Barbarella is a 1968 science fiction film directed by Roger Vadim, based on the French comic series of the same name by Jean-Claude Forest. The film stars Jane Fonda as the title character, a space-traveller and representative of the United Earth government sent to find scientist Duran-Duran, who has created a weapon that could destroy humanity.
Having expressed an interest in comics and science fiction, Vadim was hired to direct Barbarella after producer Dino De Laurentiis purchased the film rights to the comic series. Vadim attempted to cast several actresses in the title role (including Virna Lisi, Brigitte Bardot, and Sophia Loren) before choosing Fonda, his then-wife. A friend of Vadim’s, Terry Southern, wrote the initial screenplay, which changed considerably during filming and led to seven other writers credited in the final release, including Vadim and Forest, the latter of whom also worked on the film’s production design. The film began shooting immediately following the completion of another De Laurentiis comic adaptation, Danger: Diabolik, with both films sharing several cast and crew members.
The film was particularly popular in the United Kingdom, where it was the year’s second-highest-grossing film. Contemporary film critics praised Barbarella‘s visuals and cinematography, but found its storyline weak after the first few scenes. Although several attempts at sequels, remakes, and other adaptations have been planned, none of these have entered production.
In an unspecified future, space adventurer Barbarella is assigned by the President of Earth to retrieve Dr. Duran Duran from the Tau Ceti planetary system. Duran Duran is the inventor of the laser powered super weapon called the positronic ray which Earth leaders fear will fall into the wrong hands.
Barbarella crash-lands on Tau Ceti’s 16th planet and is knocked unconscious by two children. They bring her into the wreckage of a spaceship where she is bound and attacked by several dolls with razor-sharp teeth. Barbarella is rescued by Mark Hand, the Catchman who patrols the ice looking for errant children. Hand tells her that Duran is in the city of Sogo, and offers to take her back to her ship in his ice boat. She expresses her appreciation, assuring him that her government will certainly provide him recompense for his troubles and to let her know in the meantime whether there is anything he needs or she can do for him. Hand says “You could let me make love to you.” Barbarella expresses confusion because for centuries people of Earth don’t have intimate physical encounters unless “their psychocardiagram readings were in perfect confluence.” She capitulates, but is skeptical and proceeds to ask him for pills which, on Earth, are used to enhance nonsexual sensual experience “until full rapport is achieved.”
Hand suggests having sex in his bed instead, which Barbarella is initially put off by. She tells Hand that on Earth only poor people who can’t afford psychocardiagrams and pills engage in such a primitive, distracting, and inefficient activity, since other activities successfully provide ego support and self-esteem. However, she relents and discovers she enjoys it, although admitting she understands why, on Earth, sex is considered distracting.
After Terry Southern finished writing Peter Sellers’ dialogue for Casino Royale, he flew to Paris to meet Vadim and Fonda. Southern, who had known Vadim in Paris during the early 1950s, saw writing a science-fiction comedy based on a comic book as a new challenge.
Several actresses were approached before Jane Fonda was cast as Barbarella. De Laurentiis’ first choice was Virna Lisi; his second was Brigitte Bardot, who was not interested in a sexualised role. His third choice was Sophia Loren, who was pregnant and felt that she would not fit the role.
Barbarella opened in New York on 11 October 1968 and earned $2.5 million in North American theaters that year. It was the second-most-popular film in general release in the United Kingdom in 1968, after The Jungle Book.