Having squandered their own air supply, the inhabitants of Planet Spaceball kidnap a wealthy princess to rob her planet of its precious resources.
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“Everybody got that?” Dark Helmet asks the audience after his chief-in-command Colonel Sandurz delivers the plot exposition to his fellow villains.
This late 80’s parody of science-fiction fanfare may have been tardy in satirizing the “Star Wars” empire that George Lucas built a decade earlier. In describing his prime target in making “Spaceballs”, Mel Brooks calls the sci-fi epic “the final frontier. It is the last genre I can destroy. So I am destroying it.”
Additionally, he has categorized this entry as “half wit, half physical, half disgusting, and sometimes beautiful. It’s my appreciation of the human event.”
While some critics have challenged Mr. Brooks’ timeliness in the sci-fi parody, this film has enjoyed a cult appreciation in terms of its clever writing and enjoyable characters. Another factor to appreciate: Apogee, Inc accomplished the special effects in this comedy in the dwindling days of pre-digital CGI. Like the original “Star Wars” trilogy, Agogee’s special effects team had to construct models with computerized motion control systems to give the flying Winnebago and endless Spaceball One the illusions of movement.
During these contemporary days of special effects design where anything and everything can be done with digital enhancement, it is refreshing to watch a master like Mel Brooks carve genuine comedy out of handcrafted science fiction.
Even though “Spaceballs” features lasers, spaceships, and alien make-up galore, Brooks never steps too far away from his fan base in delivering the pratfalls and one-liners that made the man a comic icon. He even gets a guy in a bear suit to get a cheap laugh in the third act.
The movie begins with a “Star Wars” scroll giving the audience a brief history of the Spaceballs universe. Under the hilarious leadership of President Skroob (Mel Brooks, hmm, I just realized the name is an anagram) the citizens of Planet Spaceball are forced to invade new worlds in order to steal their air supply.
Mimicking “Star Wars” to the last detail, Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) and Colonel Sandurz (George Wyner) kidnap Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) in an effort to blackmail her father, King Roland (Brooks all-star for father figures, Dick Van Patten).
This is where Bill Pullman and John Candy come in, as Captain Lone Starr and his sidekick Barf, an allusion to Chewbacca in that he is half-man, half-dog. Candy is hysterical in his performance of the mawg, but the real winners of this role are the operators of Barf’s mechanical canine-like ears. Every time Barf appears to listen, his auto-receptive ears perk up like antennae. The effect is comic gold.
Like Han Solo, the character of Lone Starr is motivated by money. With perfect deadpan, Pullman says, “Barf, we’re not doing this for the spacebucks. We’re doing it for a shitload of spacebucks!”
The reason for the greed is that Lone Starr has a heavy debt to pay Pizza the Hut (voiced by the recently departed Dom DeLuise). And Pullman plays the character of Lone Starr with a humorous yet touching sentiment that would have made Harrison Ford proud. With a note of sadness, Lone Starr tells Vespa he hails from the Ford Galaxy. Those who do not remember the Ford Galxie 500 have come to assume that this joke is a reference to the actor who played Han Solo.
But there is more than enough of “Star Wars” reference to go around. Brooks even uses the famous Wilhelm scream as one of his Spaceball troops is shot in the ass by incoming laser fire.As a matter of fact, keep an eagle eye out for the Millennium Falcon parked next to Lone Starr’s Winnebago at the interstellar gas station.
This is not to say that George Lucas’ beloved saga of “Star Wars” is the sole target of Mr. Brooks’ parodying lightsabre. In “Spaceballs”, he references “The Wizard of Oz”, “Star Trek”, “Alien”, and even “Planet of the Apes”. Keep a sharp ear ready for that last one. That is the voice of Michael York playing the second ape on horseback.
Brooks definitely goes above and beyond his traditional self-reflective voice in this film. In ways like never before, the writer/director/producer/star lists his former Hollywood achievements as videotapes stored upon a futuristic spaceship.
“Instant cassettes,” says Col. Sandurz. “They’re out in stores before the movie is finished.”
In one of my favorite comedic sequences of all time, the villainous Spaceballs fast-forward through their own movie in order to discover the location of the good guys. After which, Dark Helmet and Sandurz engage in an Abbott and Costello routine of existential misunderstanding.
And the self-reflective filmmaking joke continues throughout the movie. Before teaching Lone Starr about the powers of the Schwartz, Yogurt (also played by Mr. Brooks) explains his profession upon his lonely planet.
“Merchandising,” says Yogurt. “Where the real money from the movie is made.” Yogurt then goes on to sell the audience item after item of Spaceballs merchandise, all of which is a joke. In fact, Mr. Lucas allowed Brooks to make “Spaceballs” on the condition that there would be no merchandising for this movie. This would, of course, account for the spotty nature of the “merchandise”. Notice that “Spaceballs: The Coloring Book” is nothing more than a Transformers illustration book (Twenty years before Michael Bay began ruining my beloved robotic heroes himself!)
There are many other individual items of “Spaceballs” to enjoy for the pure sake of silliness. John Candy wins the award for the best use of the middle finger (beating out Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix” and Jennifer Aniston in “Office Space”) after Lone Starr and Barf park the Winnebago in the Spaceball penal territory.
I am also a big fan of the great Stephen Tobolowsky’s short yet pleasing scene as an effeminate Captain of the Guards. He only has a couple of lines, but there is just something about his delivery that makes his character as memorable as Barf.
“Spectacular stunt, my friends, but all for not . . .” he lectures to his captives before realizing they are nothing more than stunt doubles.
The scene when Dark Helmet is caught playing with the Spaceballs action figures is also one of my favorite reactions in filmed comedy. According to cinema trivia, Moranis performed this scene impromptu after Brooks suddenly conjured up the premise on set. How they got the action figure so quickly is anyone’s guess.
And let’s not forget Joan Rivers as the voice of Dot Matrix, Princess Vespa’s personal assistant droid. Ironic, though, that the Joan Rivers of today currently resembles the physical appearance of the golden android.
A subtle shout is also made to fans of literary essays. When Spaceball One is revealed to be a gigantic transformer about to engage in “metamorphosis”, Dark Helmet prompts his officer: “Ready, Kafka?” Think about that one.
Final thought: Does the alien that bursts out of John Hurt’s stomach play a song that seems familiar to all who watched those classic Looney Tunes cartoons? It should. The song and top hat dance number is homage to “One Froggy Evening”. You know, the one where the frog grabs a cane and dances to “The Michigan Rag.”
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