"Flash Gordon" was released in 1980 by Universal Pictures, the same studio that released the original 3 "Flash Gordon" serials in the 1930s. The film's score is one of the first to be primarily composed and performed by a rock band, namely Queen.
The film has been classified as camp, similar to the 1960s TV series Batman, and since its premiere has become a cult classic.
The story opens with the voice of an alien ruler, namely Ming, complaining of being bored. He asks his second-in-command, General Klytus, if he has a plaything to offer him; Klytus has an immediate answer, "an obscure body in the SK system", known to its inhabitants as Earth. Using his power ring, Ming starts a series of disasters, everything from tidal waves to earthquakes and even “hot hail”. When asked if he would destroy the planet, Ming replies he “likes to play with things a while... before annihilation”.
Meanwhile on Earth in a town called Dark Harbor, New York Jets football star quarterback “Flash” Gordon is waiting to board a plane to head back home when the “hot hail” begins, but he pays little attention to it. Moments later he meets Dale Arden, a girl he had seen the night before but had no contact with. After boarding the same plane, the disasters get progressively worse, caused by the moon being out of phase sending moon rock fragments plummeting to the Earth, according to the research of disgraced scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol). For many years, Zarkov believed an attack on Earth was imminent, but his predictions and warnings were ignored. Nonetheless, Zarkov was secretly working on a rocket ship in which he set the coordinates for the source of the attacks.
Meanwhile, the atmospheric anomalies worsen still, so much so to the point where a freak squall blows out the plane’s cockpit windows pulling the pilots out of the plane to their deaths. Flash and Dale rush to the cockpit and take the controls, and promptly crash land in Dr. Zarkov’s greenhouse. They then escape from the plane and begin searching for a phone when they meet Zarkov, who directs them to a phone- inside his rocket ship. He then pulls a gun on the two and reveals his true intentions, to fly to where the attacks are coming from and stop them. Flash tries to wrest the gun from Zarkov, but unwittingly throws him against the controls that fire the rocket. Having no other choice, the scientist and the two reluctant travelers become instant allies as the rocket hurtles its way through outer space toward the planet Mongo, where the three are promptly arrested and taken prisoner.
Mongo comes across as an Imperial police state, run along the lines of autocratic regimes such as Nazi Germany but with a retro looking high tech aesthetic. Ming and Klytus, the head of the secret police, maintain their hold on power by surreptitiously encouraging violent conflicts between neighboring moon colonies, especially Arboria, a swamp-like moon ruled by Prince Barin and Prince Vultan, who rules the Hawk Men.
Flash, Dale and Zarkov are brought before Ming himself, who vilifies them for embarking on a voyage without knowing where they were going- or what they were doing. He then motioned for a reluctant Dale to come closer. Aiming his power ring at her, she goes into a hypnotic, sensual trance. Ming orders her to be removed and prepared for his pleasure, but Flash openly defies Ming and picks a fight with his guards only to be accidentally knocked out by Zarkov. Ming, after refusing his daughter Princess Aura’s request to give Flash to her, and ordering Zarkov into Klytus’ custody for reconditioning, repays Flash’s defiance in kind by ordering his execution by gas chamber that evening. The execution was a televised high ceremony which Dale and Zarkov were both forced to watch, and which caused Dale to faint.
Following the execution, Princess Aura, still wanting Flash for herself, and Ming’s Chief Surgeon, one of her lovers, arrive at the temporary mausoleum where they open Flash’s coffin and resurrect him. Aura and Flash then beat a hasty retreat to Arboria, kingdom of Prince Barin (Dalton), yet another lover of Aura’s. En route to her spaceship they pass the room where Dr. Zarkov is about to undergo a memory-erasing treatment. During this time Ming explains to Zarkov why he has decided to destroy Earth. Ming’s reasoning is relatively simple, because of Earth’s evolutionary advancements he viewed Earth as a threat to his absolute power, ergo, its destruction.
During the flight to Arboria, Flash coerces Aura to teach him telepathy so that he can contact Dale and let her know he’s still alive. Relieved, Dale informs Flash she’s locked in Ming’s bedchamber. Flash suggests that she fake him out, which she eventually does and escapes, only to run into the “reconditioned” Dr. Zarkov. Unaware that Klytus and General Kala are listening, Dale tells Zarkov that Flash is still alive and in Arboria. Believing that Zarkov will lead them to Flash, they unseal Ming City and allow Dale and Zarkov to escape. As they ride to Arboria, Zarkov confides in Dale that the brain drain was for naught as he was able to retain his memory completely intact by, as he was going under, reciting Shakespeare, formulas of Einstein, “even a song by the Beatles”. Their celebration is short-lived, however, as they are captured by a band of Prince Vultan’s Hawkmen and taken to his kingdom.
Meanwhile, Klytus informs Ming of Flash’s resurrection, and that he has suspicions as to who did it (but stops short of naming names), and asks Ming’s authority to pursue the investigation his own way. Ming agrees without reservation, saying "Stop at nothing!".
Aura and Flash arrive at the forest moon Arboria during an initiation ceremony in which, much to Flash’s disbelief, the pledge is sacrificed. Barin’s mood turns rancid when Aura asks him to keep Flash in Arboria until Ming has his way with Dale, but Barin’s anger is more directed at Flash, thinking he wants Aura as well. Accordingly, when Aura leaves, he throws Flash into a cage and lowers him into the swamp, but not before Flash plants a seed of thought in Barin’s head saying, “I’m not your enemy! Ming is! And you know it yourself!”
Barin then decides to lure Flash into a trap by sending one of his Tree men, Fico, into the cage with a key to get out. The man tells Flash there are weapons in the temple, but when they get there the trap is sprung. The Green Father tells Flash that a stranger in the temple must try the Wood Beast or die. Flash and Barin take turns inserting their arms into holes in a giant tree stump with the Beast hiding inside, but Flash tricks Barin and escapes into the swamp, and Barin soon follows in pursuit. He catches up with Flash, but before he can kill him, the two are taken prisoner by more of Vultan’s Hawkmen.
Meanwhile, Aura returns to Ming City only to be taken prisoner and interrogated by Klytus and General Kala. Refusing to confess, Klytus orders her torture. When Aura reminds Klytus she is a princess, he contacts Ming, who allows the torture to continue. They eventually get a full confession and Ming orders Aura to be exiled to the ice moon Frigia for a year- immediately after Ming’s wedding to Dale.
Flash and Barin are taken to Vultan’s kingdom, where Flash and Dale are briefly reunited. Barin angrily reminds Vultan of Ming’s Law, which states that no Prince of Mongo shall be held prisoner or given for ransom without the right to trial by combat. When Vultan asks Barin who he wishes to fight, he picks Flash. The two are led to the fighting platform, a free-floating pivoting ring with retractable spikes and no barriers, only thin air underneath them. The two fight furiously with only bullwhips as weapons. Flash narrowly wins, but rescues Barin from falling off the platform. Both exhausted, Flash extends his hand to Barin in friendship. Realizing not only that Flash is on his side, but he also has no interest in Aura, Barin gratefully accepts Flash’s hand and extends his loyalty.
But victory is short-lived as Klytus, who had been following the Hawkmen carrying Barin and Flash, arrives to arrest Barin and Zarkov for treason. Flash and Barin double team Klytus and throw him onto the fight platform spikes, killing him. Seeing this, Vultan, who panics, raises his staff to kill Flash, but Barin dissuades him saying now is the perfect time to fight back against Ming and his army, but Vultan, fearing more for his own life, orders his people to evacuate taking anything and everything they can carry. They fly away leaving Barin, Flash, Dale and Zarkov behind, and Ming’s command ship arrives shortly afterward. Ming orders only Barin, Zarkov and Dale are to be taken aboard the ship. He then offers Flash a kingdom of Mongo to rule, but when he hints the kingdom he is to receive is his own planet Earth under Ming’s rule- the people more agreeable after all the disasters, added to which Ming reveals his intention to marry Dale, Flash refuses. Ming returns to his ship and gives the order to destroy Vultan’s kingdom with Flash still on it. But as the bolts of energy tear the place apart, Flash finds one of the Hawkmen’s Rocket Cycles, and takes off, once again cheating death.
Meanwhile, Vultan, having taken refuge with his Hawkmen in Arboria, broods about deserting Flash, believing he is dead. But Flash calls him using the comm-link on the Rocket Cycle. Flash tells Vultan that Ming has Dale, Zarkov and Barin, Vultan humbly thanks a surprised Flash for “giving a dumb old bird a second chance” and sends him a homing beam to find them and plan their next move.
Back on Mongo, Barin and Zarkov face execution for treason, Aura has a change of heart after her father allows her to be tortured, and Dale is being prepared for her wedding to Ming. As that is going on Flash, on the Rocket Cycle and alone, flies toward Ming City. General Kala, informed of his approach, orders weapons to open fire at him. When he beats a quick retreat, Kala orders Ajax, an Imperial rocket, to go after him and bring back his body. Ajax catches up with him just as he makes his way into a giant cloud. The rocket goes in after him, only to find Flash with Vultan and his entire army of Hawkmen waiting in ambush on the other side. After a huge battle, the Hawkmen, heavily outnumbering Ajax’s army, seize control of the rocket and, with Flash at the control, make their way to Ming City.
Back in Ming City, Princess Aura overpowers her guard and makes her way to the execution chamber freeing Barin and Zarkov. To cover up, Aura rushes to her father’s wedding while Barin and Zarkov head for the control center, where General Kala orders all weapons to fire upon Ajax as it is out of its flight pattern and also orders Ming City’s protective lightning field to be charged up. Barin and Zarkov rush in ordering Kala to take them to Ming, but she refuses by firing on Zarkov, but Barin warns Zarkov in time and kills Kala in return. Zarkov warns Barin that they need to deactivate the lightning field. Barin heads toward the source in the tower while Zarkov “holds the fort” in the control center. Meanwhile, with the firing increasing, Vultan and his Hawkmen are ready to bail out from Ajax, but Flash stays at the control. Vultan reluctantly agrees.
On Ming City, Ming and a defiant Dale’s wedding has just begun. As Ming puts the ring on Dale’s finger, the lightning field deactivates to reveal Ajax plummeting toward the temple. There’s a mad dash for safety as Ajax smashes into the sanctuary, and whose lance-like bow impales Ming himself right through his midsection. The impact throws Flash clear of the rocket uninjured. Now holding the upper hand, he grabs a dead guard’s sword and gives Ming an ultimatum- call off his attack on Earth or die. Ming aims his power ring at Flash, but it seems to have no effect. With his power fading, he aims his ring at himself and vanishes. Barin and Vultan and his Hawkmen arrive, Flash is again reunited with Dale and a huge victory celebration ensues. Vultan announces to the multitude that Barin is the rightful heir to the now-vacant throne. King Barin shows his gratitude to Flash, appoints Vultan as the new General of the Armies, and decrees that everyone live together in peace. He then invites Flash and Dale to stay on Mongo. When asked her opinion, Dale, being from New York City, thinks the place is a little too quiet for her.
The last scene focuses on Ming’s empty power ring, and an unidentified hand picking it up as the words "the end" fade onto the screen, followed by a question mark, and Ming’s evil laughter.
- Ming the Merciless: "Klytus, I'm bored. What plaything can you offer me today?"
- General Klytus: "An obscure body in the SK system, your Majesty. The inhabitants refer to it as the planet... Earth."
- Flash Gordon: "Any problem, fellas?"
- Dale Arden: "Would you do us a favor and leave them alone? They're busy driving the bus."
- Princess Aura: "Come along, Fellini."
- Prince Vultan: "The fabled ice jewel of Frigia! We seized it in battle from the royal crypt."
- Prince Barin: "Stop! The ice jewel is our tribute, not Vultan's."
- Prince Thun: "Your majesty! We, the people of Ardentia, we have suffered since you blasted our kingdom. I can offer you nothing this year except my loyalty."
- Munson: "Doctor Zarkov, there's no sun! It's 8:24 in the morning! And there's no sun!"
- Dr. Hans Zarkov: "No sun? Check the angular vector of the moon."
- Flash Gordon: Sam J. Jones
- Dale Arden: Melody Anderson
- Ming the Merciless: Max von Sydow
- Dr. Hans Zarkov: Topol
- Princess Aura: Ornella Muti
- Prince Barin: Timothy Dalton
- Prince Vultan: Brian Blessed
- Klytus: Peter Wyngarde
- General Kala: Mariangela Melato
- Prince Thun: George Harris
- Arborian Priest: John Osborne
- Fico: Richard O'Brien
- Luro: John Hallam
- Zogi, the High Priest: Philip Stone
- Serving Girl: Suzanne Danielle
- Munson: William Hootkins
- Director: Mike Hodges
- Script by Alex Raymond (characters), Michael Allin (adaptation), Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (screenplay)