In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, I opened my eyes and then opened Instagram to find a post by @diet_prada with a side-by-side photo of Jane Fonda in the 1968 film and Sydney Sweeney. In both pictures, the bombshells have their heads turned over their left shoulders, perfectly bumped and tousled hair cascading down their backs. And as the old saying goes if you once posed like someone you should play the role they were most famous for. Not only will the HBO alum take on the titular role but she will also be executive producing the film under the wing of Sony Pictures.
Naturally, my reaction falls in line with the usual symptoms of Reboot Fatigue: cynicism, doubt, excitement, obsessive googling with few results, and re-
watching. I want to be excited as a fan of everything 60s and sci-fi–especially when it involves amazing hair–BUT I’m scared! Look at what happened to the campy fun of Barbarella’s descendants, Star Wars* and Dune! They suffered a fate I fear Hollywood is doomed to repeat: air-brushing everything that makes a cult classic special in order to transform it into a big-budget hit.
The 1968 film adaptation of Barbarella (originally a comic book) is certifiably insane, in the best way. Directed by Fonda’s then-husband Roger Vadim, the opening credits sequence shows a space-suit-clad explorer drifting back into the orbit of their dwelling and slowly peeling off layers to reveal…a beautiful young woman, completely naked! The credits themselves scuttle out of her suit, her armpits, her freshly shaken out coiff. Then, still nude, Barbarella receives an important mission through a two-way video screen. She doesn’t seem disturbed by the male President of Earth seeing her this way; she offers to put on “a garment” but according to him “there’s no time!” An earthling named Duran Duran, the inventor of a ray gun, is lost somewhere in the galaxy and war (a phenomenon so ancient to them that the President has to retrieve weapons for Barbarella from a museum) could break out if he is not found!
Dressed in this amazing molded plastic armor, Barbarella boards her fur-lined spaceship (featuring a Greco-Roman bronze nude and Seurat’s Sunday on the Great Lawn) to find Durand. There’s a light-hearted, fun humor from the start, mostly to do with sex. The satisfying thing is that Barbarella is usually in on the joke and very in tune with her sexuality. She is rescued by hot men as many times as she is the rescuer; every time, her peril involves something ripping her already minimal outfits to shreds. She offers sex as a thank you and has to change to yet another Space Age take on a leotard and boots, all equally cool.
We learn funny things about this futuristic Earth along the way, like that no one has sex anymore because “it’s too distracting.” Instead they take these giant blue pills and press their hands together until the deed is done (symbolized by super springy curls). In fact, it’s implied that Barbarella herself has never had real sex until she meets her first rescuer, a Han Solo type who wears all fur and speaks Italian. She’s so transformed from that experience that she continues to sleep with a variety of lovers throughout the galaxy including the main love interest of the story, a blind winged man named ?
There are also numerous suggestions of queerness throughout the movie; though Barb ultimately rejects other women’s advances, it’s not out of the question for most of the planets she visits. Some more whimsical, bizarre, and probably bad if you think too much about them inventions of this world include a hookah-style machine where you smoke “the essence of man” (aka the man swimming in a chamber–is he a slave or this is his kink?) and an orgasm torture machine (yes that’s right). Barb is such a sexual deviant (so says the villain of the film) that she’s somehow able to survive the waves of intense pleasure unlike the other victims strewn about the room. With all of that in mind…what the hell is Sony going to do with this new version?
The question with any reboot is “why now?” Sometimes there’s a very obvious answer, others have to be picked from the haystack of cultural influence only to find there might not be an answer, even unconsciously. Everything repeats, including the 1960s’ space race and threat of nuclear war with Russia–sound familiar? Certain cultural compulsions are bound to tag along: plastic textures, chainmail/beaded layers, and extraterrestrial shapes. But there’s also this new fangled compulsion in Hollywood to “redeem” old movies from the conventions of the past. “Look, we get it! The past was cool but it was also sooo not woke!” say the execs in their board rooms. “If we remake everything, we can profit off of everyone’s curiosity and nostalgia without having to come up with anything truly original and getting to look like neoliberal heroes! It’s a slay all around.” What could be really cool is a quest-style movie ~inspired~ by vintage, female-driven sci-fi movies like Barbarella, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), and Queens of Outer Space (1958). But we can’t rely on Jordan Peele for everything, can we?
If this was a Barbarella Look-a-like Contest conducted amongst celebrities, Sweeney is a strong contender. But just looking sorta like Jane Fonda isn’t enough. I can’t help but point out the irony that a recently outed Trumpy-sympathizer will be stepping in the silver knee-high boots of Jane Fonda, a living legend boasting not one but two arrests for protesting (1) the Vietnam War in 1970 and (2) climate change in 2019, who received her second Oscar in sign language in 1978 because the Academy refused to broadcast with captions. Despite the sexualization of Barbarella, Fonda was both a bona fide sex symbol and a bad ass activist with serious acting chops. Sweeney might carry two out of three aforementioned torches but the remaining one is extremely lacking.
Sweeney has openly discussed the sexualization of Cassie, her role on Euphoria, and how closely it mirrors her high school experience. Considering how sexual Barbarella as a movie and a character, it will definitely be interesting to see how the new production handles this as a theme. Based on Hollywood’s track record, they will most likely try to make this reboot an overtly “girl boss” movie and fail. That narrative is made even stranger when you picture its star at a MAGA hoe-down. I could be proven wrong, and would, in fact, welcome it (for once). Until then, I’ll be enjoying my retro sci-fi the way it was intended: with lots of practical effects, melodramatic delivery, and a big bang-pow of fun.
Not every diamond in the rough needs to be polished; some things are better left bizarre.
*The Star Wars franchise is in another stratosphere beyond “cult classic” and yet, the original movies have such a charm that certainly fades when special effects are prioritized over heart as I would suggest has happened with the most recent revival.
**My PTSD from the 2019 Met Gala is having a flare-up.