Should I Watch..? 'Spaceballs'
What's the big deal?
Spaceballs is a sci-fi comedy film released in 1987 and was co-written, produced and directed by Mel Brooks. The film is a parody of the original Star Wars trilogy as well as other sci-fi films in general and sees rugged space adventurer Lone Starr and his companion Barf attempt to rescue a beautiful princess from the evil clutches of President Skroob and his Spaceball minions. The film stars Brooks alongside Bill Pullman, John Candy, Rick Moranis, Daphne Zuniga and Dick Van Patten. Despite a mixed reaction from critics and underwhelming domestic earnings of just over $38 million, the film has since become a cult classic and even led to a short-lived animated spin-off on TV. Rumours persist of a possible sequel in the aftermath of more recent Star Wars films like The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi but no concrete announcements so far.
What's it about?
In a suspiciously familiar galaxy far far away, the leader of Planet Spaceball has foolishly exhausted his planet's supply of fresh air. However, the neighbouring world of Druidia has plenty of air sealed beneath a planet-wide barrier. Skroob concocts a plan to kidnap the daughter of the king of Druidia, Princess Vespa and her robotic maid Dot Matrix, before she is due to be married to the handsome but dull Prince Valium. In exchange for the princess' release, King Roland must hand over the security code to Druidia's barrier and their supply of clean air. However, before Skroob's right-hand-men Dark Helmet and Colonel Sandurz can kidnap Vespa, she flees with Dot Matrix in her Mercedes spaceship.
Desperate for someone to rescue Vespa before she is captured, Roland hires intergalactic mercenary Lone Starr and his half-man, half-dog sidekick Barf to find her. With their Winnebago spaceship Eagle 5 able to locate Vespa, the pair of them soon realise that there are out of fuel and are forced to crash on the desert world of Vega. As Skroob and his Spaceballs close in, Starr discovers an ancient mystic with a horde of Spaceballs merchandise who introduces him to the mystical power of the Schwartz...
President Skroob / Yogurt
Dick Van Patten
Mel Brooks, Thomas Meehan & Ronny Graham
Release Date (UK)
11th December, 1987
12 (2000 re-rating)
Adventure, Comedy, Sci-Fi
What's to like?
At first glance, the film feels like a simple light-hearted re-tread through every sci-fi cliché imaginable but Spaceballs is much smarter than you might think. Yes, the original Star Wars trilogy may be a soft target and the subject of many imitations since their initial release but few go for the jugular quite like Brooks when he is on form. From the unrelenting tide of merchandise to the comically absurd characters, Brooks leaves no stone unturned in his search of a gag and while not all of them are funny, you have got to applaud the man's effort. Even the casting of the then-relatively unknown Pullman mirrors George Lucas' faith in the inexperienced cast of Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher.
The movie, despite the occasionally immature humour, is a lot of fun thanks to Brooks' sleazy Skroob (an anagram of his own name, of course) and especially Moranis' brilliant comic timing as Dark Helmet, looking faintly ridiculous in his oversized black attire. The film isn't afraid of anything, shamelessly taking the mickey out of other esteemed sci-fi franchises like Alien or the original Planet Of The Apes as well as breaking its own fourth wall on multiple occasions. The sense of anarchy feels reminiscent of Blazing Saddles when the film seems to run completely off the rails but thankfully, Spaceballs keeps a tight grip on the lunacy even though the film's overall narrative is quite silly.
- Brooks sought agreement with George Lucas that he could parody Star Wars without getting sued. Issuing Lucas a copy of the script before production began, Brooks not only got Lucas's permission but also acquired the use of Lucas' special effects company Industrial Light And Magic to help with production. Ironically, Lucas' only condition was that Spaceballs had no merchandise arising from it which Brooks agreed to. Lucas later sent a note to Brooks after the film's release, saying that he found the film so funny that he was afraid he was going to bust something by laughing so hard.
- The famous scene involving Dark Helmet playing with his dolls wasn't in the script. The idea came to Brooks on set one day and the scene was improvised almost entirely by Moranis, including the dialogue.
- Brooks later admitted that he felt ashamed for the number of Jewish jokes included in the film. However, he also admitted that he was proud that he left them all in the film.
- One of the troopers sent out to comb the desert is played by Tim Russ, who would go on to appear in the TV series Star Trek: Voyager as the Vulcan Tuvok. This was only his third feature film appearance.
What's not to like?
So if the film is such a likeable satire on the marketability of sci-fi franchises for an ever-demanding and increasingly rabid fanbase, why doesn't it score higher? Well, I did have a couple of issues with it. Firstly, it hasn't dated well and even at the time of its release, it felt a little late to the party. After all, A New Hope was released a decade before (Planet Of The Apes was more than twenty years earlier!) so many of the film's references were already outdated. Another problem is Brooks' predilection for Jewish humour - granted, it isn't an issue in most comedies but here, it almost feels like a barrier for non-Jewish viewers due to the sheer volume of jokes reliant on it.
But my biggest issue is with the tone of the comedy which is far too immature for my liking. I don't mind certain low-brow comedies - Ted is a great example - but this film's dependence on innuendo, swearing and casual sexism belies the film's age and doesn't appeal to me that much. In many ways, it reminded me of Caddyshack which I found hilarious in my youth but much less so when I watched it again years later. The frustrating thing about Spaceballs is that underneath the silly costumes and daft names, there is a serious and well written comedy trying to get out. It picks apart Lucas' space opera with such precision that the nonsense of the film's actual plot seems to get in the way.
Should I watch it?
It might not have aged as well as you may hoped but Spaceballs is an inventive and occasionally inspired comedy that relentlessly pokes fun at cinema's most successful sci-fi franchise. Brooks once again demonstrates an uncanny ability to break down conventions in search of a gag and while it's more uneven than his earlier efforts, this silly spoof deserves to be seen at least once. It also underlines Moranis' under-rated ability as a genuine comedy star.
Great For: fans of Star Wars, anyone looking for a decent comedy, Winnebago owners, Jewish audiences
Not So Great For: anyone who doesn't watch sci-fi, anyone hoping for a classic (see below), George Lucas' sides
What else should I watch?
If anyone mentions Mel Brooks to me, my first immediate thought is Blazing Saddles which is another convention-busting satire of westerns and the supposed racism inherent in Hollywood films of the time. Cleavon Little stars as a black sheriff in an all-white town supported by Brooks' dim-witted Governor, Gene Wilder's alcoholic gunslinger and Harvey Korman's scheming Hedley Lemarr. While not quite hitting the same heights, Brooks also scored hits with his horror spoof Young Frankenstein while his debut film The Producers enjoys continued popularity with a recent and hugely successful stage revivial.
Star Wars has become more of a cultural phenomenon than a simple sci-fi film, continuing to inspire film-makers and a dedicated fanbase ever since it destroyed the box office back in 1977. Of course, Lucas himself was the first to produce a new trilogy of films starting with the over-hyped The Phantom Menace, the underwhelming Attack Of The Clones and the slightly better Revenge Of The Sith. Of course, with Disney getting their hands on the series, the series continues to produce sequels and spin-offs with varying degrees of success and I suspect that they will for some time. Whether any will touch the quality and excitement of the original trilogy, I seriously doubt.
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© 2019 Benjamin Cox