Weird Old Sci-Fi: STARCRASH
by Kyle Anderson on September 4, 2013
The time has come. I’ve been alluding to this movie since I started Weird Old Sci-Fi and have mentioned it in various forms and articles practically since I first saw it a couple of years ago. It’s a movie so inept, so poorly planned, so nonsensical that one wonders how it could have been made by anyone over the age of 12, and yet it’s so earnest and unabashedly joyful, and almost adorable in its way, that you can’t help but love it. It’s a Star Wars knockoff done by an Italian director obsessed more with the work of Ray Harryhausen than of Dennis Muren. Plus, it’s got David Hasselhoff in it, you guys. This movie… is Starcrash.
Only a year after Star Wars broke Hollywood records out the yin yang, producers everywhere were rushing to put their own space adventure into theaters to capitalize on the world’s sudden hunger for it. Belgian producing brothers Nat and Patrick Wachsberger got theirs into production very quickly, and ensured that it would be made just as quickly by handing it over to the Italians, known for rapidly churning out genre cinema. They gave their film to 30-year old director Luigi Cozzi (credited as Lewis Coates for English-language releases), who parlayed his love of Flash Gordon and Ray Harryhausen stop-motion into a crazy mixture of scantily-clad women, multi-colored starscapes, and giant robots sword-fighting.
Starcrash stars model, scream queen, and former Bond girl Caroline Munro as Stella Star, a space smuggler with a penchant for thigh-high boots and wearing strips of vinyl instead of clothes. She pilots a pointy, angular ship along with Akton, her curly-haired, wide-grinned partner, played by Marjoe Gortner. Akton was supposed to have been a very non-human alien, but Gortner refused to wear prosthetics, so he’s just a guy who has a bunch of weird, incongruous powers. Whilst smuggling, Stella and Akton come across the last survivor of a mission to destroy the evil Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell) and his planet-crushing laser. Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it? The good guys are then given the assignment by the benevolent galactic Emperor (Christopher motherf’ing Plummer!) to continue the mission and to locate the Emperor’s son, Simon, played by the aforementioned Mr. Hasselhoff. Going along on their mission is Elle, the man-sized robot with two pistols who talks like a Wild West cowboy.
Most of the movie is just a series of colorful and seemingly unconnected vignettes that just kill time before they get to Hasselhoff, I think, but I’m really not sure. On one planet, they’re taken captive by a group of bikini-adorned warrior women who have a huge metal statue of a nude woman that attacks them; on another, it’s cold and snowy and they have to slow their heart rate down lest they die from freezing. After each of these quick jaunts, they just go back to the ship and fly somewhere else… mission accomplished? By the time they actually find Hasselhoff, you forget they were actually looking for him, since they hadn’t really spoken about it much. And what are they supposed to be smuggling? No idea. Count Zarth Arn does nothing except stand on the bridge of his ship and whip his cape around; it’s very clear that Spinell was having a grand old time. It basically apes scenes and plot elements from Star Wars and Jason and the Argonauts, culminating in the mother of all “homages,” consisting of Akton and the prince having a lightsaber fight with two skeletal stop-motion robots. Only, they aren’t really lightsabers, lest Cozzi and company get sued.
The main selling point for this movie is the special effects. I always have had a fondness for model work. There’s something old-timey and quaint about it, especially when the models are a bit dodgy. Obviously, the model work in Star Wars set the bar for realism and creativity incredibly high, and it’s delightful to see Cozzi’s crew attempt to do the same thing in Starcrash and not even come close. The film starts with a long establishing shot of a spaceship, a direct rip-off of Lucas, but here there’s no point that it looks like anything but a plastic toy. There’s no sense of size or distance or especially weight whatsoever. During the film’s numerous space battles, you can literally see the strings as the toy starships go whizzing by in perfect formation. What’s that? You want to know if effects shots get repeated a dozen times each? You bet your ass they do! And space doesn’t look like space, either. Usually in films, space is a big black background with small, bright, white lights as stars. In this movie, space is blue and the stars are all sorts of colors, making every bit of outer space look like Christmas. In fact, I’m pretty sure they just used Christmas lights.
Perhaps the best, most insane sequence comes during a big, huge battle toward the end of the movie in which the Imperial good guy ships go to fight Zarth Arn’s bad guy ships. After the billionth time we see the same three ships take off from different angles to go zap each other from their taut strings, the flagship shoots two giant torpedoes at the Count’s ship. One might think, “Oh, this will do a lot of damage to that old Count’s ship, eh?” Well, that’s not what happens; The torpedoes instead crash through the GLASS WINDOW of the bridge. There’s debris everywhere, but there’s no atmospheric change in the ship, nobody gets sucked out, there’s not even a light breeze as a result. So, that’s stupid in and of itself, but the ridiculousness doesn’t stop there. The two golden torpedoes skid to a nice landing on the floor of the bridge whereupon they pop open to reveal four guys with mustaches and laser guns who simply stand up and begin firing on the Count’s guards. So, not only did Cozzi have zero idea about what science is, but he also thought that a better idea to destroy a bad guy ship than BOMBS are a couple of easily-defeated goons with laser guns. It’s… it’s truly baffling.
Starcrash is a film you can watch three or four times in a week and still not know quite what’s going on, but that’s not really why you watch it. The reason to watch is the delightfully low-budget special effects, the ridiculous costumes, and the rousing, and actually quite good, score by Oscar-winning composer John Barry (Wow!). It’s a movie that isn’t trying to be Star Wars as much as it’s trying to be what a 12 year old boy pretends with his toys after he’s seen Star Wars. This is most assuredly a bad movie, but it’s so earnest and well-meaning, not to mention hilarious at points, that you can’t help but enjoy yourself.