Friday, September 29, 2017

Starcrash (1978) – MST3K Review


The Emperor of the Universe (Christopher Plummer) has it rough. He sent a top secret scouting mission to find the evil Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell) and his super weapon. But the scout ship was lost with all hands, including Prince Simon (David Hasselhoff). Without the location of the secret base, the universe is doomed to even more ridiculous outfits.

Luckily the beautiful outlaw Stella Star (Caroline Munro) and her navigator (and resident know it all) Akton (Maroe Gortner) have the skills to help out. After some persuading by the gruff Chief Thor (Robert Tessier) and his country western robot Elle (Judd Hamilton with the voice of Hamilton Camp – no I’m not making this up), the four begin their quest. Along the way they will find strange new worlds, face off against amazons and troglodytes, witness the horrors of lava lamp creatures and unleash the power of Stella’s space bikini. Science Fiction will never the same again.

Movie Review:

Stella is ready for space adventure!
I watched and reviewed this movie a few years ago, and it instantly became one of my favorite bad movies. Starcrash hits a level I like to think of as beautifully bad. It is a movie that is completely entertaining in its ineptitude, lovely in its horrible acting, plot points, framing, lighting and overall aesthetic. It is a wonder to behold, and one of the rare types of movies that is artful because of the way it fails. Not too many movies can achieve such twisted perfection. Some examples include Samurai Cop for action movies, and Hawk the Slayer or the Ferrigno Hercules would be a good fit for fantasy films. But I may go out on a limb and say that Starcrash is the queen of them all.

The most impressive set in the film.
One look at the date this film was released, and you know exactly what it was going for: Star Wars. But like many of the cash-in films released during this era, Starcrash knows only that Star Wars was popular, but not the reasons why it worked overall. It tries so hard to please and entertain, and in some ways it does, but never in the way it intends to. At each turn, Starcrash goes hard left when it should go right, and you end up with a movie that is as bizarre as it is ridiculous.

Where to begin? Lets start with the overall visual approach to the film. Star Wars was famous for going for a “used universe” style with its visuals. It avoided the shiny newness that 2001: A Space Odyssey perfected. Instead it had a lived in look, something that grounded the science fiction and fantasy of George Lucas’ world.

Leaping cavemen! Are we in the right movie? Is this
Cave Dwellers?
Starcrash goes in a different direction, something that feels closer to comic books and specifically European comic books. The space opera is a ripe genre in European comics and with artists like Jean Giraud who worked on Heavy Metal and whose style influenced The Fifth Element and Blade Runner. It is no surprise that the visuals in Starcrash look more like these films, than they look like Star Wars or even the Star Trek television series.

The visuals are eye popping with the amount of color on display. Creatures like the red blob monsters and the energy weapons used seem to leap of the screen. The costumes are outlandish and over the top. Stella is sexy, so she has to dress in a space bikini. Count Zarth Arn is eeeeeviiiillll so he has to dress in black. And then there is the Emperor of the Universe himself, looking like a high priest of a metallic pagan festival… or space god… or something. Make up follows the same path, with so much color that it distracts more than compliments. And this being the disco era… well you know exactly what to expect.

Hyperspace looks cherry flavored.
The visual effects are all over the place. Starcrash does use a variety of techniques to bring the universe to life. None of them are very convincing, but all of them are a lot of fun. The previously mentioned red blobs look like a lava lamp superimposed over action. You get stop motion robots of various sizes. There are plenty of space ship models. A lot of them look like obvious kit bashing (again making you appreciate how good the ships in Star Wars looked). You even have a lightsaber that Akton wields in a couple scenes. The scenes where the ships travel through hyperspace involve some really bizarre visuals that may have been inspired by the star-gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Sound effects end up in the same boat. Lots of creative stuff, and some of it is pretty goofy sounding. But it isn’t as bad as the fight sound effects in something like Angels' Revenge so that is positive. I do wonder when it comes to sound effects in this era of Star Wars rip offs, if the creators realized how difficult it was to come up with unique sounds for everything. Or if they just sorted through the sound effects library and pulled out something that seemed to fit.

"Well of course I'm evil. Look at my clothes!"
Now there is an elephant in the room, and it has a 007 on its trunk. When it came to the music to Starcrash the creators wanted to capture that golden age sound that John Williams so masterfully captured. So they went to John Barry. Yes, that John Barry, the man who gave us memorable scores to Goldfinger, Dances with Wolves and The Lion in Winter. At the time Barry was dealing with some tax issues, so it is possible that Barry took the job for financial reasons only. But maybe he figured he might as well have some fun with the score.

"What do you mean I'm overdressed?"
Barry actually scored three science fiction films in the late 1970s, and all of them have similar tone and style. Starcrash has an easy going melodic feel to much of its score. Even the action music is dominated by whole notes and slow but deliberate pace. This is a style that Barry came to rely on around this point in his career (although you can hear the seeds of it as far back as The Lion in Winter). These long slow themes give everything in Starcrash an overly majestic and momentous quality. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it makes everything a bit more ridiculous. There are even a few callbacks to other famous scores. His main theme was certainly inspired by John Williams. And during a scene where Akton battles cavemen, Barry uses a fanfare that nearly mimics the famous Strauss piece from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Compared to his similar scores for Moonraker and The Black Hole it is probably the least of the three, but Barry fans will enjoy it.

"I think we'd get out of here faster if you call KITT."
And now we come to the acting. For a movie that is more Barbarella and less Close Encounters of a Third Kind it is a bit hard to judge. You get the feeling that the cast involved in Starcrash knew exactly what type of movie they were making. So there is a spirit of fun overlaying the whole thing. But you also get moments where you can tell the cast is losing interest (especially Gortner who is obviously staring off into a corner in some scenes). But I have to say Caroline Munro is giving it a great try, balancing sexy and tough fairly well. Hasselhoff also seems to be giving the silly film a solid effort, delivering some very ripe dialogue at times.

But my favorite performances are by Joe Spinell and Christopher Plummer. Spinell embraces his dark side as Count Zarth Arn. He is the opposite of subtle, and seems to be having a great time ranting, raving and chewing all the scenery he can find. His flourishes with his cape, his eye-popping anger and his booming voice all make him a highlight of Starcrash. Yes Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon was impressivly evil, but Zarth here, he’s just bombastically evil.

"Am I that transparent?"
On the opposite end is The Emperor of the Universe. Plummer also seems to be embracing and ludicrous nature of the plot, the characters and his costume. He delivers long speeches with his wonderful Shakespearean diction. Many of his lines are so stupid, and yet Plummer makes them sound so overly important (and John Barry’s music boosts them even further). It is an amazing mixture of stately and silly. Plummer is having a good time and you can’t help but enjoy his time on the screen, even when he is monologuing whole chunks of silly exposition.

Most of the acting is fairly broad across the board. Gortner bursts with zest and energy. Robert Tessier growls and glowers as Thor, who could be a prototype for Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy, you know, if he was in a cheap rip off of that movie. And then you have Judd Hamilton stumbling around and flailing as the robot hero Elle with the country fried voice acting of Hamilton Camp to give everything just that added touch of the surreal.

Stella is looking for Diana... wrong planet.
Like most of these type of knock off movies, not a lot of time was spent fleshing out a good script or solid characters. The idea was to rush something into the theaters as quickly as possible to cash in on a popular film. Starcrash certainly has those problems. But it also seems to really be into the idea of capturing the feel of some of the more experimental European space comics of the time. And maybe I’m giving the movie more credit than it deserves. But comics like Heavy Metal often featured stories where the plot flowed from one event to another with very little connective tissue. There weren’t established characters, but archetypes thrown into outlandish and visually expressive situations. The focus was on letting the visuals carry the mood and plot, such as it was. This is not at all like what we are used to in North America and especially in a Hollywood film. In fact it is the main different between Star Wars and Starcrash. Star Wars was inspired by plot centric serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Starcrash may have been inspired by material that was less concerned with plot and more concerned with imaginative visuals and sexy women shooting robots.

Frosted freaks?
With that in mind Starcrash actually captures that feel very well. The script does this strange thing where it has a simple concept, and yet feels overly convoluted. Our heroes have to find and stop the villain. But the journey to find him takes the form of a puzzle, taking them to different worlds to work it out (and that ignores the first third of the movie setting all this up). In some ways it is like the search for the Galactic Leyline in the anime series Outlaw Star. But that series managed to build clues over its 28 episodes. Starcrash isn’t that clever. It just has our heroes happen into things, or just have Akton reveal another power we didn’t know he had and figure things out.

Pumaman in a special appearance.
That is my main gripe with this movie. We have Stella Star who we are told is this fearless space outlaw. She does get a few good moments, especially during the prison break and on the planet of the Amazons. But about halfway through, Akton becomes our main character. He starts figuring everything out. He’s always right (and always smug about it). He starts obtaining all kinds of crazy powers like deflecting lasers with his hands and conjures a lightsaber out of nothing. Akton even gets to have a Disney fake-out death moment. Stella gets relegated to the sidelines making googly eyes at Hasselhoff. It is an odd turn of events and I’m not sure if that reflects the script or just how things ended up after editing.

Evil gets ready to fight. But are they ready for Akton?
Starcrash is a bad movie, but it an entertaining one. That might have to do with the fact that man directing it knew exactly how silly this whole thing was and didn’t care. Luigi Cozzi has made a career of making these kinds of movies including the Lou Ferrigno Hercules films and a knock off of Alien called Contamination (which is also a hoot, with lots of gross visual effects). Sometimes these movies play out like fever dreams, but they are so visual imaginative and populated by actors who are going for it that you can’t help but be entertained, as long as you don’ think about the plot too hard. That might cause you to see red blobs that destroy your brain.

If Starcrash has any painful issues, they revolve around the pacing. There are a few sequences that just take too long to play out. Sometimes I can’t tell if they are proud of the special effects and showing them off, or if they are padding the run time, or they figure, we’ve got Christopher Plummer, let’s have him talk for five minutes straight!

This reminds me of nothing at all, not a single thing.
In any case, these scenes often slow the momentum down a bit. There is an extended sequence where Stella finds a starship on a beach. She very slowly approaches it. Then very slowly boards it. Then very slowly makes her way to the bridge. Then very slowly turns around for the big reveal. John Barry’s music does its best to make this whole thing seem mysterious and impressive. But mostly you are wondering if Stella got hit by an Amazon slow motion blast or something.

These moments aside, Starcrash is a wonderfully bad film that I had always dreamed of getting the full Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. And when I saw it on the episode list for season eleven, I did a happy dance of joy. The question is, are Jonah and bots ready to take on this masterpiece of cheese?

Episode Review:

Plummer is trying to out-shiny his throne.
I’m biased; I’ll admit it right now. Because any time I get to watch Starcrash, it is a fun happy day in my book. So combine this movie with my favorite television series and it is like chocolate and peanut butter. Even if the riffing is only middling, I’m going to love this episode. So it should come as no surprise that I do, in fact, love this episode.

Starcrash is a movie that gift-wraps each scene for a riffing crew. Jonah and the bots are up to the challenge taking each of these scenes and going to town with it. Yes, there are quite a few Star Wars based riffs, but these are pretty much expected when it comes to this film. You also get some very funny moments where Tom starts singing improvised words along with John Barry’s thunderous score. During a scene where the Emperor of the Universe cruises over in his giant golden starship and the music swells with majesty, Tom croons about “The Space Church” which caused me to nearly laugh water out of my nose.

No one wants to talk in any elevator, Crow.
This episode also has a lot of moments where the bots get out of their seats and interact with the film. My favorite is during a scene where we travel in an elevator. Crow gets up and stands next to one of the troops and tries to engage in some small talk with him. The guy just ignores poor crow.

The heroic Akton is the source of many hilarious riffs. When we get a look at Stella and Akton from behind, Gortner’s blonde fluffy hair stands out enough for Tom to declare him “some kind of human/luffa hybrid.” Later on Jonah starts to sing, “Believe it or not, I’m not William Katt” to a familiar tune from the 1980s. When Acton begins to shoot waves of energy from his hands, Johan declares that “Akton’s hands have great WiFi.”

There is also quite a bit of singing in this episode. Tom usually improvises along with the score, but all three of the riffers make up a hilarious song about how stupid it is to enter an abandoned spaceship during the long slow scene where Stella does just that.

I bet the Amazon robot hits the gym daily.
But maybe my favorite riffing sequence takes place on the Amazon planet. Yeah I have a thing for warrior women, but besides that, the jokes are hilarious. When Crow gasps, “Amazon’s on horseback!” Tom replies with “That’s on my bucket list.” Me too! Later the bots get really excited when the huge Amazon robot lumbers around attacking our heroes in a hilarious homage to Talos in Jason and the Argonauts. Tom says, “Finally, a little something for the robots,” as the  busty robot stumbles around. In fact the riffs get a bit risqué in this sequence, but I was cracking up at the robots getting turned on by the stop motion giantess and Jonah’s growing discomfort.

Each torpedo comes with a surprise inside!
As they get near the end of the movie, the boys start to lose patience with some of those long slow sequences of filler. An armada launch sequence does provide them with a terrific opportunity to come up for silly names for each space ship, but they start to gripe a bit about these scenes. Luckily one of the funniest bits comes at the end when Plummer delivers a long and stupid monologue, and the boys add even more ridiculous lines to the whole thing.

For me the riffing in Starcrash is just about perfect when it comes to pacing. The riffs are plentiful but never run over each other. And the guys allow enough of the film to play out so you can enjoy the insanity before they chime in. This was the highlight of season eleven for me. Even rewatching it brought out more riffs that I missed the first time. Great stuff all the way around.

Is his cameo about nothing too?
The host segments don’t quite measure up to the riffing, but they are enjoyable. The episode starts with Jonah and the bots playing spin the bottle and it gets awkward. For the invention exchange, the Mad scientists create a Bandit of Condiments that may or may not have been inspired by the sombreros in The Beast of Hollow Mountain. Jonah reworks Tom Servo into BB-Servo inspired by the cute droid from StarWars: The Force Awakens. Unfortunately the Lucasfilm lawyers descend and beat Tom up! At the first break Crow creates a new space opera franchise called World War Space. It seems about as thrown together as Starcrash is. At the next break, the bots are so impressed with Akton and his myriad of abilities that they idolize him. Jonah arrives as Akton to show them the error of that kind of thinking.

Did Crow and Tom break the space time continuum?
We get a special celebrity guest in this episode. Kinga and Max get a visit from the brilliant marketing mind of Freak Masterstroke played with zeal by Jerry Seinfeld. For each marketing idea Kinga has, Masterstroke makes it even better, or at least more outrageous. It is all very silly, but fans of Seinfeld will get a kick out seeing the comedian on their favorite puppet show. The episode ends with Jonah in full Count Arn garb (including magnificent cape) and the bots arriving in torpedoes just like the Emperor’s soldiers in the film. Things get out of control very quickly. All fun and games until someone gets a dome smashed.

When Lava Lamps attack!
For me, this is the best episode of the season. I cracked up the first time and laughed a bit harder the second time I watched it. The combination of an immensely ridiculous and outlandish film combined with some top not riffing and plenty of energy from the cast makes this a real winner. Even if you are familiar with Starcrash, it I worth watching with Jonah and the bots along for the ride.

I give it five giant Amazon robots out of five.

This episode is available Netflix Download.

"And now we fight over whose hair is most spectacular."


  1. An utterly and enjoyably ridiculous movie. It’s not exactly the seamless “Hollywood Style” in which cuts and perspective shifts are so logical to the narrative as to be invisible to an involved viewer, is it? It hardly matters in what order you watch the scenes. As you say, the different actors play it differently, but I especially like when good ones in bad movies just play it straight and let the chips fall where they may. This adds a whole special level of silliness.

    1. Yeah this movie is a blast with or without Jonah and the bots helping with riffs. So much insanity going on, it is impossible to imagine what it was like filming the thing. Plummer said that he took the role just so he could spend some time in Rome, but the man is playing the role so perfectly I can't fault him.

  2. I liked Starcrash. It's fun, perhaps even hilarious due to it being so low budget and a Star Wars wannabe. I've not seen the MST3K treatment of it. I think for me I prefer to watch the MST3K treatments when I haven't seen the film beforehand because it works on two levels. You watch a movie (and get that ongoing plot) and on the second level you get their mocking and jokes along with the film. When you're in the mood it's a fun time.

    1. yeah it is a strange experience to see a film you are familiar with get the MST3K treatment. But it gives you another way to watch the film. I will say that this is an edited version of "Starcrash" so there are a few moments that were trimmed or removed. Not a big loss for the riffing, but the movie as a whole piece should be enjoyed. If there is anything to complain about with season 11 it is that they did trim the films for time.