Monday, August 24, 2020

Barbarella (1968)

Barbarella is an enchanting acid space opera and an icon of the 1960s. In the distant future when spacecraft are so advanced and so personal that they are almost literally powered by love, Jane Fonda saves the universe from Duran Duran’s doomsday machine.

The film was written as a lighthearted romp through space, a satire that never for one moment takes itself seriously. Though not emotionally impactful, watching the film gives a sense that the storytellers of the day were mildly optimistic about the future, with space liberation almost a certainty.


Based on a French comic book and starring the then-nubile now-venerable Jane Fonda, with a respectable budget by 1960s standards, the film had a high probability of succeeding. And how it did.

The story is about Fonda trying to stop a space wizard in an unrecognizable future. The plot isn’t anything special, and the characters are all cut from the same future mould. However, the acting all around is solid, with a standout performance from the lead. As the tone of the film encourages the audience to not take it too seriously, it’s that much easier to just relax and enjoy the ride.

There is a small amount of nudity, but it feels somewhat PG-13. Violence? Almost non-existent. In fact, that is the crux of the plot. The film takes place in a future that has not seen war for generations. That could lead to a rather boring watch, except the universe portrayed is so compelling as to hold the audience’s interest without the action sequences of more recent sci-fi.

Like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Barbarella moves slowly, but unlike 2001, this film is firmly grounded in the 1960s. It takes place in the future, but the ’60s is a state of mind. 2001 has a more solid scientific foundation, a proper story with firm justifications for every twist and turn. However, Barbarella has Jane Fonda and a sense of humor, things Kubrick’s space opus has very little of.

Taking the Barbarella/2001 comparison a step further, 2001 is like government architecture; it’s functional and perhaps a bit overblown. Barbarella is like a tie-dyed tent at a music festival, with ham-fisted pro-peace themes and meandering threads that may or may not go somewhere. It’s a finger-painted approximation of outer space, which might be just what some audience members are looking for.

In recent years, there have been talks of producing further adaptations, specifically a streaming series. While the series might make for an interesting watch, modern audiences expect greater tension and stakes from stories. The death of the universe may be high-stakes, but if (as in the film) its inhabitants barely notice, where is the conflict? If for nothing else, Barbarella can be appreciated as a work of art.