Plan '79 From Outer Space (Starcrash Reviewed)


Screencap courtesy Cold Fusion Video. I highly recommend you read their review after this one.

So, Erin and I had the pleasure of Cameron’s company this weekend. We talked, ate good food (including pulled pork off a shoulder that was slow cooked for almost nine hours), and talked about our writing. Thanks to him, I have a better idea what the key motivations for Perpetua, Fergus and Earthenhouse are in The Night Girl, meaning that I have a good idea of where the story is going. We also ordered in Chinese and took delight in watching a really bad movie.

You may recall my love for watching and making fun of bad movies. Erin, Dan, Cameron and I have poked fun at such theatrical films as The Core and The Day After Tomorrow. Made for TV movies have provided plenty of their own delights, including Killer Bees! (starring some really cheap CGI bees that fly slowly and in formation, almost like fighter aircraft) and our personal favourite, Bats! (starring Lou Diamond Phillips).

We watch these movies because we like to make fun of them, so yes we have watched more than a few Mystery Science Theatre 3000’s. This comedy program does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of finding the bad movies out there (as they tend to languish in obscurity), editing out the boring bits, and providing us with a human and two robotic co-hosts to give quick-witted commentary to extract the most laughs. Indeed, MST3K makes it quite safe to find and enjoy bad movies, because without their assistance, it can be a hard slog finding a movie so bad, it ends up good.

Consider the films I listed two paragraphs ago, which we watched without the benefit of the MST3K hosts. The theatrical releases are not totally bad movies. The special effects are quite good on both fronts (if painful to anybody with a physics degree — or, indeed, for anybody with any scientific knowledge whatsoever), and there is some good acting to go with the bad.

Then there is Bats!, which offers plenty to laugh at in terms of its premise, its cliched plot developments and poor performances. While all of these are there, the director goes a long way to making the story watchable by winking at the audience occasionally and acknowledging how bad the premise is. The best moment in the movie comes when the heroes confront the mad scientist at the heart of it all. “You’ve come up with a strain of DNA that makes fruit bats carnivorous, intelligent and highly social, you’ve turned it into a virus and you’ve spread it around the local bat population?” they ask the scientist. “Yup, that’s about it,” says the scientist. “But why?!!?” go the heroes, to which the scientist replies, “I’m a scientist. It’s what I do.”

Indeed, the movie misses a few opportunities to turn itself from a bad movie into an excellent parody. There is a scene where Bats! could have aped The Birds. I mean, the scientist is standing in a fracking playground, in front of a jungle gym! But the director never takes the bait. Oh, well. But it kept us watching.

It goes without saying that we’re not as quick witted as the professional comedians that run MST3K (although Cameron comes close), so if we can’t provide a humourous line that pounces on a piece of bad acting, ludicrous plotting, poor dialogue, or special effect backfire, we’re kind of left just sitting there… watching a bad movie, and it’s not fun to waste ninety minutes to two hours of our time on such travesties. Bad movies can be boring. Bad movies can be lame and sickening. Bad movies can make you want to hunt down and punch out a director or a producer for having made them. It takes a special class of bad movie that, without any redeeming feature in script, acting, directing or special effect, still manages to entertain you throughout. Bad movies are usually unintentionally funny. Have many of you seen Plan 9 from Outer Space? That’s high comedy today, but primarily because Ed Wood set out to shoot a serious movie.

Which brings me to Starcrash — quite possibly the worst movie I’ve ever willingly sat through, and one in which I had a great time with Erin and Cameron. The film was made in 1979 by Roger Corman, a name which seems to pop up again and again in pretentiously bad films, and one who is well known for jumping on bandwagons. As it’s 1979, the bandwagon of the day is, you guessed it: Star Wars, and the producers of Starcrash lace their movie with as many whooshing starship shots, gun fights and light sabres as fear of George Lucas’ very powerful lawyers would allow. Unfortunately, they have a fraction of George Lucas’ budget, and almost none of his talent.

The plot, so far as I can make out, involves two carefree smugglers named Stella Star (uh huh). Played by Caroline Munro, better known for her appearance as the Bond girl in The Spy Who Loved Me) and Akton (played by Marjoe Gortner, better known for… well, probably not well known at all) who get caught up in a battle between the Galactic Empire and an evil rebel group led by a megalomaniac named Zarth Arn (whose parents should probably be held responsible for their son’s descent into evil — after all, they chose to name him Zarth Arn).

After escaping from the galactic cops (yes, “cops”), Stella and Akton stumble onto a derelict escape pod, and encounter the only survivor of an Imperial expeditionary force sent to locate Zarth Arn’s base of operations. They are captured by the police, sentenced to separate prison planets (where Stella is given prison fatigues that are far, far more revealing than what the other prisoners are wearing. She’s also charged with pouring buckets of radium into a furnace and complains “the radiation is going to burn off my skin” prompting us to quip in her voice “it’s already burnt off my clothes!”). She executes a prison escape twelve hours after arriving, gets picked up by the cops again (same ones who arrested her) and then recruited by the Emperor, along with Akton, to go on a mission.

The Imperial expedition ship whose escape pod they found was carrying the Emperor’s son. As Akton and Stella have proven their skills and loyalty to the empire by doing absolutely nothing whatsoever, the Emperor asks them to search for the lost ship and its other escape pods (two of which were seen detaching and flying away in the movie’s prologue). Despite having been subjected to rough (haha) prison conditions, Akton and Stella agree. They search the galaxy and in the span of thirty minutes find one crashed escape pod on a planet of Amazon women, the main ship on a barren planet of ice and snow, and the final escape pod, and the Emperor’s son (played by David Hasselhoff) on a planet of belligerent cavemen.

I hope you appreciate the time I took to try and explain the early part of the plot, because it was the best I could do after watching the whole movie. Events occur which are only tenuously linked to each other, and one is hard pressed to string together a coherent narrative out of the mess that occurs on screen. Characters do things because the script tells them to, including switching sides (twice); in order to get out of various predicaments, the characters don’t so much as rescue themselves but rely on the writing monkeys to pull improbable resolutions out of a hat. It is sometimes painful for me to watch this film, being a writer myself and knowing that these writers got away with pure crap that would never get a passing grade out of a high school creative writing class.

Elric: My lord!
Zarth Arn: What is it, Elric?
Elric: [incredulously] A floating spaceship is about to crash into us!
Zarth Arn: Sultaan! Destroy the floating spaceship approaching us!

Fortunately other things ease the pain.

The special effects, for instance, promote gails of laughter. For some reason, when the producers of Starcrash decided they needed robots (to take advantage of the buzz created by C3PO and R2D2), instead of men in suits, they turned to stop motion animation, including scenes where the actors are required to do battle (with swords or light sabres) with the stop motion robots. Actually, the combination of live actors with the stop motion robots is not bad at all, and would have been carried off well if it weren’t for the fact that the robots are very obviously stop motion and look as though their threat could be nullified if one simply ran away at a slow jog.

Laser beams are your standard effect painted onto the film, with twip! twip! sound effects added. And then there is the starscapes; clearly the producers didn’t see fit to bring aboard a scientific advisor, but also decided to get a little ambitious. Starscapes in Star Wars are nothing but white dots on black: tres boring! Our star scapes will have blue stars and pink stars and fuschia planets and green stars, making our ships travel less through space and more beneath a ceiling at a disco. “Look out! A neutron star!” shouts Stella, pointing at something that nobody over the age of five would call a neutron star.

The costume design isn’t much better, and I’m not just talking about the writers’ continued excuses to dress Caroline Munro in as little as possible (her only concession to arriving on the Ice Planet is to put on tights). I could not help but notice that the evil rebels and the soldiers of the Empire were dressed in near identical costumes, except the colours were different (with the bad guys wearing black, naturally). Both helmets have a strange raised insignia on them which is easier to see on the rebels because it’s white on black: an arrow pointing straight down from the top of the head to just between the soldiers’ eyes. I have to think that the intended effect was to recall the points atop the helmets of World War 1 German soldiers, but only led me to point to the tip of the arrow and say, “Punch me here.”

Starcrash is also remarkable for ensnaring none other than Christopher Plummer. He’s the Emperor, who doesn’t have a name other than “the Emperor”, and you can tell from the moment he appears that it is a serious embarrasment for him to be in this movie. He phones in his performance as much as possible and is responsible for delivering one of the most bizarre lines in the movie. It’s an event that stands out, a crescendo of bad acting and storytelling that gets the movie to its most dire but distressingly entertaining moment.

On the third planet, Stella and the Emperor’s son Simon (David Hasselhoff) are trapped and left as bait for the Emperor who is supposed to arrive just as the planet is rigged to explode. After a series of battles against the stop-motion robots consigned to keep the characters there (rather than killing them outright as any sensible villain would do), the Emperor and his retinue arrive, and Stella and Simon tell him — without any sense of urgency — that the planet is going to blow up in 48 seconds. But the Emperor is not worried.

Emperor: You know, my son, I wouldn’t be Emperor of the Galaxy if I didn’t have a few powers at my disposal. (He steps to the front of the screen)
Erin: I’m going to be sorry to ask what those powers are, aren’t I?
Emperor: Imperial Battleship, HALT THE FLOW OF TIME!
Erin, Cameron and Me stare incredulously, then dissolve into hysterics)

No, really, they’re serious. The imperial battleship bathes the complex in a green glow, leaving the Emperor, his minions, his son and Stella three minutes to escape the complete and utter destruction of the planet. That’s probably the point where the writer just threw up his hand and said “I don’t care!” Certainly that’s the point where Plummer threw up his hands.

Poor Christopher. But take heart: at least you’re not Sean Connery in Zardoz.

Beyond the near destruction of Christopher Plummer’s career, beyond the usual stuff you’d expect from David Hasselhoff, beyond the abysmall writing, the cheap special effects and everything — or, rather, because of them, Starcrash is that special kind of bad movie that keeps you entertained as you watch in disbelief and derision. You are astounded by the arrogance of the producers who clearly felt that all they had to do was slap a few space ships onto a bunch of cliches, and the sci-fi geeks would beat a path to their door. You delight in seeing how badly everything gets shot down, and you can sit there, taking delicious comfort in the fact that, while somebody somewhere got paid for writing this crap, you can be sure that your own failures won’t be this bad, or this public.

I first learned about Starcrash after reading this review on Cold Fusion Video and I highly recommend that you check it out as they do a much better job than I of detailing all of the ludicrous things that happen here, for as much comic effect as possible. And, if you’re willing to take the risk, rent Starcrash, buy a bottle of wine (or two) and invite a few friends over for an evening. Encourage them to read the review first. You may be surprised how good you feel at the end of it.

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