Review: Starcrash (1978)

Starcrash

Directed by Luigi Cozzi
Starring Caroline Munro, Marjoe Gortner, David Hasselhoff, Joe Spinell, Christopher Plummer

So it’s 1978 and you’re Luigi Cozzi. You’ve been elected by American International to make the next Star Wars. Your budget consists of a box of stolen credit cards and a trashbag full of weed. You devise a plan to hire a crew exclusively composed of high school students and pay them in photocopies of Playboy centerfolds. All you need is a screenplay. Luckily for you, your kid is fucked up on Oreos and drawing storyboards on your bathroom walls with a crayon.

What’ll we call it?” you ask him.

Star … crash!” he screams, picking up a caveman action figure and slamming it into a squadron of Stormtroopers standing on the edge of the bathtub. Wheels in your head begin to turn. Production has begun.

Stella Star (Munro) and Akton (Gortner) are space outlaws on the run from the Imperial Space Police. Captured and tried by a floating, tentacled brain with a face, they are sent to labor colonies, where they are doomed to toil forever as slaves. But wait! The chief of Space Police, Thor (Robert Tessier), and his Police Robot, L (the voice of Hamilton Camp), save the lawbreakers and the four of them, on orders from the Emperor of the Galaxy (Plummer), embark on a mission to stop Count Zarth Arn (Spinell) from using his secrete hidden weapon to take control of the entire universe!

Starcrash‘s screenplay features mix-and-match clearance aisle versions of Han Solo (in David Hasselhoff’s character, Prince Simon), Luke Skywalker (Akton), Leia (Stella Star), Obi-Wan (the Emperor of the Galaxy), Darth Vader (Count Zarth Arn) and even C-3P0 (L). But unlike Star Wars, there are no character moments or pauses for romance. Instead of the Force, Akton has an unnamed ability to create unimpressive light shows with his hands and look a lot like Roger Daltrey all the time. L speaks with an inexplicable southern accent. Stella Star wears a leather bikini until she travels to a frozen planet, where she decides to put on leggings. And Joe Spinell, who took the job to support his prostitute habit, wears leather pajamas with a Dracula cape. His hair is an unfortunate accident, and the less I say about it the better.

Science is thrown into the ditch. At some point, Luigi Cozzi must have read an article on the moon landing and thought, “Fuck it, it’s space, anything can happen,” before drawing a pair of tits on a napkin. Manned spacecraft fly into the windows of space stations without consequence to the air pressure inside. At one point, our heroes seem to have left a door open on their vehicle and flown it through the vacuum of space. I imagine the line “Close the window. You’re getting space in here.” was cut from the final draft of the screenplay.

“Special effects” doesn’t begin to describe the cut-and-paste nature of Starcrash‘s visuals. The inside of a lava lamp is superimposed over the film to represent the effects of Zarth Arn’s secret weapon. Stop-motion animation is often employed, but the models don’t seem to have working joints. Space is candy-colored, with red, blue, and green lights standing in for stars and planets. Spaceship models are refurbished and reused, sometimes haphazardly coated with spray-paint. Akton and Stella hurtling through space is less convincing than rear projection effects used in the 1950s.

The dialogue used in the film couldn’t have come from the mind of a grown man. “Blow-ups happen,” one character states, apparently forgetting the word “explosion.” “It looks like some sort of laser spear,” Stella remarks while looking at an abandoned weapon. “Put her in the mind-probe.” “I’m leaving to join Count Zarth Arn as the Prince of the League of Darkness.” “Time for a little robot chauvinism.” When Akton reveals that he can tell the future, Stella asks him why he didn’t tell her sooner. “You would have tried to change the future, which is against the law,” he says. “So therefore, I can tell you nothing.

As I write this, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is at the top of the box office dogpile. Its implementation of special effects is so seamless that it’s easy to forget you’re looking at actors’ faces floating among computer-generated imagery. The effects are special, but even more so is the story. The characters. The dialogue. Attention is given to the things that matter. The special effects, at first so noticeable, have become window dressing.

It’s unfair to compare Gravity to Starcrash. It’s downright hilarious to even think about the two belonging in the same universe. Watching both of them within a short span of time has shown me the vast, unimaginable range of cinematic storytelling. Starcrash mistakes special effects spectacle for success. Gravity relies on the old standbys. While one is more polished than the other, both have a special place on this earth. Both are artifacts of artifice. Both have the capacity to inspire, albeit in dramatically different ways. Is one better than the other? Maybe. Probably. But each is fascinating.

You’re Luigi Cozzi on the set of Starcrash. The climactic final battle is being filmed today, and you’ve been up all night budgeting time. The weed has run out, and you’ve begun to pass out the same centerfolds to your teenaged crewmembers. A few bodies have been found around set, and you can’t help to wonder if Joe Spinell is up to his old tricks. The food provided by craft services hasn’t been rotated since last week, and David Hasselhoff has fallen ill as a result.

But you’re here, surrounded by extras in costume, directing your masterpiece.

And you’re positive that everything will be okay.

Links:

Amazon – Starcrash (Roger Corman Cult Classics) DVD
Amazon – Starcrash VHS
Amazon Instant Video – Starcrash
Netflix – Starcrash
YouTube – Starcrash (Full Movie)
YouTube – Original Theatrical Trailer

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