If you're a fan of Jane Fonda in her 1960s sex kitten mode and far out Euro-funded science fiction, then your dreams come true on July 3 when BARBARELLA bursts out of its bra and onto Blu-ray for the first time. There is little doubt you'll need an acquired taste to enjoy this charitably termed cult classic, since director Roger Vadim's '60s-style swank wars in space has a lot going against it in terms of viable cinematic storytelling. FilmEdge can't lie: BARBARELLA's Blu-ray value rests entirely on its star's role as the Queen of Camp in the galaxy, but we cannot deny this will hold value for all interested parties in a fur-upholstered foray into kitschy sci-fi.
BARBARELLA's roots — and we're not talking about Fonda's copious red bouffant here — trace back to Jean Claude Forest's controversial adult comic books published as a stand alone series under the same name in 1964. Barb's unapologetic sexual emancipation which carries through to Vadim's film via his and co-screenwriter Terry Southern's galactically vapid script. Modern viewers who expose themselves to BARBARELLA here on Blu-ray may be a bit surprised at the pervasively sexual tone of the film despite its PG rating in the U.S. While sex is often the topic, like every other aspect of the film its often played for camp laughs in a very juvenile, playful tone. In this sense, the film is rather akin to a 1968 teen discovering his father's Playboy magazine for the first time: nowhere near as explicit as he might guess, but obviously a titillating experience. The plot is so simple the movie often takes time off from it to let characters fondle Fonda again, and the science fiction is a close encounter of the silliest kind. Then again, none of that is BARBARELLA's point.
The absurd plot resembles something like this: the President of Earth (Claude Dauphin) assigns voluptuous space cadet Barbarella (Fonda) to save a kidnapped doctor (Milo O'Shea) who is supposedly held prisoner in the evil clutches of the the Black Queen of Sogo (Anita Pallenberg). The doctor, Durand Durand [yes, he's the inspiration of the 1980's pop band's name], was inventor of the Positron ray, a laser-like ultimate weapon that could now fall into the hands of the evil Queen on planet Tau Ceti and threaten an otherwise peace-loving galaxy. Now don't waste your time asking why anyone would invent a weapon when the entire galaxy is devoted to peace, love and sex in a groovy way, or why the Queen hasn't gotten the message — the point is that Fonda does a "zero-G" striptease out of her spacesuit to open the film and a lingering glimpse of her breasts are the only rationale in effect. Strip, sex, repeat are the three acts of BARBARELLA and they no doubt remain the lasting appeal of Vadim's otherwise forgettable, if not regrettable film.
If BARBARELLA producer Dino De Laurentiis sounds familiar (beyond his granddaughter being TV cook Giada), it's because he also produced the equally Euro-styled, campy remake of FLASH GORDON in 1980, which proved only slightly less silly in tone and equally psychedelic in its production design. Vadim with designer Mario Garbuglia slather their film with furry, clear plastic, shag carpet layers of what passed for '60s futurism, a look that was already dated and grotesque before a decade had passed. With its oil wheel projection mock ups of the galaxy and organically impractical spaceships, BARBARELLA is Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY produced in the back of a pothead's van. Strangely, the fact that Vadim so boldly shoves this aesthetic into viewers' eyeballs and serves up generous dollops of Fonda in the flesh makes the film stand out if only for how audaciously, ambitiously it yearns to stand out. Much like Durand's pipe organ-like "death by orgasm" torture device, BARBARELLA exists and in its own odd way survives simply because its an Excessive Machine churning out huge helpings of highly non-nutritious filmmaking.
Fortunately Jane Fonda never takes her role as space siren seriously at all, which demonstrates the adult side of her comedic charm. Likewise O'Shea attempts to ham up his role as the pseudo-villain of the piece, but the script badly hobbles any reasonable facsimile of human motivation or sensibility in Durand to make his threat level register any higher than Laughable Lemon Yellow. Despite his striking visual impact as the winged angel Pygar, sinewy and stoic John Phillip Law spends much more time posing in his feathered Speedo than ever having an impact on the story — even if Vadim and Southern repeatedly rely on Pygar as the deus ex machina solution to a number of Barbarella's closer scrapes. He also serves as a wire-strung contrast to Fonda's countless costume changes through the film, inspired by the flimsiest of plot events and always focused on getting her undressed as often as possible to bed fur-clad, nest-buliding, revolutionary males... the film's calling card.
One might construe it as clever that Vadim never attempts to make these silly, elliptical sex scenes truly erotic — the director having shot that particular wad in Fonda's opening striptease-on-glass which plainly can't be topped. If that floating Follies Bergere hooked your attention, any future interest is gravy for Vadim's semi-satire.
Jane Fonda 'suffers' le petit mort from Durand's Excessive Machine in BARBARELLA
What does work entirely after all these years is Paramount's upgrade of BARBARELLA to this surprisingly excellent hi-def Blu-ray edition. The 1080p transfer preserving the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio via MPEG-4 codec is nearly flawless, especially for a film over 40 years old although the splendid, even color range throughout highlights Barb's ugly shag-ship interior furs as faithfully as it does her creamy skin tones and broad palette of planetary locations. Image detail is amazingly sharp with little-to-no grainy textures or color noise which really shows off moments of quality set design as in Durand's gray-tone torture chamber where Fonda stands out like a warm flame of sexual delight against his lifeless realm. While BARBARELLA's sound design isn't up to modern standards of surround sophistication, the disc's Dolby TrueHD mono audio track is fairly robust in its upconversion. Viewers will see and hear a BARBARELLA never experienced before, not even in its original release, and Paramount earns a lot of credit for giving this mediocre film the first class treatment, giving collectors and devotees good reason to add this Blu-ray to their library. Alas, such high marks drop like a stone for BARBARELLA's bonus feature content: the singular, lonely Theatrical Trailer for the film which has also been uplifted to HD quality. Granted, there may be precious little left existing on the bonus side for this French-Italian coproduction, but usually studios will at least gather some uber-fan/historian to host a featurette on film's legacy — cult favorite or otherwise. Much like Fonda in the opening credits, Paramount has stripped its BARBARELLA Blu-ray release to is bare skin which is a missed opportunity to put this bizarre-yet-surviving artifact from the Free Love era in its social, cinematic context.
BARBARELLA exists as an anomaly, a fur-lined time capsule of a social period which seems as alien to us as do the denizens of Tau Ceti do to Fonda's sexy space ranger. A notable cast of co-stars does its best with the wonky script, and director Roger Vadim never shies away from presenting his adaptation for anything more than it is: a frisky love letter to his then-wife Jane Fonda and a vehicle for some quasi-raunchy satire. BARBARELLA is an odd taste which can be acquired, and for those connoisseurs of camp and goofy titillation, this Blu-ray will be a high-definition treat. FilmEdge gives BARBARELLA 1 1/2 stars for its silly plot but 2 1/2 stars for its quality presentation, settling on a solid 2 stars overall.