Flash Gordon was released in 1980 by Universal Pictures, the same studio that released the original three Flash Gordon serials in the 1930s. The soundtrack featured music by Queen. It is an extremely camp movie and a cult classic.
The story opens with the voice of an alien ruler, Ming the Merciless, 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 Earthly disasters: tidal waves, earthquakes, and even "hot hail". When asked if he would destroy the planet, Ming replies he likes "to play with things awhile before annihilation".
Meanwhile, on Earth in a town called Dark Harbor, New York, Jets football star Flash Gordon is waiting to board a plane to head home when the "hot hail" begins, but he pays little attention to it. Moments later, he meets Dale Arden. After they board the same plane, the disasters become progressively worse, caused by the moon being out of phase, sending moon fragments plummeting to the Earth, according to the research of disgraced scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov. Zarkov was secretly working on a rocket ship in which he set the coordinates for the source of the attacks. The Earthly anomalies worsen. Flash and Dale rush to the cockpit and take control of the plane, and promptly crash land in Dr. Zarkov’s greenhouse. The scientist and the two reluctant travelers become allies and board Dr. Zarkov’s rocket to the planet Mongo, where the three are promptly 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 conflicts between neighboring moon colonies, especially Arboria, a swamp-like moon ruled by Prince Barin and King Vultan, who rules the Hawk Men.
Flash, Dale and Zarkov are brought before Ming. Aiming his power ring at Dale, she goes into a trance while Ming caresses her, noting her responses. Ming orders her to be removed and prepared for his pleasure, but Flash openly defies Ming and picks a fight, taking down the guards like playing a football game until he gets knocked out. Ming orders Zarkov into Klytus' custody for reconditioning, and repays Flash’s defiance in kind by ordering his execution. Following the execution, Princess Aura and Ming's Chief Surgeon (one of her numerous lovers) arrive at the temporary mausoleum where they open Flash's casket and resurrect him. Aura and Flash quickly retreat to Arboria, kingdom of Prince Barin, yet another lover of Aura's.
During the flight to Arboria, Flash coerces Aura to teach him to use a telepathic communicator so that he can contact Dale and let her know he is still alive. Relieved, Dale informs Flash she is locked in Ming's bedchamber. Dale escapes by drugging one of the slave girls serving wine, and tells Zarkov that Flash is still alive. Dale and Zarkov subsequently escape, with Zarkov revealing that the forced emptying and reprogramming of his mind had failed. Soon after, they are captured by Prince Vultan's Hawkmen and taken to his kingdom. Klytus informs Ming of Flash's resurrection and asks Ming's authority to pursue the investigation; Ming tells him to stop at nothing. Aura and Flash arrive at the forest moon Arboria. When Aura leaves, Prince Barin throws Flash into a cage and lowers him into a swamp.
Barin decides to lure Flash into a trap by sending one of his Tree Men into the cage with a key to get out. Flash eventually 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. Aura returns alone to Mingo City, only to be taken prisoner and violently interrogated by Klytus and General Kala.
Flash and Barin are taken to Prince Vultan's kingdom, where Flash and Dale are briefly reunited, but Barin calls for a trial-by-combat with Flash on a tilting platform with spikes. Flash prevails but rescues Barin, which brings them to an alliance with each other. Klytus arrives to arrest Barin and Zarkov for treason. Flash and Barin double-team Klytus and kill him. The Hawkmen flee, leaving Barin, Flash, Dale and Zarkov behind. Ming's ship arrives shortly after Vultan and his Hawkmen leave. Ming orders that only Barin, Zarkov and Dale are to be taken aboard his ship. He then disembarks to parlay with Flash, offering him a kingdom of Mongo to rule. But when Ming hints the kingdom Flash is to receive is his own planet Earth under Ming’s rule, Flash refuses. Ming returns to his ship and gives the order to destroy Vultan's kingdom with Flash still there. But as the bolts of energy tear the place asunder, Flash finds one of the Hawkmen's rocket cycles, and uses it to escape.
Back on Mongo, Dale is being prepared for her wedding to Ming in Ming City. Just as the wedding is about to begin, Flash approaches alone on the rocket cycle. General Kala orders weapons to open fire at him. Kala orders War Rocket Ajax, an Imperial rocket, to go after Flash and bring back his body. After a huge battle, the Hawkmen, heavily outnumbering Ajax's crew, seize control of the rocket and, with Flash taking the helm, make their way toward Ming City. In Ming City, Princess Aura overpowers her guard and makes her way to the execution chamber, freeing Barin and Zarkov. To disguise her actions, 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 proper flight pattern, and also orders Ming City's protective lightning field to be charged up.
On Ming City, Ming and a defiant Dale's wedding has just begun. Just as Ming places the ring on Dale's finger, the lightning field deactivates to reveal Ajax plummeting toward the temple. There is a frantic dash for safety as Ajax smashes into the sanctuary, and its lance-like bow impales Ming right through his midsection. The impact throws Flash clear of the rocket, dazed but uninjured. 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. The newly-appointed King Barin shows his gratitude to Flash, appoints Vultan as the new Army General, and decrees that everyone live together in peace.
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.
- Flash Gordon: "Any problem, fellas?"
- Dale Arden: "Would you do us a favor and leave them alone? They're busy driving the bus."
- Dr. Hans Zarkov: "No sun? Check the angular vector of the moon."
- Ming the Merciless: "Klytus, I'm bored. What plaything can you offer me today?"
- 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."
- General Klytus: "An obscure body in the SK system, your Majesty, known to its inhabitants as Earth."
- 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!"
- 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
- King 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)