Barbarella was not a hit when it was first released with either critics or the general audience. Later, it became somewhat fashionable to like this film. It has often been described as a “cult film,” but that description is doubtful. Cult films belong to outsiders, or are guilty pleasures for certain niche communities. Barbarella seems to have been adopted by people inside the film community. The critical score on Rotten Tomatoes is significantly higher than the audience score. A cult film would probably have a reversed score as most of the audience rating the movie would be from the cult following, especially for a movie from 1968. The only cult giving this movie high marks seems to be movie critics.
I don’t mean to fault these critics. There is something fascinating about this film. It is a window into the time in which it was made, or at least one small section of that time. The music, the set design, colors, and the action are all very much dated. The proper word at the time for everything happening onscreen would be “trippy.” But being an interesting artifact doesn’t make something a good movie. Barbarella is and has always been a terrible movie.
Jane Fonda’s character is only skilled in sex, which is odd because she comes from a planet where nobody does that anymore. The director clearly feels that worshipping Barbarella’s apparently unique sexuality is enough to drive the story. He was, at the time, married to Jane Fonda, so there is that. But this is a PG movie, not a soft-core porn flick. (It should be noted that the currently available version probably contains more nudity than the original release in the United States, though it is still marked PG).
While Jane Fonda has shown in other movies that she is a very talented actress, not much of that comes across here. The rest of the cast is flat and uninteresting. The one exception is David Hemmings in a small role. He doesn’t really make it funny, but he showcases how it could have been hilarious in a better context.
This is a bad movie. That was the initial consensus of pretty much everyone, and they were right. The later revisionist critiques that have elevated it somewhat have nothing to do with the quality of the movie and everything to do with how it represents that moment in time. I give this movie one star out of five.