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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Starcrash

Technically, Starcrash is the first sci-fi film of 1979. It was released in Italy in 1978, but in America in March of 1979. This Italian/American production made such a minimal impression, though, that sci-fi fans could be forgiven for not remembering it. At best, it seems to get remembered as a bad Star Wars knock-off. Luigi Cozzi (on the credits as Lewis Coates) wrote the story and directed. Caroline Munro stars as Stella Star. David Hasselhoff gets a small role (his first!) as Prince Simon. Christopher Plummer plays the Emperor (also a small role). Marjoe Gortner plays the curious Akton.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A large spaceship is attacked by swarms of glowing red dots. People aboard writhe in agony. Hurriedly, three escape ships are launched. The crew are dead, except for one. He is found by Stella and Akton, two space smugglers, who find the derelict cruiser. The lone survivor babbles about red monsters. Stella and Akton are chased by space police: a bald man named Thor and a robot named Elle — who speaks with a twangy cowboy sheriff sort of accent. Stella and Akton are captured and sentenced to hard labor on different planets. At Stella’s work prison, she is inexplicably clad in a Barbarella-like black vinyl bikini and thigh-high black boots. She stages a revolt and escapes into the swamps. There, a ship comes to get her. It is Thor and Elle. They have been sent to get her for a special mission. They all go spring Akton too. Together, they are to find the lost prince Simon who was aboard one of the three escape ships. They find the first two escape ships with no survivors, and no Simon. The third ship is on a planet guarded by the red dots. For no good reason, Stella and Akton are not driven mad, but land and check things out. They find the third ship, and Simon. The planet also happens to be where the evil Count Zarth Arn has his amazing super weapon. While they try to figure out a way to disable it, Zarth arrives to announce that they are all doomed. He’s rigged his weapon planet to blow up and kill them! Zarth leaves. Akton and Simon battle Zarth’s stop-motion robots and win. It turns out that Thor is on Zarth’s side. He tries to kill Stella and Elle. He and Akton fight. Akton wins, but is mortally wounded. He blathers about living forever, then ‘beams’ out. The Emperor arrives in his ship. He uses a green time-freeze ray to give them all time to escape. The planet blows up after they leave. Zarth’s Fist-shaped evil ship has yet another Doom Weapon which he plans to use on the Emperor’s home world. The Emperor sends Stella and Simon to go fly The Floating City to crash into The Fist (jump out a window before it hits). After some protracted fighter battles, the city gets through and crashes into The Fist. The latter takes a long time to explode. Count Zarth is defeated. Stella and Simon are presumed to have developed feelings for each other. The Emperor waxes banal about how they’ll have peace for awhile until the next evil guy shows up. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Because it is so absurd! The script reads like a series of inspirations. Starcrash has little time to be boring because it’s always changing its mind. Caroline Munro is quality eye candy and used as such. The overall effect is more akin to Flash Gordon than Star Wars, so there is an aspect of nostalgia value.

Cultural Connection
In The Shadow of Lucas — Cozzi’s original story and vision was not a copy Star Wars. Indeed, he wrote the story for Starcrash before Lucas’ film was released. His original story, however, was about a big spaceship that crash lands on a moon of Saturn and the film is about the adventures of the castaways-in-space. Hence the title. The studio, however, did not want his space castaways story. They wanted to capitalize on the new paradigm for sci-fi and insisted that Cozzi write them a StarWars copy. Cozzi complied by adapting his castaways tale. His original wove in as much of his homage to 50s B-movies in as he could. He loved 50s movies. He added an overlay of StarWars' saga, and some details. That was good enough for the studio execs. He had only three weeks to get ready to shoot, so much of the model work is a bit cheap and photography of the models are clearly aping Lucas' style and his iconic big-ship-flyby. Akton gets a light saber fight with the bad guys. The similarities in the story may be more coincidence of classic story-telling than a flagrant copy of Lucas. But, the net effect, coming out a bit over a year since Star Wars, was that Starcrash was seen by the public a cheap, exploitation copy of Star Wars. Other producers and studios would similarly feel the Lucas Shadow and adjust their films to resemble the new benchmark in what a space-drama sci-fi “should” look like.

Notes
Space Babes — While dressing Munro in a black bikini was an obvious marketing move, the addition of the Amazons adds more light. Cozzi was following the Golden Age tradition that space was populated with pretty 20-somethings in skimpy outfits.

Comic Relief Robot — Elle plays a somewhat similar role to Lucas’ C3-PO and R2-D2 combined. He was both companion and comic-relief. The American version had him voiced (by Hamilton Camp) with a faux-western-sheriff accent. It was probably supposed to be funny. Perhaps in Italy, it was.

Overfed Plot — Cozzi’s script was too full of plot elements for a single feature film. It is much more like an entire run of a 15 chapter serial. Several of the scenes amount to semi-independent vignettes with little or no logical connection to any overarching narrative. Cozzi intentionally made each scene only two or three pages. No long scenes or developing depth. The troglodytes? The Amazons? The Amazons’ Mind Reader? The giant robot? Zarth’s Doom Machine (which we never see), etc. etc. The effect is almost akin to a serial with its chapters stitched together. The production suffered several trials and tribulations from life on the low-budget edge. This left holes in the story. Even if they had made it to film, the story would have been even more too-full.

Comic Book Flavor — Cozzi’s writing borders on amateur, unless it was intended as tongue-in-cheek camp. For example, Zarth shouts “Kill Kill!” as he walks back and forth on a catwalk while his black-clad troops carry on a laser battle with gold-clad good-guy troops. Somehow, he’s never hit by lasers. When Zarth’s troops win, he proudly announces, “By sundown, I will be the new emperor!” (Sundown in space?). The giant she-bot of the Amazons has a Jason and the Argonauts vibe. It is amusing that the giant she-bot is anatomically-correct “upstairs” (Why?). The emperor’s troops board Zarth’s evil Fist ship (which closes it’s fingers for battle mode), in golden torpedoes, which break through windows. Doesn’t the vacuum of space pose a problem? Apparently not. A dozen broken windows are no big deal in space. Right?

Bad Acting? — This is probably more Cozzi’s doing than the actors’ lack of skill. Granted, Marjoe Gortner was never a master of subtle, but in Starcrash, he comes across as manic and frenetic. Usually with an inappropriately wide smile, and his curly white-guy afro bobbing excitedly. Munroe, too, must have been directed by Cozzi to look happy and perky most of the time. Perhaps he liked how she looked that way. The result is that she emotes over the risks of hyperspace, or incoming evil troops as if she were saying, “I just got a new puppy!” Joe Spinell plays the villain, Zarth Arn, with over-the-top melodrama befitting silent film villains. He’s Ming the Merciless on too much caffeine. Presumably, this is just what Cozzi wanted.

A Moment of Irony — Marjoe Gortner gained a fleeting moment of fame in the early 70s with an exposé-documentary on the charlatan nature of the gospel-preaching business. He, himself, had been a child-preacher novelty in the 60s. He clearly did not understand, let alone believe, the words he preached. It just just a scam to make money. So, it is ironic that near his “death” scene, he tells Stella that all she needs to do is have faith, and not to worry about him, because he was going to live forever.

Bottom line? Spacecrash is a peculiar mishmash of tropes, strung together so as to suggest a story line. The “special effects” are very old-school and done with an obviously low budget. The cheesiness and scattered story can annoy viewers who want simpler sagas in their sci-fi. Yet, Starcrash has many devoted fans who embrace the cheesiness and revel in all the fragmented homages to various B-movies. Starcarsh is not great, or even good, but it is absurd fun.

5 comments:

hurricane51 said...

This is in my Top 10 of all time worst movies. They've even managed to suppress Caroline Munro's sensuality. She's just another bimbo.

Sammy Preston said...

I have seen the movie. Compare to other epic sci-fi, this film is less remembered. But it was a nice movie considering the time and technology back then.

Nightowl said...

Sammy,
Starcrash gets its fans and its detractors. True, the quality bar get set a lot higher after Star Wars, etc. It is interesting to see an Italian's spin on remaking Star Wars. That might explain the extra babes.

Randall Landers said...

You all right? Haven't seen a post in a while...

Nightowl said...

Yeah, I'm fine. Thanks for asking, though.
I had a kind-of intense project that needed some undivided attention. It's done now, so can get back to the movies of 1979!
:-)