One of the great things about Netflix (unpaid plug) is that instant ability to follow up on the momentary thought. I can have a stray thought of the kind that goes, “You know, I’ve never seen Barbarella,” and within a minute I’ve got it on my queue. (Yes. I know. This would be even more awesome if I could watch movies instantly. But I can’t. Because I’m on last gen hardware. I suck.) Pre-Netflix, I’d have that thought and by the time I saw the movie at Best Buy, I’d be like, “Oh yeah, I wanted to see that. Too bad there’s no way I’m paying $14.95 for BARBARELLA.”
I don’t buy movies that cost more than $10. It’s a thing.
I also don’t frequent video rental shops. It’s another thing.
For a movie that’s been kicking around since before I was born, for all those clips I’ve seen and whose poster I’ve seen a thousand times, I really had no idea what to expect from BARBARELLA. Well, that’s not entirely true. I knew this: 1. Campy. 2. Lots of sex. 3. Jane Fonda’s boobs.
And that’s kinda sorta wrong. In order: 1. It’s campy, but when I think 1960s science-fiction camp, I think Adam West’s Batman, and there’s no BLAM!, POW!, or even a KA-POW! in BARBARELLA. 2. There’s plenty of sex, but other than Barbarella’s turn in Durand Durand’s “Ex-sex-sive” Machine, where we see her face as the machine seeks to kill her through intense sexual pleasure, we only get the before and after of the sexual encounter. 3. Yeah nothing really wrong here at all. It even works somehow when they spend the opening title sequence cheekily hiding her naughty bits with the swirling letters that make up the credited names, only to have the sequence end as she falls onto her shag carpet, exposing her breasts for the camera. It’s like, Oh, this is going to be sexy fun and not sexy erotic.
After stripping in zero G during the opening titles, the President of Earth sends Barbarella (Jane Fonda) off to bring back the scientist Durand Durand (I vow to write this entire piece without making a single cheap Duran Duran joke) who built a weapon, which is a big deal because the Earth exists in a state of elongated peace. It has the feeling of a kind of sterile place we’d live if all of the phony academics and soccer moms ruled the world via the edicts of the Parents Television Council. You know, it would be the most bland existence in all existences. Barbarella wants to know how anyone could do such a thing as make a weapon, which you makes you instantly realize she’s going to get talked into getting naked.
And then you realize she’s already naked, and you’re thankful this film was made in the ’60s and not the ’90s because when this attitude pops up in the ’90s it’s in Demolition Man.
Fun Fact: Remember laserdiscs? Yeah, I owned three laserdiscs: Jurassic Park (which was awesome), Aliens (which was awesome), and Demolition Man (which was a movie).
Barbarella goes off to find Durand Durand and gets captured by creepy kids, tied up, and attacked by dolls with chomping metal teeth. The scene isn’t scary or even that creepy, and the teeth don’t really chomp as much they open and close, but that’s not the point. The point is that these slow-moving, pointy-teeth-chomping pre-Chuckies get all bitey with Barbarella’s fishnet and legs, meaning we get to see more skin and feel bad for our damsel in distress.
She’s saved from her predicament by Mark Hand, who’s job is to, I don’t know, capture the escaped kids or something. He’s a mountain man type of loner, except one with a frozen pond instead of a mountain, but he saves Barbarella and offers to bring her back to her crashed spaceship in his … stagecoach/viking ship/sex van. As a stagecoach/viking ship, it totally sucks. As a sex van, it’s pretty epic. Barbs is incredibly thankful and tells him that she’s sure her government will give him money for his deed, but he cares nothing for this Earth recompense; he wants to sex Barbarella. She’s up for it, but only knows of Earth sex, which is done with pharmaceuticals, hand contact only, and no exchange of fluids. The rugged escaped-kid-capturer isn’t having that and so she agrees to do it the old fashioned way (all off camera) and when we come back Barbarella is all dreamy, de-virginized afterglow.
Fonda plays Barbarella’s sexual awakening like, “That was fun. More please.” She meets Pygar, an angel with easily one of the dumbest names in cinematic history and he’s blind and can’t fly anymore because he’s lost the will to try, which makes you instantly realize that our heroine is going to sex up his world and he’s gonna fly her to the evil city of SoGo. And she does and he does – after they do it in a bird’s nest.
Because in this world, angels live in bird’s nests. Then again, maybe he’s just a bird person, but not the cool Flash Gordon bird people (DIIIIIIIIIIIIVE!!!!!!!!!!!!), but the placid, physically beautiful and mentally empty bird people that might as well by angels.
In the city of SoGo, everything not evil has been banished. Barbarella is dragged away by two dudes who want to have their way with her, but she’s not into their brutish assumptions. After the dull sequence with Pygar and Marcel Marceau that preceded the nest loving, the castle scenes are effective enough, favoring a quick pace over any kind of deep, narrative logic. (There’s a scene where she’s sentenced to death by bird attack and she escapes by a trap door opening, sending her down a tube, and tumbling into the headquarters of the resistance. Just go with it.) That kind of deep thinking would be against the ethos of the film, which is more about be happy, be free, have plenty of fun sex.
Just so we all know that physical sex is better than the pharmaceutical psycho sex, Barbarella is willing once again to show her thanks by laying down with Dildano, head of the resistance, but he wants to do it the Earth way because he’s not a savage, so they do it the Earth way and Barbs is not really into that scene anymore.
She’s eventually captured by Durand Durand, who goes by Concierge in SoGo, and he puts her through his Ex-sex-ive Machine. Think of it like an iron lung, except you’re not enclosed by thick steel, but by a set of window blinds. At the foot of the machine, Durand plays keyboard, and the music machine then removes all your clothes as it stimulates you to such ecstatic heights of pleasure that you die. Awesome. Except Barbarella doesn’t die because she’s more free and sexual than all the evil people in SoGo and she absolutely loves it and breaks the machine.
Then she realizes the Concierge is Durand and he traps her with the Great Tyrant (think Black Queen of the Hellfire Club, Pretty Pretty) and the Mathmos (this evil sea that lives under the city, which is veritably sci-fi cool) tries to swallow them. Only Barbarella is so good that the Mathmos doesn’t want to contaminate itself with her, so it forms a protective bubble around her and the Tyrant, and they escape, carried away in the arms of a dopily smiling Pygar.
Miffed, Barbarella wants to know why Pygar would save the Tyrant after all the mean things she did to him, and Pygar’s mouth says, “Angels have no memories,” but his smile says, “Threesome.”
The movie is a fun watch; it neither takes itself too seriously no devolves into obnoxious camp (Rocky Horror, Top Gun, anything with Liza Minelli that didn’t also star Jason Bateman.).
The biggest problem that I had with the movie is that while it’s nice to see a woman’s sexual liberation positively portrayed, it’s a shame that the film continually robs her of her agency, turning her into the damsel in distress that gets saved and screws her savior.
Girls on Film can’t have it all in BARBARELLA, unfortunately.