Hawkward Thoughts: Barbarella, Psychedella

Date: 
Sun, 2017/11/05

In the 1960’s era of war over territorial disputes, political standpoints, gender equality, drug influence, and groovy vibes, director Roger Vadim’s 1968 science fiction film, Barbarella, burst onto screen as a satirical affront to all of these issues and more. Actress Jane Fonda, as Barbarella, is a stunningly beautiful and naïve space explorer from a halcyon future Earth, where there has not been fighting for so many generations that the words for it have almost been forgotten. Barbarella, shortly after a shameless, zero-gravity strip during the introductory credits, is tasked by the president of Earth to find the rogue scientist, Durand-Durand, inventor of the superweapon, the Positronic Ray, and to bring him back from the far-off Tau Ceti region with the use of her shag carpeted spacecraft and a collection of energy weapons. From this point on, Barbarella’s adventure consists of a conglomerate of poorly constructed, episodic plots mashed together with plenty of candid sex scenes and unintelligible political and social commentary, or as one New York Times reviewer of the time, Renata Adler, coldly summarized, “All the gadgetry of science fiction—which is not really science fiction, since it has no poetry or logic—is turned to all kinds of jokes, which are not jokes, but hard-breathing, sadistic thrashings, mainly at the expense of Barbarella, and of women.” A retrospective wasn’t needed for viewers to understand what could no longer be tolerated in film, and the states and situations in which Barbarella finds herself hint at the ongoing resistance of the political and social patriarchies against the changes present in 1960’s America.

Barbarella, in and of herself, was supposed to be viewed by the audience as a starry-eyed symbol of innocence and utopian values; it was all part of the joke. With the war in Vietnam nearing its climax, the audience knew that the peace talks and flowery ideologies of college students and of unwashed vagabonds in bright clothing weren’t going to be able to pull them out of their predicament. Yet, while making fun of the concept that peace, love, and sex could lead people and nations out of nuclear war, the film dreams about how nice such a world would be. In recompense for its social tact, Barbarella rides right on the midline of the political zeitgeist of the decade, providing both cynical and wishful commentary for a population with contradictory outlooks.

Whist I could not exactly suggest this epic as a suitable date night film, it is definitely worth a watch if you are interested in just how far film has come in terms of gender roles, thematic devices, what constitutes as good science fiction, or simply if you haven’t had your daily dose of fluorescent lava lamps, big hair, and good vibes.