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: Starchaser: The Legend of Orin
It’s time for another tale of a Star Wars ripoff.
To be honest, I think I have a particular love for these movies because I was there in the 1980s to receive these strange knock-offs via a number of local broadcasters and cable channels starved for content. Back then, there were few original programs on premium cable and no infomercials to fill in the wee hours on basic cable or local stations. That meant a ton of movies were processed by young eyes. And, as it happens, the very same impulse which lead unscrupulous movie producers to knock off Star Wars led to those young eyes looking with particular interest at anything even remotely like Star Wars. Extra attention was paid if the filmmakers managed to sneak “Star” into title. Which brings us to this weekend’s curio, a rare animated Star Wars rip called Starchaser: The Legend of Orin.
The plot concerns a young, blond-haired lad named Orin. He lives in the caves of Trinia, where generations of his people have mined a crystal ore to appease their god Zygon. Their religion also warns them to never dig above or face the horrors of Hell. One day while mining, Orin discovers an ornate, jeweled sword. Upon touching it, the sword comes alive and the image of an old man appears in the blade, telling all nearby that the surface is not Hell, but an expansive universe. After the message, the blade vanishes, leaving Orin with only the sword hilt and a mission to find the blade in the world above. Orin and his girlfriend Elan set out to accomplish the quest, but come face-to-face with Zygon during their escape. He crushes Elan’s throat, killing her, but Orin manages to escape when a crate of crystals explodes.
On the surface, he soon encounters Dagg Dibrimi, a smuggler with a heart of tarnished gold and an AI-controlled spaceship called the Starchaser. Though disbelieving Orin’s story, Dagg agrees to help him with his quest as long it continues along his route to sell the crystals he stole from Zygon. He also stole a Fembot (yeah, that’s terrible) called Silica. More on her in a bit.
After a few misadventures, Orin finds himself in the residence of the governor of the planet Bordogon. His daughter Aviana found Orin in the crashed Starchaser and helped to nurse him back to health. Together, they discover the hilt, which seems to also generate an invisible blade of energy, is the weapon of the Kha-Khan; legendary heroes who appear when humanity needs them the most. The previous Kha-Khan fought a robot tyrant named Nexus, but the hilt vanished after their final confrontation. Aviana also discovers her father is unaware of Zygon’s use of slave labor to mine the crystals.
Oh, and the headstrong scion of an aristocratic family has an instant rapport with the naive boy from a backwater planet.
But since she’s headstrong, she decides to “inspect” the crystal facility on Trinia herself, leading to a major confrontation with Zygon — who turns out to be Nexus returned. There’s also some space combat as he plans to attack human worlds. Dagg, Silica and the Starchaser return to aid the cause and Orin discovers the power behind the hilt, an unnamed “force” if you will, was inside him all along.
Now, if the plot sounds a lot like Star Wars, that’s part of the charm. Directed and initiated by Korean animation studio owner Steven Hahn, Starchaser has its roots in his desire to keep his animation staff employed year round. Seeing the success of Star Wars and similar movies, he decided to a fully animated science fiction film. He employed the services of veteran animation writer Jeffrey Scott to craft the storyline. Scott, who worked on shows like Muppet Babies and Pac-Man, was happy to build a more mature sci-fi universe to fit in with Hahn’s vision of realistically designed and animated characters in a 3D film.
Did I forget to mention Starchaser was originally show in 3D?
Scott’s script, then called Escape to the Stars, was a massive tome leading to a number of extended scenes cut as Hahn’s storyboard artists timed the film. But both readily admitted the choice to do something in the Star Wars vein was a no-brainer. Everybody was doing sci-fi at the time. so way not capitalize on that?
Which leads to the film’s major source of cheese: it’s blatant appropriation of Star Wars story tropes. Orin in both design and character is very much Luke Skywalker. Dagg is shamelessly an analogue for Han Solo while Aviana brings nothing new to the Princess Leia Organa archetype. In fact, the only change the film really makes with her is transferring the romantic subplot away from the smuggler to the blond hero. Even Zygon, with his demon mask and eventual secret identity, has shades of Darth Vader and the Empire within him. The hilt is a fantasy version of the light saber and Orin’s ultimate discover of the Kha-Khan powers couldn’t be more obviously the Force without a bearded old man telling him to search his feelings and let go.
Come to think of it, that scene sort of happens near the end.
There are differences, of course. The Starchaser AI, Arthur, serves as both C-3PO and Chewbacca in terms of plot, but his dynamic with Dagg differs greatly from Han’s relationship to 3PO or Chewie. Much of the art design reflects more of a Heavy Metal sensibility with fantasy-inspired backdrops and seriously ugly technology — and a few ugly stereotypes — filling the frame. Then there’s Silica.
As mentioned before, she’s a Fembot and therefore another 3PO or R2D2 analogue. Used by Dagg as a human shield while escaping from Trinia, Dagg reprograms her to be more, um, servile. The controls to reprogram her just happen to be the droid’s derriere, which means the scene in which he rewires her personality has an unfortunate atmosphere to it and a very inappropriate concept behind it. That Silica reboots after the experience believing Dagg to be her man just makes it worse.
In fact, Silica is the prime example of a certain ugliness throughout the film. As Scott attempted to give the story more “mature themes,” he leaned on those Heavy Metal strips with appalling ideas about woman because those were some of the “edgiest” sci-fi and fantasy stories around at the time; definitely setting the film apart from Star Wars. Come to think of it, Starchaser shares this juvenile attempt to be mature with the Heavy Metal movie itself. And when viewed with the proper context, that attempt at a more adult mode of animation lends itself to an extra level of cheese.
On the animation end, Starchaser is a fairly competent piece of work with decent character animation when you consider Hahn’s claim that he did not use rotoscoping at all. The human character have a life-like quality to them even if they occasionally descended into more of a Saturday Morning Cartoon style. The Starchaser itself is realized with an early computer animation technique; making it look like nothing else in the film. Shots of the ship flying through caverns or near trees lines are some of the most successful in the production.
The film is a rare animated Star Wars rip which pulls much of its cheese from its creators good intentions and their worst impulses. Though Hahn and Scott deserve some credit for making the thing happen at all, there are just too many easy choices in evidence on screen to call the film anything else by a work of the cheesiest order.
Starchaser: The Legend of Orin is available for purchase on Amazon video. An out-of-print DVD also exists.