Sunday, November 17, 2019


As I write, the latest “Star Wars” trilogy is due to end, with “The Rise of Skywalker.” I was not stirred when watching the trailer at the cinema – it was the same tropes, characters and references, in a different order, with all the finality of a “Friday the 13th” film’s ending. Mind you, the unsettling experience of watching the feature, “Joker,” perked me back up, using its own bag of intellectual property to create a powerful psychological portrait. 

No wonder a “Star Wars” parody appeals to me – forcing yourself to be original by approaching your source material from a different direction. Even better, "Spaceballs" is not just a good parody of "Star Wars," but a credible science fiction film in its own right, after I forgot I was watching a parody.

In 1987, the original "Star Wars" trilogy had been complete for four years, giving the pre-internet general public, not just hardcore fans, enough time to soak in the references that Mel Brooks would work against. However, the home rental video market helped out, as shown when Rick Moranis' Darth Vader clone, Dark Helmet, finds out where Princess Vespa is by renting a copy of the film he is in, and fast forwarding to a later scene. "Spaceballs" itself lived on in home video form, becoming as much of a cult as "Star Wars" appears to most people.

"Spaceballs" is a welcome contrast from the cynical, tired retread of the source material that the "Laugh It Up, Fuzzball" trilogy from "Family Guy" was, with jokes inserted in a way that does not distinguish itself from any other "Family Guy" episode. Like "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein," and "High Anxiety," "Spaceballs" is a very Brooks-ian cross between a compendium of jokes, like "Airplane" and the then upcoming "Naked Gun" films, and a visually accurate parody. The production employed Apogee Inc., a visual effects company formed by ex-Industrial Light and Magic employees, lending credibility to all the pissing about going on around those effects, like Dark Helmet being surrounded by Assholes, the surname of the majority of the crew on his ship, and when a radar is jammed by launching a gigantic jar of jam at it.

The year 1987 also meant that "Spaceballs" was in a prime position to pick timely references from what turned out to be a golden period for Hollywood. Rick Moranis had already starred in "Ghostbusters," while Bull Pullman's Han Solo analogue, Lone Starr, is also suitably close to Indiana Jones. Like "Ghostbusters," "Spaceballs" also has its own cheesy tie-in song, when the ship Spaceball One, a very long ship first introduced in a very long shot, is about to self-destruct.

The most daring parody of "Star Wars" is how Mel Brooks, as Yogurt - no need for explanation there - and his "Ewoks" make their money from merchandising, an idea that rose from George Lucas requesting that, in allowing "Spaceballs" to be made, there would be no merchandising, as it would look too similar to the "real thing." "Spaceballs" merchandise, from bedspreads to toilet roll, is randomly seen throughout the rest of the film, including a scene where Dark Helmet plays action figures of himself and Princess Vespa. The turning of Spaceball One into a "mega-maid," to suck up the air that the Spaceballs need from Princess Vespa's home planet - a suitably mad sci-fi plot - prompts the timely line, "it's not just a spaceship, it's a Transformer."

Parody is very carefully detailed for maximum effect. The majestic theme by John Morris, minus the zapping sounds, could have been by John Williams, while the explanatory scrolling introduction is ended by a line that appears in the distance: "If you can read this, you don't need glasses." After a long exposition of the plot, Dark Helmet looks at the audience to ask, "everybody got that?" Instead of the main characters being captured by the "stormtroopers," their stunt doubles are caught by accident, and when one is zapped in the behind by a gun, his leap is accompanied by the "Wilhelm scream" that "Star Wars" sound editor Ben Burtt has shoehorned into every film he made. Even when it is not "Star Wars," the chest-bursting scene from "Alien" can only be properly parodied if you get someone that looks like John Hurt, so what you do is get the actual John Hurt, exclaiming, "Oh no, not again!"

The success of "Spaceballs" as a good a work of comedy and science-fiction can even be expressed in numbers. "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace," the final film with Christopher Reeve in the starring role, was released in Christmas 1987, with "Spaceballs" released earlier in the summer. However, what was intentionally a serious piece of work was let down by the woolly anti-nuclear plot, and the poor special effects caused by Cannon Films' financial troubles producing a reduced budget. "Superman IV" cost $17 million to make, while "Spaceballs" was Mel Brooks' most expensive film at $22.7 million, but with all the money on screen. The final box office results were $15.6 million for "Superman IV," and $38.1 million for "Spaceballs" - this is when taking comedy seriously has results.

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