“Prepare ship for…ludicrous speed!”
In 1977, George Lucas gave the world a brand new mythology in Star Wars. In doing so, he lit humanity’s imagination on fire, influenced the art of filmmaking for years to come, and brought a sense of wonder to an entire generation of filmgoers. Ten years later, Mel Brooks made Spaceballs.
Having run out of air on their home world, the sinister Spaceballs have come up with a plan. Led by President Skroob (Mel Brooks, The Producers) and his enforcer Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis, Little Shop of Horrors), these nefarious villains set out to steal all the oxygen from the peaceful planet Druidia. But said planet is protected by an enormous shield, and only the royal family has its combination. Then the king’s daughter, Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga, Gross Anatomy), leaves her lethargic groom at the altar and flees into space. This provides those pesky Spaceballs with a potential key to getting their air, and they set out to kidnap her. Racing to Vespa’s rescue is space adventurer Lone Star (Bill Pullman, Lost Highway) and his loyal companion Barf (John Candy, Uncle Buck).
In the 90 minutes that follow, you’ll witness laser gun battles, a gut-busting meal at a diner, spaceship crashes, the bearded lady, magic powers, singing in bass, transporter technology, virgin alarms, explosions, rampant merchandising, flame throwers, aliens, and just plain Yogurt.
When I first saw Spaceballs at the theater back in 1987, I thought it was the biggest stinking pile I’d ever seen. It wasn’t until rediscovering the movie years later that I realized that maybe, just maybe, there’s a decent comedy here. I had to look at my criticisms of the movie in a new light. Let’s take a look at these three criticisms now, and see how just inaccurate they are.
Criticism Number One: Bad acting
Sure, it isn’t Shakespeare, but the actors throw themselves into their roles with enthusiasm. Whether the characters are heroes, villains, sidekicks, or bit players, each performer brings likeability to his or her role. Bill Pullman is all sly cockiness as the tough space hero. Daphne Zuniga might make feminists cringe as the whiny princess, but she gets a moment or two in there to crack a joke and zap some villains along with the guys.
On the flat-out comedy side of the acting, Rick Moranis is appropriately over the top as the villain, with George Wyner (Hill Street Blues) as his straight man, Colonel Sandurz. Brooks does his usual shtick, but he does it well. As a robotic bridesmaid, Joan Rivers (Shrek 2) managed to sneak in some good lines in between her usual fashion hosting duties. And John Candy’s particular brand of humor—big and oafish—is on full display.
As is typical in comedies like this, there are plenty of bit players who with only one scene, or even one line, manage to stand out. Consider the Spaceball who, out of nowhere, speaks to Dark Helmet in German. Or Michael Winslow (the guy who made funny noises in Police Academy), who gets to be funny without overstaying his welcome. Even veteran British actor John Hurt shows up for a cameo, reprising one of his most famous roles. The acting, within the context of the film, does exactly what it should.
Criticism Number Two: The movie is poorly made
In Brooks’ best work, he visually mimicked the films he satirized. At a glance, Young Frankenstein could appear to be a classic Universal monster movie; Blazing Saddles might be mistaken for a spaghetti western. To achieve a similar effect on Spaceballs, Brooks went to the source and hired the special effects wizards at Industrial Light and Magic, the same group that brought Star Wars to intergalactic life. As a result, the spaceships of Spaceballs, including the Winnebago, zip across the screen with similar excitement and majesty as the ships in Lucas’s epic trilogy. The special effects are rarely used as a joke. Instead, the fantasy visuals are what ground all the craziness. We accept that these outrageous characters live in this wacky universe; that lets us sit back and enjoy the ride.
This philosophy extends to the sets and costumes, which are also first-rate. The mammoth command center aboard Spaceball One gives the actors plenty of scenery to chew, while the aforementioned Winnebago looks appropriately lived-in. Barf’s ears and tail are so expressive that they’re practically characters on their own. Moranis does indeed have a giant helmet, but he’s able to move around and slapstick it up with the rest of cast without the costume hindering his performance. All this attention to detail might not be evident for someone watching the film for the first time, but it enhances the experience, allowing the audience to just sit back and laugh, without being distracted by an awkward costume or a sloppy special effect.
Criticism Number Three: Mel Brooks dumbed it down for the kiddies
In the world of comedy, there is a phenomenon many call “The Bullwinkle effect.” This is when a youngster, watching the animated mishaps of Bullwinkle and Rocky, sees only a lighthearted adventure story, but an adult watching the same cartoon picks up on all the satirical elements to the writing, and enjoys it on a whole other level. This same effect can be experienced with The Simpsons, the 1960s Batman TV series, and—yes—Spaceballs.
Brooks knew from the start that the movie would have to appeal to younger viewers, who wouldn’t get most of the jokes. (Well, except the really raunchy ones.) So, like any good comedian, Brooks plays to his audience. Although bad taste is no stranger to this film, there are a few kid-friendly moments spread throughout. This is most apparent during the scene in which all the Spaceballs must evacuate their gigantic spaceship. A group of circus performers show up and start causing mayhem. The sudden presence of acrobats, clowns, and a guy in a bear suit might be too goofy for film snobs, but Brooks knows the age 8 and under crowd is watching, and he wants laughs out of them, too.
“There’s been a new breakthrough in home video marketing. Instant cassettes. They’re out in stores before the movie is finished.”—Colonel Sandurz
For a studio that allegedly no longer exists, MGM has put together a fine Collector’s Edition. Despite its age, the picture is razor-sharp, with barely any hints of specks or grain. Colors are bright and bold, and the black levels are deep and solid. But there are hints that something might be wrong with the aspect ratio, such as when the visual punch line to the infamous plastic surgery joke is cut off on one end of the screen. This also occurred on previous releases of the film. If work was done to clean up the picture, one would think MGM would have corrected this oversight. Sound comes in English DTS 5.1 and Dolby 5.1 surround tracks, both of which will give your speakers a decent workout. Dialogue and sound effects come through loud and clear, but the tracks really shine when presenting the rousing score by John Morris.
The packaging proclaims, “Jammed with extras,” and it’s not kidding. On Disc One, there is a commentary with Brooks. Although he provides little actual information, his love for the movie is infectious, and he clearly enjoys watching it as much as his fans. This commentary was recorded for the laserdisc in 1996, and features a surprise appearance by the late Ronny Graham, one of Brooks’ co-writers on the film, who pops in to comment on his cameo. Also worth mentioning on Disc One are the menus, which, keeping with tradition, do an admirable job spoofing the elaborate menus on the Star Wars DVDs. Let them play for a while, and they turn into their own mini-movie, which is a lot of fun to watch.
Disc Two opens with three options, all of which take you to the same extras via three differently designed menus. First here is “Spaceballs: The Documentary.” Brooks and several cast and crew members talk about the creation and making of the film. It moves along at a quick pace, but covers a lot of ground. More than 15 years later, the movie is still a sentimental favorite for those who worked on it. “In Conversation: Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan” is a sit down between the two where they talk about writing the script. Meehan seems to remember more about it than Brooks, but Brooks can still make with the jokes, so this one’s fun to watch. A little more serious is “John Candy: Comic Spirit,” a look at Candy’s life and career, with interviews from his fellow cast mates and footage from several of his films. The disc is rounded out with numerous interactive features such as film flubs, quotes, a trivia game, an art gallery, a costume gallery, a photo gallery, a storyboard-to-film comparison, and two trailers.
Here I am at the end of the review, and I couldn’t find a place to work in the phrase “comb the desert.” Oh, well. Maybe next time.