The Star Wars universe is a setting that’s ripe with comedic potential. From the strange visuals to the quirky dialogue, there’s a lot of material to work with. Luckily, most fans respond to the weirdness with a lot of good-natured ribbing. The cult status of Mel Brooks’ full-blown parody of Star Wars, 1987’s Spaceballs, is only one example of the numerous riffs on the franchise. The Ice Pirates, released in 1984, represents a somewhat unique way to cash in on the popularity of Star Wars: instead of a straightforward quest, this would be a more self-aware and comedic adventure, akin to a Guardians of the Galaxy prototype. The results of this bold experiment are mixed to say the least.
You know the Emperor’s evil because he wrote the Star Wars Holiday Special!
Directed by Stewart Raffill (who also helmed the infamous E.T. imitation, Mac and Me) and written by Raffill and Krull scribe Stanford Sherman, the film’s self-evident premise of ice smuggling sounds like the setup to a variety show skit. It even looks like some kind of sketch with the cryogenic corsairs in question, looking like denizens of a post-apocalyptic Age of Sail, battling a band of space knights who look like they wandered in from a Renaissance fair. Ice Pirates may look cheap but when it comes to its sense of humor, it hits more than it misses. Despite a few awkward gags that feel like they’re filthy for the sake of being filthy, most of the jokes make very clever use of its setting, especially in its imaginative final battle in the middle of a time storm where machines fight the rapidly aging pirate crew.
Overall, Ice Pirates is a strange beast of a movie that might be better appreciated now in the days of constant Star Wars riffs and memes than when it was released for giving viewers a much weirder approach to the space opera genre. It plays things somewhat cynically but it has all the right ingredients that make a cult classic.
Imagine a world where, instead of purchasing Lucasfilm in 2012 and acquiring the highly valuable Star Wars brand, Disney decided to revamp 1979’s The Black Hole, their previous attempt to capture the burgeoning space opera film market. Perhaps it would be a modernized retelling of the USS Palomino‘s discovery of the USS Cygnus, inhabited by the deranged Dr. Reinhardt and drifting toward an ominous wormhole. Perhaps it would be a continuation of the adventures of Captain Holland, Dr. McCrae and the charming little robot V.I.N.CENT (with a new voice actor to replace the late, great Roddy McDowell, of course). Maybe this hypothetical revamp would improve the film’s rotten reputation among sci-fi fans. However, one has to wonder if The Black Hole even deserves its status as “movieland’s equivalent to the Hindenburg“. The answer to that is…only slightly.
The Starship Eiffel Tower embarks on a fateful mission.
Sure, the script is a little clunky and Gary Nelson’s somewhat bland direction robs certain moments of their needed impact (getting a boring performance out of Ernest frickin’ Borgnine should be impossible), but Black Hole does have some admirable elements. For instance, Maximilian Schell brings a very chilling madness to his portrayal of Dr. Reinhardt, the Nemo-esque scientist who plans to travel through the titular vortex with a crew of drones who are more than what they seem. At times, the film looks beautiful yet fearsome, especially its main showpiece, the Cygnus, with its eerie glow and a design that’s more evocative of a flying haunted castle than a space shuttle or Star Destroyer. In fact, Black Hole is at its strongest when it feels like an old-school haunted house movie filtered through a space opera lens, complete with an appropriately creepy score by John Barry (who scored not one but two Star Wars imitators prior to this) and a menacing monster in the form of Maximilian, Reinhardt’s sadistic robot bodyguard.
While it may play things a little too bluntly, I feel that The Black Hole gets a bad rap. The film has a decent grasp of the terrifying beauty of the cosmos that gets an occasional chance to shine when it isn’t going for its obligatory, whiz-bang space heroics.
The modern blockbuster, as typified by Jaws and Star Wars, is the B-movie writ large. The current mainstream cinema landscape is driven by concepts and stories that, in the past, would have been considered the domain of schlocky exploitation films and low-budget film serials. One of the earliest filmmakers to bridge the somewhat tenuous gap between two eras of popular cinema is independent filmmaking trendsetter Roger Corman, producer of over 300 films and mentor of many influential filmmakers, including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante and Ron Howard. The key to Corman’s longevity is his eye for talent and his keen understanding of the kinds of movies people want to see. Case in point: consider 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars.
The untold adventures of Han Solo’s father, Napoleon.
Released a few months after the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back, this shoestring science fantasy, helmed by animator Jimmy T. Murakami and written by Oscar nominee John Sayles, comes closer than most Star Wars imitators to realizing that one of the things that made A New Hope work was its atmosphere. The attention to detail in Battle’s art direction, overseen by a pre-Terminator James Cameron, gives the movie a substance that outshines its roots as a shameless, word-for-word Seven Samurai retelling. The other aspect that elevates Battle above other Star Wars clones is the relatively naturalistic direction. Some of the acting is refreshingly subtle compared to campier space opera fare. In particular, Robert Vaughn providing a somewhat moving performance as the wealthy, solitary assassin Gelt. Granted, he’s portraying the same character he played in The Magnificent Seven, but it’s worth it just to see his moody introductory scene.
For an opportunistic cash grab made to capitalize on Star Wars mania, Battle Beyond the Stars has a surprising amount of sincerity and craft, which gives it a good amount of rewatch value. Overall, Battle feels like the cinematic equivalent of a good cover band: it may not deliver the full experience but it’ll most certainly try.