Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Starfighters (1964) - MST3K Review

Lt. John Witkoski (Robert Dornan, yes of senatorial fame) has just accepted a transfer to a fighter jet squadron that uses the incredible Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. John is pleased as punch about the assignment and is a natural when it comes to flying these babies. But his father, a powerful congressman, wants his son to fly huge old bombers.

But nothing doing! John participates in dangerous training maneuvers, hits on a local hottie and gets into some shenanigans with his buddies Lt. York (Steve Early) and Lt. Lyons (Robert Winston). Meanwhile the audience is treated to endless footage of refueling planes, some really bad underscore and a bunch of men gadding about in their poopie suits. I can’t make this up folks. The Starfighters proves that something as exciting as jet fighters can be made more dull than watching an apple brown.

Movie Review:
If you take Top Gun drain away all the entertaining cheese, replace the likable cast with wooden performances, inject about 15 minutes of midair refueling footage and then set it back in the 1960s, you have a pretty good idea of what The Starfighters is like.

When of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans discuss the worst movies ever made this one will usually come up. With its paper-thin plot, one dimensional characters and endless use of stock footage the whole package is painfully dull. Yet, you can see that money was spent on the film. It was obviously filmed at the George Air Force base in California.  You can tell that all the plane footage is real, with no use of special effects. You can even tell that some of the airmen in the film are actual servicemen pitching in with some bit parts.

But this does not excuse the basic issues with the story telling. There is essentially no plot to speak of. John is our main character because the camera spends the most time pointed at him. He has a basic conflict with his father, but it is comprised of boring scenes with the congressman calling up John or his commanding officer and whining about the F-104’s safety record.

A quick check on wiki reveals that this was an actual concern with the Starfighter jet. In the mid sixties a series of well-publicized accidents involving the jet occurred in Europe and Canada. Was this movie made to bolster support for the jet? If so, who was the audience?

Some other things happen. John and his buddies clown around a bit. John meets a local girl and hits on her. And if you ever wanted to watch Bob Dornan make out, than this is the movie for you!

Mostly you get to see lots of training exercises. It contains everything from routine maneuvers and mid-air refueling to combat training using missiles and guns. The “set piece” if it can be called that is when our heroes get lost in storm and the commanding officers attempt to find the missing planes. Did one go down? Was it John’s plane? Is he OK? Does anyone care?

And that brings us back to the basic question. Who is watching this movie? Would Air Force personnel be entertained by minute after minute of midair refueling footage? Maybe they’d enjoy the tepid romance? Oh who am I kidding, there would be few people even watching this film if Mike and bots weren’t on hand to give it a proper skewering.

Episode Review:  
I’ve mentioned this episode a number times in previous reviews and for good reason. When you’re looking for an example of a movie in which nothing happens and yet the riffing is top notch, you need look no further than The Starfighters. Now this episode is one that fans of the show can’t agree on. Some love it (like me) and other find it to be one of the worst.

I won’t deny that the movie is a real loser. It’s dull, it’s pointless, and it’s soulless on top it. It has all the qualities that I find in Monster A-Go-Go, without the catchy name. And yet, that episode never works for me and The Starfighters is a favorite.

The reason is simple. Mike and the bots attack the movie with all the guns blazing. The riffing starts and never stops, pushing the pacing forward at a tremendous speed – in fact creating it’s own pacing buy sheer will. The boys pick up on everything they can, from the hilarious musical score during the flight scenes to the extreme close ups of some seriously craggy faces.

The episode is worth watching for two key scenes. The first is the mid-air refueling sequence at the start of the film. Mike and the bots unleash an amazing set of jokes spanning sex, drug use and toilet humor. Just when you think they can’t come up with a new barb, they do and it’s hilarious. The scene feels like it goes on for roughly 3 hours, and yet the boys make the most of it, getting really creative with the jokes. And then the movie throws in another mid-air refueling scene later the boys provide a laundry list of the jokes they’ve already said, impressing as much as it amuses, and then fill in any gaps they missed. It’s one of my favorite riffing sequences from the whole series.

The other classic scene is the introduction of the “poopie suit”, an actual term used by the air force for a specialized suit worn during intercontinental flights. There is no way the Mike and the bots can ignore this, and so they dive right into the fecal based humor and hit a goldmine. Tom even sings a song with the annoying musical score about “filling you pants over France in your poopie suit”. Usually a little lowbrow humor goes a long way with me, but the movie is asking for it and the boys deliver. Great stuff.

This is a season six episode and it really shows the cast and crew at the height of their comedy writing. They take a movie that could have been as weak and dull as Mad Monster and make it one of the funniest episodes of the season. And since this is an episode from the Comedy Central run, the humor is less acerbic and barbed. They never get nasty with the movie, but seem to genuinely have a good time riffing it.

The episode starts with Crow attempting to log on to the Internet (this episode aired back in 1995, when the interwebs were shiny and new to most folks). Try as he might, he can’t merge onto the information superhighway. The mad scientists show off their cranial ports and now they are linked together with cords and connections. Mike and bots pitch “Cowboy Mike’s Ricochet Barbeque Sauce”, inspired by the countless BBQ sauce commercials on TV. The dialogue in this sequence has inspired my wife and I to talk about “extree bold” sauce to this day. At the first break Crow and Tom attempt some mid air refueling and it gets a bit disturbing actually. At the next break Crow and Tom decide they need to debrief Mike after he viewed top secret information in the movie. Yeah, they go for the underwear joke. We get a musical break next with Tom Servo and his singing airmen providing a clever medley of flight based songs a cappella. This allows Kevin Murphy to show of his singing chops (which are considerable). Once the film is over Crow is finally able to access the Internet and promptly discovers it’s a complete waste of time.

When people say they hate The Starfighters episode, I understand. If you can’t get past the painfully dull film, then the riffing can’t help you. But if you can get in the groove, and let Mike and Bots be your guide, you’ll enjoy a really top-notch effort.

I give it five poopie suits out of five.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection: Volume 12.


  1. I think your suspicion that this was basically a promotional video for Lockheed is correct. The USAF wasn't really satisfied with the aircraft, despite its very high speed and acceleration, and bought (by the standards of the day) relatively few of them. (It had low payload, short range, and poor maneuverability.) The real market was overseas; because it was fast and cheap, it appealed to countries with more limited budgets. The F104 was unforgiving of errors, though. The German air force lost 30% of them in accidents; the plane got the nickname Widowmaker. It needed a good advertising campaign to keep up sales.

    Maybe the campaign would have worked better had the 'bots been on hand in the 1960s. This turkey of a movie might have bee a hit.

    1. Yeah it's a real odd film. And considering how often the bring up the safety record in the film, they seem to be trying really hard to emphasis how safe it is in spite of those incidents. I can understand the focus on the training maneuvers to show off the speed and agility of the fighter, but who is supposed to enjoy those endless mid-air refueling sequences?

  2. Now I have to go watch MST3K...THANKS! lol