Monday, July 13, 2009

“Say goodbye to your two best friends, and I don’t mean your pals in the Winnebago.”

In some ways looking at the Mel Brooks movies on my shelf has filled me with dread. Not because I don’t love the movies, but precisely because I do and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take a long, hard look at some of the earliest cinematic memories I’ve ever had. Okay, I'm done angsting about that, here’s 1987’s Spaceballs.

So a princess (and her robot) run away from her wedding ceremony only to be pursued by the henchmen of a villainous “empire.” Help comes from a shady freelancer and his nonhuman sidekick who rescue the princess (and her robot), find a mysterious mentor figure, and try to save the (well, a) world. In Space. Sure its mostly a 96 minute ripoff of Star Wars, but that is the point, after all.

Lone Starr: Bill Pullman is our hard travelin’ hero. Lone Starr is an orphan with a mysterious past, a smart mouth, mercenary attitude and a winged Winnebago named Eagle 5 that can fly in space. He gets involved in the rescue of the princess because he needs a lot of money to pay of a gangster named Pizza the Hutt (voiced by Dom DeLouise). Along the way he gets trained in the mystical power of The Schwartz and discovers the true nature of his parentage (which I won’t say since it’s technically a spoiler, but its also exactly what you think it is). Gets major bonus points for effectively combining Han and Luke into one character with a story arc that combines the best of both original characters (no unfortunate implications of Luke & Leia kissing, for example)

Princess Vespa: Daphne Zuniga. The rich, rather bratty princess of Druidia (insert Druish Princess joke). She gets the whole plot rolling, and the bulk of her arc is about falling in love with Lone Starr. She gets a badass moment with a machine gun, though.

Dark Helmet: Can you imagine anyone less menacing than Rick Moranis to fill the Darth Vader role? And that’s the point. Dark Helmet plays up the short guy jokes, wears a ridiculously oversized helmet (and a necktie) and has two modes: Faceplate down for “serious” Dark Helmet, faceplate up to show you just how much of a weenie the guy really is (and so Moranis can make funny faces). Dark Helmet gets a lot of screen time, and in lesser hands, could’ve become annoying. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case.

President Skroob: Mel Brooks himself as the crooked leader of Planet Spaceball. He’s squandered all of his planet’s air and has a plan to steal Planet Druidia’s to replace it. He’s the ineffectual boss that Dark Helmet has to suck up to, and gives Brooks plenty of moments to play a smarmy asshole.

Colonel Sandurz: The captain of Spaceball 1 and Dark Helmet’s slightly more competent lackey/sidekick. Plays the straight man to Dark Helmet’s funnyman, and does it well.

Dot Matrix: Voiced by Joan Rivers, imagine a Jewish female Threepio with roller skates on her feet and equipped with a virgin alarm (for the princess's protection, of course).

Yogurt: Take Yoda, now give him a Yiddish accent and have him played by Mel Brooks walking around on his knees saying things like “Spaceballs dah flamethrower!” Glorious. He’s the mentor figure that teaches Lone Starr the ways of the Schwartz. A small role (ba-dump-tsh) but a scene stealing one. He also has an army of little not-Jawas (the Dinks).

Barf: John Candy plays the half-man, half-dog mawg (he’s his own best friend). The loyal copilot of the Eagle 5, he’s the funnyman to Lone Starr’s straight man role. My pick for badass of the film, since not only does he get shit done, he also gets some of the best retorts and puns. Also, he’s Chewbacca but capable of speech, and has a tail that has all kinds of adventures.

Visuals (Direction/Effects)
When you think of Mel Brooks directing, you don’t really think of the compositions, but watching Spaceballs again, I never fully realized how competent he is as a director before. Brooks has a great eye for visual narration, and a lot of the scenes here are really damn effective. For example, on the desert planet, Lone Starr & Barf ditch an oversized hair dryer to save weight. The shot of them walking away from it, extracted from the comedy of the scene, is just great: a close up of the dryer and looking at the characters walking away into the desert. When you take into account the context, it becomes hilarious. And that’s the thing, Brooks’ eye for directing is good, but his eye for visual comedy is outstanding, so much so that the visuals get absorbed into the absurdity of what’s going on, forming a slurry of funny that’s easy on the eyes, which is a pretentious way of saying “yeah, he’s good.”

A special note has to be made of the visual effects. Being a sci-fi movie, it requires spaceships, aliens and lasers. It helps the comedy that the effects are played straight. The spaceships don’t have obvious strings attached, the aliens, while few, are fairly well realized with makeup, and the lasers look like how movie lasers should. Sure, they’re standing on the shoulders of giants (the Star Wars trilogy), but the effects crew delivers a solidly plausible feel to the visuals. The one really great effect is the transformation of Spaceball 1 into Mega Maid, which starts off with you not quite sure what the ship is doing, to the awesomeness of realizing that its transforming, to the joke of realizing what its transformed into, and its played completely straight.

Written by Mel Brooks, Thomas Meehan and Ronny Graham, the script packs a lot of jokes into the running time. Some of the jokes kind of fall flat, or zoom overhead (as a kid I never got the Kafka bit), but the majority of them do stick. Jewish references abound, but it’s a Mel Brooks film, so that’s to be expected. The dialog is snappy, the pacing is really fast, and you know what, for a PG rated movie, they sure say “shit” a lot. Also, the fourth wall is not simply broken, but dynamited, bulldozed and left completely fallow. Eminently quotable.

The sound effects work well, but the score by Jack Hayes adds a brilliant level of mock-epic gravitas to the action on screen, especially in the overly long view of Spaceball 1 after the opening credits. The fanfare also works quite nicely as a light, heroic, slightly goofy theme.

Simply calling Spaceballs a Star Wars parody sells it short. It’s a sci-fi parody with an emphasis on Star Wars for the plot and main characters, but throws Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, Alien and more that I can’t remember into the mix. The movie’s light, quotable and above all, enjoyable, all the earmarks of an affectionate parody. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’m surprised. Go and fix that. I’ll wait.

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