“The Matrix,” with its black-clad badassery and predictions of a computer-made apocalypse, was a beast that only the loins of the dot-com bubble could birth. Similarly, Roger Vadim’s eroticized space romp “Barbarella” about a cosmic babe who flies around in a shag-carpet spacecraft could only have been made in the late ‘60s.
The babe in question is the eponymous Barbarella (Jane Fonda), a 41st-century woman who is asked by the president of Earth to retrieve Doctor Durand Durand (yes, that’s where they got their name from) and his deadly “positronic ray” from the depths of the unexplored Tau Ceti region.
As you might have guessed from the setup, “Barbarella” is a film that positively reeks of cheese and camp. However, where one film would be happy to act out a merry parody of “Forbidden Planet,” “Barbarella” aspires to be something more.
You see, it’s not just a space confederacy. It’s a demilitarized space confederacy in which there is no conflict and everybody greets each other with “Love.” In other words, it’s as if the hippie movement weren’t doomed to die in the ‘70s.
The film’s main theme is the idea that Barbarella is a “free woman.” Not just free in the “liberated” sense that was gaining momentum back then, but entirely free from the societal morals that we are bound by today.
The first scene of the movie is just her undressing in zero-g to her own theme music. Clothes don’t even enter the picture until the president has hung up.
From the film’s first moments, it is obvious that we are seeing a sex symbol being forged before our very eyes. But I’m not complaining. It it is Jane Fonda, after all.
It would be easy to dismiss “Barbarella” as another film in which an attractive female is paraded around for the benefit of a predominantly male audience, especially since many scenes certainly seem to give that impression. However, saying that would miss the point.
Yes, “Barbarella” has…erm…relations with more than a few men by the time the movie is over, but it’s never a big deal to her.
For example, when Barbarella crashes in the frigid wastes of Tau Ceti and is attacked by a tribe of wild children (just roll with it), she is saved by the Catchman (Ugo Tognazzi), a fur-clad hunk who patrols the ice flows looking for errant kids (no, really, just roll with it).
In thanks, she offers him a generous reward from her government, yet he respectfully declines. His desire is to “make love to her.” If “Barbarella” really was just a sexploitation film, there would have been either a) virginal lamentation or b) some promiscuity. Instead, Barbarella just acquiesces. She’s a little confused as to why someone would do sex “the old way,” but other than that, it’s just another activity to her.
Is “Barbarella” a high-minded film? Yes. Does it execute on those high-minded ideas? Kinda.
Unfortunately, “Barbarella” is hardly the progressive work of speculative fiction that “Star Trek” is. It is, after all, a cult movie whose fans mostly appreciate the cheesiness rather than thoughtful dialogue. Of course, “Barbarella” delivers its message (I wouldn’t be telling you about it if it didn’t), but it does so in a heavy-handed way that it is a little off-putting.
The exposition about how progressive everything is is laid on very thick, and it’s obvious how hard Vadim was trying to make people see the kind of universe he was going for.
Thoughtfulness and dialogue aside, was it a good movie?
Yes, but that yes is heavily appended. Fans of retro sci-fi will absolutely love “Barbarella,” as its campiness and general earnestness place the film squarely in their wheelhouses.
And yet, like most cult films, it was released to mixed criticism. Those who expect it to stand on its own merits as a piece of exemplary filmmaking will be disappointed.
Jane Fonda is good, but a little hammy. All of the other characters are good, but plain. They are the cogs that keep the machine running. They’re just not very remarkable cogs.
Also, the pacing gets a little weird near the end. We finally find out who Durand Durand is about 10 minutes before the credits roll, so the final conflict is a little rushed.
Despite these various shortcomings, I still wholeheartedly recommend “Barbarella.” Look at it this way: even if you’re not a fan of sci-fi, you can at least be a fan of Jane Fonda undressing.