Friday, May 16, 2014

May the 4th: Spaceballs

(Originally Written for Jedi News)

Once upon a time warp…


Chapter Eleven

In a galaxy very, very, very,
very, far away, there lived
a ruthless race of beings
known as . . . Spaceballs.

The evil leaders of Planet
Spaceball, having foolishly
squandered their precious
atmosphere, have devised a
secret plan to take every
breath of air away from
their peace-loving neighbor,
Planet Druidia.

Today is Princess Vespa's
wedding day. Unbeknownst
to the princess, but knownst
to us, danger lurks in the
stars above. . .

If you can read this, you
don't need glasses.

Mel Brooks is one of the undisputed masters of comedy. Starting as a writer for the likes of Sid Ceaser’s Show of Shows and Get Smart, he broke into directing with his first masterpiece, The Producers.

As the Star Wars Saga (then a mere Trilogy) was winding up, Mel saw and respected what George Lucas was doing and decided “Hey, this could be funny.” He spoke with Lucas himself to ask his blessing for a parody film. Lucas not only agreed, but told Mel to use his post-production team for the flick. The only caveat was that Mel couldn’t sell any Spaceballs toys, because according to George “Your [action figures] are going to look like mine.”

"No, Sir, I didn't see you playing with your dolls again."

In 1987, Spaceballs opened to a reception not dissimilar to Star Wars itself – mixed critical reaction, but a fast favorite amongst fans. Said fans in this case including George Lucas, who reportedly “was afraid [he] would bust something from laughing.”

What’s my take on the movie? I love it for what it is…but it’s not my favorite Mel Brooks film, and I do have more issues with it the older I get.

Before I move on, I want to point out how refreshing it is to have a real opening crawl to work with – even if I had to rearrange the beginning a little to make it fit with the style of these articles. Right off the bat, Mel gives us the opening crawl joke we were all thinking since New Hope.

"We Brake for Nobody"

There’s really nothing wrong with the comedy in this film or the overall story. The jokes are great, the performances are great, and I highly recommend it to fans of both Brooks and Lucas. But at the end of the day, there’s just something missing that keeps it from being at the top of the list. And I think I know what it is.

"I HATE it when I get my Schwartz twisted!"

The reason films like Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and High Anxiety worked is because Mel Brooks obviously had a lot of love for Universal Horror, Old Westerns, and Hitchcock films respectively. Mel certainly gets Science Fiction and Space Fantasy, and respects what Lucas was doing - as much as it references more futuristic tales like Star Trek and Planet of the Apes, the fairy-tale-like scenes on Druidia show that Brooks recognized what Star Wars was deep down. However, it seems to me that there’s no true LOVE of the genre from Brooks as there is with the other films. He makes the jokes, but they’re not nearly as affectionate.


On top of that, by streamlining this parody, all I see is a reflection of where the public often gets it wrong on Star Wars. It’s mostly little things like the aforementioned jabs at Sci/Fi and the future (when Star Wars is “Long Ago,”), but the biggest piece is Lone Starr (Bill Pullman). Nothing against Pullman – he’s actually great in the role. But the fact is that even though he’s an amalgamation of Luke and Han story-wise, in personality he’s all Han, right down to his Indiana Jones wardrobe. And to me, as I mentioned in a previous article, it just ties into this fetishizing of Han to the point where people forget he’s not the main hero by a long shot.

"On this ship you are to refer to me as 'Idiot,' not 'You Captain'! I know what I mean!"

But that could just be my baggage. There’s actually quite a bit of character moments in this film that play very well with the characters they’re parodying, whether it was intentional or not. Colonel Sandurz, while not at all icy like his counterpart Grand Moff Tarkin, is nonetheless probably the most competent guy on Spaceball One.  Rick Moranis, to me the true star of the movie, infuses Dark Helmet with an insecurity and petulance that is very much keeping with Anakin Skywalker both before and after the breathing mask. Most interesting in hindsight, the Palpatine Analogue is portrayed not as a parody of the cackling wizard from Jedi, but as President Skroob (read that backwards to know who played him), a backstabbing politician not wholly unlike what we would see ten years later in I-III.

On top of that, Yoghurt’s (Brooks again) bit about the merchandising was spot-on, as anyone who has ever seen Stormtrooper: The Seat Belt and Jar Jar: The Awkward Lollipop can attest.

"The kids LOVE this one."

Oddly enough, though, my favorite gag isn’t even a Star Wars gag. My favorite gag in the film is actually the fact that they got John Hurt to reprise his role from Alien – complete with “Oh no…not again!”

"Change my order to the soup!"

A sequel was planned, but has been in development hell for a long time – mostly due to Mel not wanting to do a film without the late John Candy (Barf the Mawg, a Chewbacca analogue). A series of flash-animated shorts were released on G4 shortly after Revenge of the Sith, but that quickly fizzled. Probably for the best, as the movie works well enough on its own to stay a single, regardless of nods to “Spaceballs II: The Search for More Money.”

"May the Schwartz be with you!"

Besides, Lucas was cooking up a bit a real Star Wars at that time to whet the appetites of fans old and new…

"Oh $#!%, there goes the planet!"

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