines the vastness of space as little more than a backdrop for people having sex.

One could describe the plot of Barbarella; one could also build a sandcastle in the path of a tidal wave, if one really felt inclined to do so. It would be difficult to dismiss the dimensions of story any more than director Roger Vadim (who had a habit of producing highly sexualized films starring the women in his life, having previously directed And God Created Woman with then-wife Brigitte Bardot) and producer Dino De Laurentiis already have, so they will not be elaborated upon here. Let it merely be said that they frequently serve as little more than a flimsy pretext for strange episodes in which human monuments in flesh Jane Fonda and John Phillip Law (who cult cinephiles will recognize from Danger: Diabolik) are disrobed. Frequently, the film acknowledges the ridiculousness of its inventions, as if producing its own parody in real-time, but there it gets to have its cake and eat it too. We can laugh at how silly their reasons for being naked are, but we still get to see them naked.

Significantly more distinguished about Barbarella are the bizarre set-pieces and backgrounds that Jane Fonda is naked in. Modern viewers may find them evocative of both Frank Frazetta and the Austin Powers films, but even that doesn't quite get at how strange they really are. As the title mentions, Barbarella is the Queen of the Galaxy, and in her quest to retrieve the scientist Durand-Durand from the hands of the Great Tyrant, she runs through a number of bizarre corners of planet Tau Ceti, each one bizarrely imagined and overtly sexual. If her tryst with the child-catching Yukon Cornelius doesn't get that idea across, then her torture by the orgasm-inducing Excessive Machine (which still fails to satisfy her completely) surely will. It's everything you surely love about the plotting and characterization of pornography, with none of the X-rated follow-though.

But in a way, that's Barbarella's best quality. Though incapable of defending herself in most situations (one can't help but wonder how she gets captured so many times and still get to be Queen of the Galaxy), Barbarella is nothing if not assertive about her own sexual needs, and lives in a world where people are seemingly incapable of thinking about anything else (it might make an interesting double feature with Deep Throat). For all the Great Tyrant's plays at supervillainy, the greatest threat always seems to be that the whole thing WON'T devolve into an orgiastic mess of space matter. One could look high and low through Hollywood history, but you might never find a single film this comfortable with its own sexuality in any other era, and approaches material like this as anything other than calculated subversion. Even in a film with sets this dated, this is the quality that most identifies it as a product of the late sixties; even with major plot points revolving around the Positronic Ray, this is what makes it seem as if it's from  world other than our own.


The theatrical trailer is included.

"Barbarella" is on sale July 3, 2012 and is rated PG. Sci-Fi. Directed by Roger Vadim. Written by Terry Southern, Roger Vadim, Vittorio Bonicelli, Clement Biddle Wood, Brian Degas, Tudor Gates, Jean-Claude Forest. Starring Anita Pallenberg, Jane Fonda, John Phillip Law, Milo Oshea, Marcel Marceau.

Anders Nelson • Associate Editor


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