Only in the 70s: Starcrash (1979)
RETURNING to the decade of flairs, perms and nationwide blackouts after a lengthy hiatus, Dan examines one of many sci-fi travesties that scrambled to fill the demand from a certain blockbuster.
You might have heard of a man by the name of George Lucas. One of the leading lights of the New Hollywood movement throughout the 70s, Lucas had an uncanny eye for aesthetics; even when his direction faltered, his visual flair was finely honed through slices of nostalgic Americana and, rather crucially, the endless possibilities of the final frontier: Space. His vision of science-fiction, hinted at in THX-1138, reached its zenith in a little film called Star Wars.
There’s not much point in re-iterating just how enormous the cultural impact of Star Wars was when it premiered in 1977. It was a bona-fide global phenomenon, grossing more than any movie before it and catapulting both its director and its stars into the cinematic stratosphere. Darth Vader was a household name; the Force entered the dictionary; the Holiday Special was allowed to happen. Star Wars was, and is, a monolithic achievement in the history of cinema, one whose importance cannot be overstated.
$5.5 billion later, Lucas’ tacit retirement hasn’t stopped usurpers to his crown. The imitators of Star Wars are legion; as Lucas took his narrative structure from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey and Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, the slew of sci-fi fantasy films that billowed out of Star Wars’ wake took their stories from it. Few, if any, are as shamelessly brazen as Starcrash, a transparent cash-in shoddier than the architectural integrity of a Galaxy Ripple. The influence isn’t so much writ large as engraved into the very frame of the camera.
Luigi Cozzi – credited, hilariously, as Lewis Coates – was the man behind this debacle. A protégé of horror innovator Dario Argento, Cozzi was a pioneer of cheaply made, Italian-produced knock-off features. Next to Bruno Mattei, Cozzi was the next best thing in ham-fisted plagiarism masquerading as alternativism; the Torments-worthy Contamination took Alien as its benchmark, while his Lou Ferrigno-starring Hercules dyad pilfered Conan the Barbarian (and a shitload of acid) for its kicks.
The year before Starcrash, Cozzi released his ‘Cozzilla’, a re-edited and colourised version of the American cut of the original Japanese Godzilla, King of the Monsters, in Italian. Perhaps this dalliance with sci-fi trappings on a film he had no creative say in prompted Roger Corman, exploitation producer extraordinaire, to step up and get Cozzi on board for Starcrash. Drafting in esteemed character actors like Joe Spinell, Christopher Plummer and, er, David Hasselhoff, Cozzi and Corman conspired to create, on a third of the budget, an experience as fulfilling and glorious as Star Wars, hopefully making a shed load of money in the process.
They did not succeed.
Cozzi’s protestations that his film was in pre-production before Star Wars released might hold water, but the opening moments are, literally, exactly the same. There’s an opening crawl, establishing the benevolent dominion of The Emperor of the Known Universe (Plummer) and the encroaching villainy of Count Zarth Arn (Spinell). A slow reveal of a faintly imposing star destroyer cruising through space to powerful, sweeping orchestral strings, in pursuit of a smaller, one might say ‘rebel’ ship.
Said ship is piloted by Stella Star (Caroline Munro), a reputedly badass smuggler and Best Pilot in the Galaxy, accompanied by eyeliner-loving, vaguely mystic, cheerfully passive-aggressive Akton (Marjoe Gortner). (As an aside, Gotner’s life is perhaps more extraordinary than any bullshit space fantasy; he was the subject of 1972’s Oscar-winning documentary Marjoe, which focused on his progression from preternaturally gifted child preacher to jaded evangelist cynically exploiting peoples’ willingness to believe, all in the midst of a crisis of faith himself. He is somewhat less engaging as an actor.)
Together, Stella and Akton travel to three distinctly boring planets in search of the Emperor’s perma-permed son, Simon (Hasselhoff), who holds the secret to defeating the dastardly Zarth Arn. They do not meet a young moisture farmer, but they might as well; every other plot beat from Star Wars is present and accounted for, but mixed and matched in all the wrong places. For instance: Zarth Arn – the eternally cackling villain – is the Rebellion, while the benignly dictatorial Emperor is the font of goodness and virtue in the universe. It’s a strange, fascistic state of affairs that’s compounded by the absence of the world-building Star Wars excelled in.
But none of that is important – what matters is Munro delivering lines like, “Go to Hyperspace!” with the ecstatic glee of a five year-old in Hamleys. She’s a horrendous actress, cast presumably to slink around in thigh-high boots and leather singlets with her breasts hanging out, but her vacant passiveness is both hilarious and adorable. Gotner is a stone tablet of emotion, while their sidekick Elle (Judd Hamilton), an excruciating Southern-accented robot stand-in for C-3PO and R2-D2, acts as one of the five males who rescue the erstwhile competent Stella from squealing death.
Elle is a bizarre character who flits between useful accomplice and useless deadweight; juggling the roles of both Artoo and Threepio must have been a challenge for Hamilton, but no one on earth could have delivered lines like, “Look! Amazon women on horseback!” and, “Let me be a robot chauvinist.” Hasselhoff, barely in the film, musters the courage to sheepishly mumble through verbal diarrhoea, doing most of his acting through his hair. The dubbing for both leads and extras is astoundingly shoddy and, coupled with the slapshot editing, sometimes makes it impossible to work out who’s saying what and in which dimension.
Christopher Plummer – Shakespearean-trained Christopher Plummer – emerges gloriously unscathed, delivering absurd nuggets like, “Imperial battleship! Halt the flow of time!” with the gravitas befitting Richard III. A consummate professional, Plummer is a grave presence, as an Emperor entrusted with existence itself should be, and the power of his lines briefly threatens to lend some class to Starcrash.
Fortunately, his scant four minutes of screen-time are made up for by Spinell, who seems to be playing a cackle-happy cross between Ming the Merciless and Skeletor. He is wonderful here; decked out to the nines with a hang-glider cloak and a vaudevillian simper, surrounded by a harem of nubile young ladies, he relishes every ridiculous syllable as if it is the last he speaks on earth, sauntering through tubular control rooms and laughing maniacally for ten uninterrupted seconds at a time. He’s an errant moustache twirl away from exploding the screen with camp, and that’s not considering his insistence on elongating every vowel beyond the event horizon. It’s a scenery-chewing performance worthy of the Jeremy Irons school of stratospheric over-acting.
The rest of the film is, in spite of its so-bad-it’s-good reputation, rather dull. The strangely episodic structure of Stella and co.’s planetary visits disconnect them from the central narrative, and after a while it’s easy to forget why they’re even there. (It’s to find The Hoff.) The only memorable moments come from Akton using his unexplained sine wave powers to thaw out a frozen Stella; the gang evading a topless, “Amazonian” stop-motion statue, and Elle mercifully getting his cranium caved in by barbarians. (Spoilers: He appears at the end, just fine.)
Part of the appeal of a space opera is the potentially limitless wonders of intergalatic transportation, alien landscapes and pseudo-science wizardry. The visuals, in any science fiction film, are integral to the experience. 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars both understood this, even if, in the case of the former, it compromised the narrative. Starcrash understands this to an extent, but its FX warlocks are not of the same high calibre. They try their best on a limited budget, but spaceships soaring through space look like what they really are: Models being pulled across a black backdrop. Even the Not Lightsabres look shite.
The music, conversely, is as close to operatic legitimacy as Starcrash gets. Composed and conducted by John Barry – yes, the John Barry – it’s a rousing, emphatic score that tells more of a story in 30 seconds than the script manages in 90 minutes. It’s a soaring, magisterial suite from the mind of an incredibly talented musician; a shame, then, that the majesty of his compositions receive such little justice.
Legitimacy is the least of Starcrash‘s problems, or indeed objectives. Starcrash is a disaster, but it’s not aiming much higher. From the theft of its opening shot to the banality of its closing shot, the film is a perfect exercise in shitty sci-fi exploitation, taking the straightforward magic of Star Wars and mangling it through a nonsensical Italian filter.
The cutting edge effects of Industrial Light and Magic are transposed to obnoxious, flashing red lights and stop-motion so laughable the 1925 adaptation of The Lost World looks modern by comparison. The acting and writing are beyond atrocious, and the camerawork is the stuff of nightmares. The sets are phony, the lighting awkward, and the action sequences are repetitive drivel.
And yet, in spite of all that, it boasts the devil-may-care, cavalier spirit that made Star Wars what it was. In its slapdash production, hackneyed screenplay and antiquated effects, it resembles the old Flash Gordon serials that Lucas himself used as a template. Starcrash is terrible, let’s make no bones about it, but it’s the spirited kind of awful that elevates wretched material to a higher, probably even undeserving plane. If nothing else – and it is plenty of things – it’s ambitious. In the projects he lead after Star Wars, George would learn – in a lesson Cozzi likely ignored – that you can’t rely on ambition alone.