ScreeningNotes’s review published on Letterboxd:
"Make love? But no one's done that for hundreds of centuries!"
Barbarella is one of the most unique space adventures I've ever seen, and as unique movies often do, it has me incredibly torn. On both technical and thematic levels there are opposing forces pulling me in opposite directions, and like four horses wrenching at my limbs, Barbarella threatens to have my brain drawn and quartered.
Let's start with the simple stuff. The movie looks very good on screen. It's vividly colored, and the set and costume design are both intricate and detailed. The model work for the spaceships is obvious, and by today's standards most of the special effects look quaint at best (although the final set piece in the "chamber of dreams" is quite striking). But when the action is grounded and not relying on projection tricks, the evocative Technicolor is allowed to shine and draws the film into a world of its own.
The atmosphere is also surprisingly consistent, and while it never succeeds in dealing with serious subject matter, it does keep everything bright and sunny rather effectively. The soundtrack in particular is classic 60's pop and really brings the movie to life each time it makes an appearance. But it's not always clear if the film is trying to be light-hearted.
In fact, the only thing more difficult than taking this movie seriously is trying to figure out if all the comedy is intentional. The dialogue is silly and nonsensical and is delivered awkwardly by its cast. The progression of the plot is scattered and aimless, as if the writers simply wanted to show their protagonist in a series of locations from the source material and then be on their way (there are a whopping 7 writing credits on this 100 minute film). For all its haphazard mis-stepping I'd still readily call most of the movie "fun", but if you go in expecting a conventionally enjoyable film with a traditional narrative structure you're only going to be disappointed.
But of all my internal conflicts regarding this movie, none is more intensely dividing than its attempted engagement with sexual politics. Barbarella is clearly meant to be a Strong Female Protagonist Brand™ heroine, but the movie objectifies her at every turn. It creates a world where Earth has been pacified and its inhabitants have supposedly been purged of their insecurities, while at the same time characters make suggestive sexualized puns about meeting Barbarella "in the flesh" and having her give "mouth to mouth". It's a clear case of wanting to have its cake and eat it to, or perhaps more appropriately wanting to have its feminism and objectify it too. If Barbarella is "queen of the galaxy," then it's a galaxy which is ruled instead by its king.
But even with all its flaws—the clunky dialogue, the hair-brained story, the objectification—it's impossible to deny that Barbarella is a distinctly enjoyable experience. It's an incredibly unique film and one I won't easily forget. I would readily watch it again with the right audience, and as a fan of sci-fi oldies and women in film this unrestrained silliness is just about the perfect type of space oddity for me.