Barbarella: Space Angels and other “Great Ideas”

Illustration by Abja Chaudhry

Science fiction is marvelous: from the machinations and imaginative grandeur of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series to the quip-y, flashy action of J.J. Abrams’ incarnation of Star Trek, the genre continues to ever evolve. However, as most must, it has also gone through phases of cringe worthy atrocity. Before the 1970s, most science fiction tended to fall under the umbrella of ‘space opera’.  Much like ‘spaghetti westerns’, ‘space opera’ was originally a term meant to deride and mock the tropes that characterized the genre. Faraway planets, burly heroes, space battles and voluptuous women graced the covers of many a magazine. When Star Trek played every week on T.V, there was at least one instance per episode of Captain Kirk ripping his shirt, punching someone, or passionately embracing a beautiful human or alien (or a combination of the three) – and this most definitely qualified as what most understood to be ‘space opera’. As the rules of fame go, once something becomes popular enough, someone will inevitably parody it. This was one of the apparent purposes of the 1968 film Barbarella.

 Directed by Roger Vadim and starring a very young Jane Fonda, Barbarella features all the devices found in space opera at the time. Sweeping shots of alien worlds, a collection of very buff men (all in various states of undress), ray-gun fights, and extremely beautiful women abound. The heroine, Barbarella, is a space bounty hunter on the trail of Dr. Durand Durand to recover the Positronic Ray, which could potentially enable genocide. On the way, she meets Mark Hand the Iceman, Pygar the angel-man, The Great Tyrant Queen, and eventually Durand Durand.  Each character embodies some separate element of space opera. Mark Hand is the cynical and hirsute space man, strong and Han Solo-esque. Pygar is the innocent and ethereal being, brought low by humanity. The Great Tyrant Queen is the dictator, prepared to take over worlds in her quest for power. Lastly, Dr. Durand Durand is the technology-mad scientist, focused only on the next advancement with no regard to consequence.

Barbarella herself is the ‘woman-who-seems-to-find-herself-in-situations-involving-ripped-clothes-and-a-ray-gun’. She usually manages to stumble out of trouble by sleeping with her opponent or ally, and anything she achieves is done through the use of her ample (yet somehow innocent) charms. Avidly sexist, yes, but incredibly entertaining nonetheless. The film is in no way meant to be taken seriously. It is an LSD trip of appalling special effects, 60s references (i.e. Durand Durand anyone?), barely-veiled sex monikers (one character is hilariously named “Dildano”), and dialogue could have been written by monkeys who were originally trying for Hamlet. One such gem of a dialogue is “a good many dramatic situations begin with screaming….”

In a movie where the opening scene is of Jane Fonda writhing in zero gravity, removing her space suit to a soundtrack incredibly reminiscent of Star Trek: The Original Series’ opening titles, any semblance of coherence is not expected. And in that, Barbarella delivers.  Whether or not on purpose, the film manages to gleefully poke fun at all the common space opera images, with special attention paid to those that allowed the director to make Jane Fonda wear a bikini. Campy and inappropriate, crass and misogynistic, Barbarella was perhaps the first film to spoof the space opera genre. Years later, Rocky Horror Picture Show did much the same to horror. Both are appreciated for their unsubtle nods to their respective categories. And so, it is with the wise words of Pygar that I conclude that Barbarella is worth its weight in giggles: “an angel does not make love, an angel is love.”

-Contributed by Rej Ford