Dino De Laurentis' adaptation of Jean-Claude Forest's comic book heroine, Barbarella, makes for bizarre and conflicted sci-fi movie. The film is not especially funny for a comedy, and takes itself too seriously as camp or parody. As a sci-fi, yes, there are space ships, a distant planet and some ray guns. But, as in the original graphic novels, they are mere trappings to what is essentially a sex-crazed fantasy. A cluster of script writers adapted Forest's basic story elements (such as they were), into a marginally coherent screenplay. They kept the basic premise of having the main character have sex with one character after another. This campy, surreal quality has made the film a cult favorite for some.
Quick Plot Synopsis
After a pointless striptease under the credits, Barbarella (Jane Fonda) is given an assignment by the President of the Earth. She must find the evil scientist Durand-Durand, who has created a super-weapon and threatens to reintroduce war to the flaccidly love-obsessed universe. A magnetic storm causes Barb to crash on the planet. She is quickly captured by feral children with biting dolls. She is rescued by Mark Hand. He takes her to Professor Ping who can fix her ship, but it will take weeks. Barb's new friend is the "angel" Pygar, who lost his will to fly until he's "enjoyed" Barb. Pygar flies her to the evil city of Sogo, battling leather guards in flying pods. Inside the city of sin, they meet several characters including The Concierge, the Black Queen and Dildano. The city of Sogo derives its power from the blob-like energy being beneath the city: The Mathmos. It feeds on evil, so the citizens commit sins and crimes continually so as to feed The Mathmos, and thereby power their city. Barb loses Pygar. She is captured and sentenced to death by birds. She is rescued by Dildano, a semi-inept revolutionary. He gives her the invisible key to the black queen's dream chamber. Durand-Durand captures Barb. He tries to kill her his extreme pleasure machine with an overdose of orgasm, but she overloads his machine. Plan B, he locks her into the queen's chamber, so he can take over. He is then free to conquer Sogo, and then the universe with his positronic ray. Just as Durand is crowning himself, Dildano and the Labyrinth people stage their attack. To thwart all, the queen releases the Mathmos. The energy blob rises up and destroys the city. The Mathmos can't touch Barb, or Pygar, as they're pure innocence. Pygar flies off carrying Barb and the queen, to find Barb's ship. Roll credits. The End.
Why is this movie fun?
Actually, I found the movie annoying in general. Yet, there were a few scenes and tropes which held some deeper thoughtfulness. For example, the people wandering the labyrinth, slowly being absorbed into its walls. But, it's too easy to lose these moments in the juvenile preoccupation with Barbarella in post-orgasm glow. Who cares?
Cold War Angle
This has to be read between the sex-obsessed lines, but we do have an evil power and a doomsday weapon threatening to unleash war upon a peaceful universe. However, no one will think that this metaphor is the prime plot motivator.
Graphic Beginnings -- Barbarella started out as a French graphic novel (comic book) by Jean-Claude Forest, in the early 60s. She was introduced to American audiences in 1966. Her various scantily-clad adventures managed to somehow always be sex-obsessed. Even as a comic book, they were clearly adult entertainment (not your childhood Superman comics). De Laurentis' film version used some of the comic series characters and situations, but with very little explanation. An example would be Stomoxys and Glossina, the evil twin sisters. They get a few minutes on screen, but only those who know of the comics would know who they were.
Waiting for Bardot -- Forest's original drawings of Barbarella strongly resembled Brigitte Bardot -- Vadim's wife from '52 to '57, and favorite of France. Bardot starred as the sex-kitten in some films written or directed by Vadim while they were married. By the time Barbarella was in the works, Bardot would hardly have taken the role. Vadim's new wife since 1965 was Jane Fonda. Jane was dolled up as a big-hair blonde (ala Bardot) and put into costumes befitting a sex-kitten, though Fonda was less amply endowed than Bardot, or Forest's drawings.
Expensive Hobby -- Where the graphic novels (inexpensive to produce) had some popularity, the movie version was a tough sell. Imdb cites a production cost of 9 million dollars. Shot entirely on sound stages, with vast sets, elaborate props and scads of costumes, this figure seems plausible. Financially, Barbarella was a huge loser. Panned at the box office, and by critics, it had an income of only 6 hundred thousand dollars.
Confilct of Interests The film suddenly created Fonda as a sex-kitten actress. The role and costumes virtually guaranteed that whoever played it would be the new sex-kitten. Fonda played the role well. But she quickly shunned the role in favor of feminism and political activism. She was not yet embroiled in her Hanoi Jane morass. Fonda got fussier about her movie roles and went on to higher dramatic acclaim -- perhaps narrowly avoiding the typecasting that befell other screen sex-kittens.
Bottom line? Barbarella has the vast complexity of a better sci-fi dystopia film, but is constantly deflated by obsession over implied sex scenes and efforts to expose Fonda's breasts. As porn, it fails. As comedy, it fails. As fantasy, it's too confused, or ill-explained. Fans of serious sci-fi can save the annoyance. Fans of Jane's young breasts will probably stay interested. As an example of 60s "Free Love" hippy thinking, it's a massive dose -- shag carpet, lava lamps and all.