Starcrash is a film that leaves me with many questions. Are quadrants really units of time? Can radians be used as a measure of non-angular distance? Is it possible to scan a planet with your computer’s waves? Can you really be thawed out after being exposed to a temperature drop of thousands of unitless degrees? Are mental projections of monsters capable of literally scaring people to death? Most importantly, why have I not only seen this movie in its entirety, but watched it more than once?
In my defense, I will say that this was the first sober viewing of the film that I can remember. It is a high water mark of terrible sci-fi; a film that somehow stars the sultry Caroline Munro, the former faith healer Marjoe Gortner, and the immortal David Hasselhoff. Only in the late 70’s could you obtain a priceless cast like that for dirt cheap. I think they paid Hasselhoff entirely in hair products.
George Lucas spent hundreds of millions of dollars creating his Star Wars prequel saga. Across three films, he not only missed the point of the original trilogy, but he missed the point of the various Flash Gordon style serials that Star Wars was inspired by. Yes, Star Wars was also inspired by Hidden Fortress, the Dune novels, and countless other sources. But beneath it all was the unrelenting optimism of Flash Gordon’s science fantasy universe. The prequels took that optimism and replaced it with tiresome political machinations. All the money in the world can’t help you if your script is terrible. By contrast, even with a shoestring budget, you can make a classic film as long as you don’t miss the point.
Yes, I just spent a paragraph adding more words to the millions already contributed to the seemingly endless torrent of Internet geek bitching about the Star Wars prequels. I’m going to be adding more later on in this review. We don’t have enough. We’ll never have enough.
Before we go too far off-topic, let me state my thesis: Starcrash is a better film than all three Star Wars prequels combined. Sure, it’s ostensibly a shitty Italian ripoff of the original Star Wars film, but the director was apparently a fan of old Flash Gordon style serials, amongst other types of sci-fi. Luckily for us, just as many other aspects of the finished film failed to resemble the filmmakers’ intentions, the Star Wars motif is drowned out by the Flash Gordon style trappings of the story. The result is one of the most ridiculous takes on Flash Gordon ever made.
Starcrash tells the story of Akton and Stella Star, two bounty hunters on the run from the Imperial Police. Akton is the galaxy’s best navigator and Stella is its the best pilot. She really knows how to handle a joystick, am I right? (No.) Both have exceptional superpowers: Akton can fire energy rays out of his hands as well as see the future; Stella has breasts. Eventually, the two of them team up with the police officers that were chasing them in the beginning. One of them is Thor, an alien with green skin; the other is Elle, a robot clad in all black who talks with an over-the-top Southern accent. Together, they get involved in a plot to rescue the Emperor’s son, stop an evil Count, and save the entire galaxy!
Yes, folks, it’s that kind of movie. This is definitely a film that you need to be drunk in an open state of mind to fully enjoy. Starcrash does not really tell one cohesive story so much as it strings together 90 minutes worth of roughly connected vignettes. It copies the episodic nature of its inspirations, but compresses each episode to varying degrees, leading to whiplash tonal changes throughout the film. The movie feels like a half-remembered dream, or like the kind of story you would make up as a kid when you were alone in your room because no one wanted to play with you because you were weird. Not that I’d know anything about that.
The answer to all questions one might ask when watching this movie is simple: “Why not?” Why are Stella and Elle being chased by an animate topless statue on the planet of the Amazons? Why is David Hasselhoff’s character introduced wearing a mask that shoots lasers out of its eyes? Why does Caroline Munro say “Full speed!” like that? Why is the Emperor only the Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe? Why would the Count defeating the Emperor make him the ruler of the entire Universe, and not just its First Circle? Why do the torpedo-shaped boarding ships fired by the Emperor at the Count’s fortress crash through its glass windows without letting any air escape into the vacuum of space? Does it really matter?
Through it all, Starcrash evokes that spirit of adventure that has been missing from so many recent fantasy films. In the interest of clarity, let me say that this movie is a complete piece of shit from the viewpoint of a normal person. If you don’t like hokey Flash Gordon style weirdness, you don’t like Caroline Munro’s breasts, and you don’t want to laugh at David Hasselhoff’s hair, then you aren’t going to enjoy this movie. You are going to find it very boring. The truth is, though, that you are boring. Starcrash is a mirror that shows us who we truly are. It has shown me that I have serious problems. I already knew that, though.
Compare this film to the array of fantasy films released in the last dozen years since the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. You will find that while Starcrash is terrible, at least it gets to the point. Many of the fantasy films released since the Lord of the Rings movies have felt that they needed to copy the 150+ minute runtime of those movies. They failed to realize that only Lord of the Rings can get away with that amount of detail. Instead, they’ve bogged themselves down with endless origin stories and exposition, forced character arcs onto one-dimensional side characters, and bored everyone to death with their rigid adherence to the One True Formula of the Hollywood blockbuster.
Yes, Starcrash is a low budget trainwreck. The starships are obviously models, the sets leave much to be desired, and the science fiction is laughable. But at least we don’t have to sit through a half of an hour worth of Akton’s teenage years on Planet Xanadu, complete with the scene where he is bitten by a radioactive clam that turns him into the Greatest Pussy in the Universe. They get to the point!
Now that I’ve chastised modern Hollywood for needlessly drawing everything out and boring us all to death, allow me to add another 1,000 words to this review by bitching about Star Wars. I hated the Star Wars prequels when they came out. The Phantom Menace came out when I was 15, only a few short years after I first discovered the original films in junior high. I believe that the VHS box set of the THX remasters from the mid-90s, the last unmolested copies of those classic films, still lies somewhere at my parents’ house. In the theater, I became increasingly confused at The Phantom Menace as it unfolded. I still remember the exact moment I tuned out of the movie: Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon are flying about underwater in a submersible as various aquatic monsters eat each other in the background. It wasn’t Star Wars; it was a pastiche of elements from the original films re-envisioned by someone who completely missed the point.
Attack of the Clones bored me almost immediately. I remember becoming somewhat interested towards the end, when some things that resembled Imperial ships appeared, but then the movie ended. I didn’t even see Revenge of the Sith in the theater. I was done with Star Wars. Shortly after I discovered vodka, I saw part of it on TV with my parents during some family holiday and received a strange look from my mother when I stated that Samuel L. Jackson “went out like a bitch.” How had Star Wars fallen so low? How had I?
Eventually, I watched all three films again several years ago, and I came around slightly. I still think they’re terrible, but there are some good ideas buried deep beneath the garbage. The prequels tell a story of the rise of a totalitarian dictatorship, of good intentions gone awry, of the effect of an arms race on the possibility of lasting peace, and of the fall of institutions as they stagnate and become resistant to new ideas. Does any of that resemble the underlying themes of the original movies, though? And should one really have to meditate deeply on a film to discern anything worthwhile about it? Why didn’t Natalie Portman wear Stella Star’s outfit? What the fuck, George?
The point of this digression is that George Lucas completely failed in his quest to create movies that took the old Flash Gordon style and told a dark political story underneath it all. The clash between the political content and the goofy Flash Gordon content was jarring and ridiculous. It didn’t help matters that the political story felt like it was poorly thought out and came from the mind of someone who did not do much historical research. It also didn’t help matters that the magic had long since been drained from George, and all the Flash Gordon style sci-fi weirdness came off as having emanated from the mind of an old man desperately trying to appear cool to the kids. The prequels are pathetic and embarrassing. There, I said it. I know you’ve never heard that stated on the Internet before, but there it is.
You will find geeks on the Internet claiming that the jarring tone of the Star Wars prequels was intentional. They claim that George was taking bold risks with the style of the films, and that the bizarre switching between political intrigue and Star Wars hijinks was an attempt to push the language of film in exciting new directions. These people are insane. Now, think about this for a moment. I am writing a positive review of Starcrash, and I think these people are crazy. The wonders of the Internet never cease.
Anyway, let’s contrast these films to Starcrash. In Starcrash, there is no lengthy introduction to our main character. It does not take over a film and a half to get Akton to a place where he is the traditional space-faring adventurer protagonist. Our other characters are established within the first 10 minutes, with the exception of David Hasselhoff’s galactic prince (following the old adage of saving the best for last). The political story is limited to the standard good vs. evil dichotomy, with two factions in the galaxy representing each side. Nobody talks about how coarse sand is. Starcrash even manages to surprise us by having Elle, the robot clad in all black, remain a good character throughout the entire film. George fumbles around in the dark for three movies and never makes you smile once.
If Hell ever freezes over and I have the ability to make a movie, I’m remaking Starcrash. That may not be my first project, but it will be done. Hollywood spends so much time remaking movies that were perfectly fine the first time that it would be nice to remake one that really could use a proper budget. Really, though, I just want to film Stella Star in that outfit in high definition. The world needs it.
In conclusion, Starcrash is the best late 70’s Italian Star Wars ripoff that features David Hasselhoff ever made. True story.