Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Starcrash
Star Wars changed everything. That’s not really a controversial statement. Everyone recognizes the way the original 1977 release altered the way movies were made and marketed. For the next ten years, Hollywood would produce an amazing assortment of cult films in an attempt to recapture the energy and power of Star Wars. And outside of Hollywood, unscrupulous movie producers tried their damnedest to recreate that power as cheaply as possible. Few are as charming as Starcrash.
Directed by Luigi Cozzi (as Lewis Coates in the American version), Starcrash feels like it might be ripped from the pages of an obscure French comic book. Instead, it’s 100 % original material. Well, at least as original as a Star Wars rip-off can be.
The plot: Notorious space criminal Stella Star and her accomplice Akton are press-ganged by the Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe to locate the survivors of a mission to determine the location of the evil Count Zarth Arn’s hidden base. And writing it out like that, it feels even more like a rip-off. “Zarth Arn,” for one, just sounds like the most uninspired rip on Darth Vader short of calling a character “Darth Bad.” And that’s part of the charm. Starcrash is a near-inspired assemblage of off-the-shelf parts. Some of those parts, in fact, are quite entertaining in their own right.
The Emperor is played by Christopher Plummer. Even when he’s slumming to pay off an Alpha Romeo — at least, I assume he’s paying off a car — he’s a class act. True, he sometimes sounds like he’s ready to drift off into a peaceful slumber, but he manages to give the part a little gravitas. He even sounds like he knows what he’s saying when he orders his battleship to “halt the flow of time” only to immediately tell Stella and Simon (David Hasselhoff!) that the effect will only work for three minutes.
No, really, you can watch this scene multiple times and the details never quite add up.
Stella is played by Bond girl Caroline Munro. To be honest, she’s delightful to look at and almost pulls off being the lead. Unfortunately, Cozzi didn’t expect much of her — dubbing her voice with that of America actor Candy Clark — and gave the hero’s role to Akton. Played by former evangelist Marjoe Gortner, Akton comes off incredibly smug. He has an assemblage of deus ex machina powers and provides answers to the plot when its most expedient. He’s even self-aware enough to shuffle offstage when his powers become an inconvenience to the plot. If he and Stella had carried the weight more equally, he might not be such an odious character. Then again, Gortner may just have that aura about him.
Their ersatz team is rounded out by the proto-Kree known as Thor and a police droid called Elle. While the former has little character to speak of, the latter has way too much character. Despite being a robot, he’s presented as a non-specific southern stereotype. To modern ears, he sounds like the safety spiel announcer on Big Thunder Mountain or a cartoon mascot for barbecue sauce. I suppose one can give credit to Cozzi for trying to get as far from C-3P0 as possible. But that’s all the credit one can give.
Hasselhoff’s not quite Michael Knight yet, but shows flashes of his television hero role.
The undeniably great element of the film is John Barry’s lush and romantic score. In fact, it’s too good a score for this movie. Barry was well known for his James Bond soundtracks and would later offer Disney’s The Black Hole a score that elevates that film by a letter grade. Here, he opens up with the brass section and gives lumbering starship models a grandeur the special effects supervisors neglected to include. And while the title theme may lean a little too close to Star Wars, the rest of Barry’s compositions are worthy of an album release. In fact, Barry would reuse the love theme seven years later in Out of Africa and earn an Academy Award!
I also like Barry’s score for Moonraker, so I might be biased.
Unlike the other cheesy movies profiled so far, I will offer a bit of warning. Coates seemed to believe the success of Star Wars was due to its long model shots. Which suggests he may have been fairly stoned when he saw that picture as the model shots in Starcrash take forever. It’s a good thing Barry provided such a wonderful score as the shots would be literally dead in space otherwise. And despite the music, the effects shots slow the film down a lot. It also comes to a screeching halt in the final battle when Stella merely watches the raid on Count Zarth Arn’s base from a television set. Model shots repeat as the film’s protagonist does nothing.
Flaws aside, the film is a fascinating look at a Star Wars rip-off that almost stands on its own landing gear. Maybe if it had borrowed from a French comic, it would be fondly remembered. Then again, Cozzi makes a number of choices that never elevate it from a place a cheese. Still, its worth a watch for the unlikely way these elements meld to create that cheese.
Starcrash is available on Netflix as part of the 11th season of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It edits down some of the repeated model shots and may be easier to watch. It’s also available as a Roger Corman’s Cult Classics Blu-ray release.