The 2020 holiday season is drawing to a close, capping off a year that was, for lack of a better word, chaotic. With everything that’s been happening in these past months, it’s always important to have some fun to keep your mind at ease, whether it’s hanging with friends online or just watching something on TV. A couple of weeks ago, the season finale of The Mandalorian (working title: Growing Up Grogu) aired on Disney Plus and received mostly positive reviews. In honor of the occasion and in celebration of the 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back, let’s take a look at Christmas Tauntauns, a strange yet sweet music video from 2001 directed by animator Matt Bagshaw that holds the distinction of receiving the first ever George Lucas Selects Award at the 2002 Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards. If the creator of Star Wars digs it, maybe you can enjoy it too.
How ’bout them Mandos, eh? The latest season of Disney Plus’s hit series The Life and Times of Baby Yoda (also known as The Mandalorian) is halfway done and there’s a great deal of worthwhile social media discussion and discourse that follows each new weekly installment. Today’s post won’t deal with any of that. Once again, this will be another dive into the world of Star Wars fan projects. The subject of this post is the Ryan vs. Dorkman duology, a pair of videos that distill the average Star Wars fan film into its most basic elements.
Created by visual effects artists Ryan Wieber (Heroes) and Michael “Dorkman” Scott (Supergirl), the films give you all the intense action, visual creativity and humor that you expect out of most fan films but condensed into a form that fulfills the biggest power fantasy the Star Wars franchise has ever given to legions of fans: “what if I had the Force and a lightsaber?” The most appealing thing about the RvD shorts is the no-frills, DIY setup. Even in RvD2, which is much more technically complex than its predecessor and features a bombastic score composed by Kyle Newmaster and Gordy Haab (Star Wars: Battlefront), the lack of fancy costumes and green-screen composited backgrounds allows you to concentrate on the impressive duel.
It’s been over a month since The Rise of Skywalker, so I guess it’s safe to talk about something related to Star Wars without facing a deluge of opinions both for and against Episode 9 in particular and the franchise in general, right?
Opinions subject to change.
Of course not. We’ll never be that fortunate, especially when you consider other events associated with the franchise like the final season of The Clone Wars, the series finale of Star Wars Resistance, the production of a series focused on Obi-Wan and the upcoming second season of the Disney Plus flagship series, Baby Yoda and Friends — I mean, The Mandalorian. However, expecting people to stop talking about Star Wars on the Internet is like believing that if you place every single issue of Action Comics into a bonfire, Superman will simply fade from our collective memories.
Once again, I want to take a look at the creative side of Star Wars fandom by showcasing what is said to be the very first Star Wars fan film. Directed by Scott Gill and produced by Mike Bajema, The Imperials Strike Back was created by a group of young fans using a 8mm camera and a slew of homemade props and costumes and was completed before the release of The Empire Strikes Back. I love this short both because of the crew’s creative use of their limited resources, which is something true to the spirit of the original film’s production, and its function as a window into a time period when Star Wars was just a fun space fantasy movie and not some hallowed multimedia franchise where the random Rebel soldier who accompanies the heroes in this short would have been based on an expanded universe character who made his first appearance in a Star Wars Roleplaying Game adventure scenario.
For 42 years, one unconventional and genre-busting film has defined the global moviemaking landscape and continues to entertain audiences around the world to this day. Of course, I’m referring to Robert Clouse’s horror classic The Pack. That is the movie you’re thinking of, right? Oh, you think I’m referring to some dumb little space movie? Well, that’s too bad because I want to talk about the killer dog movie starring the incomparable Joe Don Baker, dammit!
You don’t want to talk about this, do you?
Fine. We’ll discuss Star Wars for the umpteenth time but I want to discuss an area of Star Wars fandom that I’ve always enjoyed: fan films. One of my first posts was a showcase of my favorite Star Wars fan videos so, in honor of the upcoming “end” of the Skywalker Saga, let’s take a look at a fan video that was released in the same year as the previous “end” of the saga. 2005’s Star Wars Episode III: A Lost Hope is a parody of Revenge of the Sith that was directed and co-written by N.T. Bullock, the founder of the independent production company Sequential Pictures, and features Bullock’s Seth Green-esque portrayal of Anakin, Galactic Senators on loan from Sesame Street, a take on Mace Windu by Anthony Washington that feels more in line with Samuel L. Jackson’s usual intensity and an ingenious forgery placed in Obi-Wan’s Jedi sketchbook. The highlight of the short is Eric Kohn’s sardonic approach to Master Yoda.
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 twoStar 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 Hopework 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.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of both the original Star Wars film and Steven Spielberg’s mind-bending UFO tale Close Encounters of the Third Kind, two highly successful and influential works in the science fiction genre. Obviously, the next best thing would be a movie that combines the most prominent elements of both films. That’s probably what director/writer Ed Hunt (Plague) was thinking when he attempted to cash in on the space opera craze with the 1977 flying saucer thriller Starship Invasions.
I’m doing my part by reviewing this movie. Are you?
UFO conspiracies and alien abduction stories were all the rage in the 70s and the premise of Invasions deftly taps into the extraterrestrial paranoia of the period with a story involving a band of telepathic renegades from another world, led by Captain Rameses (Christopher Lee, who would go on to star in actual Star Wars movies), using a device that forces its victims to commit suicide. Robert Vaughn (who would soon play a major role in Roger Corman’s infamous Star Wars imitation Battle Beyond the Stars) portrays a UFO specialist who becomes a reluctant hero when he’s recruited by a group of intrepid aliens to stop Rameses. Without a doubt, the performances of Vaughn and Lee, as well as the horror-infused direction from Hunt, carry this film, giving the story an air of dignity that transcends the drab sets and chintzy visual effects.
All in all, Starship Invasions is an intriguing idea in search of a movie that would take full advantage of its themes of acceptance and conspiracy. It feels like two separate movies glued together but Invasions radiates with the potential to tell a truly distinctive story.
Much has been discussed about the various novels, short stories and comics that have influenced George Lucas’s vision of the Star Wars saga. Many iconic concepts from the films have their roots in the works of a diverse array of authors, including J. R. R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings), Frank Herbert (Dune), E. E. “Doc” Smith (the Lensman series), Isaac Asimov (Foundation), and Jack Kirby (The New Gods). During the Star Wars mania of the late 70’s, it seemed that the best way to differentiate your space opera from all the others would be to film an adaptation of a story from the Golden Age of Science Fiction. The result of that sort of thinking would be 1979’s H. G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come.
That robot should watch what it eats next time.
Directed by George McCowan (The Magnificent Seven Ride), Things to Come is an incredibly loose adaptation (and the second one after the 1936 version) of Wells’s prescient 1933 novel of the same name, with its only common thread being the mention of some sort of devastating war. The fascinating premise of the filmis somewhat undermined by its zippy pulp serial structure. In terms of tone, Things to Come wants to evoke a combination of the thrills of Star Wars with the philosophy of Star Trek but the result calls to mind a compilation of Space: 1999 episodes. Speaking of which, Barry Morse, as Dr. Caball, gives the most genuine performance of the film, rising above his undistinctive co-stars with a commanding aura and tempering the serpentine exaggerations of the dictator Omus, played with vicious glee by Jack Palance.
On average, the charm of Things to Come lies in its honest attempt to tell a bigger and more thoughtful story compared to other Star Wars knockoffs of the time. Although it’s a little muddled by the execution, its major theme, the effects of war on a variety of people, shines through.
As one of the biggest breakout characters in the original Star Wars trilogy, the mischievous smuggler Han Solo has been widely imitated in many works inspired by (or plagiarizing) the films. With 1983’s Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Columbia Pictures and director Lamont Johnson (The Twilight Zone) reached what they felt was the logical conclusion: make an incredible simulation of the Millennium Falcon’s captain into the hero of the movie.
Forbidden Zone? Say hello to George Taylor for me.
The results are mixed, to say the least. As the interstellar bounty hunter Wolff, Peter Strauss (The Jericho Mile) does his best Harrison Ford impression but he’s not given the chance to show the vulnerability that made Ford’s portrayal of Captain Solo work. It doesn’t help that the performances from the rest of the cast are all over the place. On one hand, Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters) gives a surprisingly natural turn as Wolff’s old rival and Michael Ironside (Total Recall) is fairly menacing as the cybernetic heavy, Overdog. On the other hand, Niki, the young scavenger played by Molly Ringwald (The Breakfast Club), comes across like every stereotypical annoying teenager ever known. These eclectic performances seem to obscure what Strauss is going for and, as a result, Wolff is lost in the shuffle. On a more positive note, the film is visually appealing, if derivative. Of particular interest are some of Overdog’s mutant henchmen, with unearthly designs that wouldn’t look out of place in your average 80’s horror flick.
Overall, Spacehunter’s willingness to throw as many bizarre concepts at the audience as possible is both its greatest strength and flaw. Though the film’s short run-time hampers its potential to fully realize its numerous settings and characters, it never drags out or complicates the exciting story it wants to tell.