Thursday, December 17, 2015

Review: Spaceballs (1987)

No better time than now for Spaceballs: The Review.

Spaceballs (1987)

Rated PG

Score: 4 out of 5

Spaceballs is a movie that's funnier now than when it came out. Mel Brooks' lighthearted riff on Star Wars and '80s science fiction in general was received with little more than a shrug in 1987, a time at which the fever for all things Star Wars that burned hot early in the decade seemed to have burned out. To this day, it is the first film in Brooks' filmography to have a Rotten score on Rotten Tomatoes (at 54%), something that all of his subsequent films would share. However, for the last thirty years Hollywood has seen fit to revive Star Wars, raise merchandising and franchising to new heights, and take a film that was seen as dated at the time of its release and turn it into one that instead proved to be ahead of its time. As such, it's become a cult classic beloved by Star Wars fans, its stature having risen dramatically in the years since it was first released, to the point where almost nobody still considers it to be the film that sent Brooks' career into a tailspin. Even if it's not in the same caliber as Blazing Saddles, The Producers, or Young Frankenstein, it's still a film that deserves the reexamination it's been given in pop culture history.

The plot is a pastiche of Star Wars with bits and pieces of Star Trek, Alien, and other science fiction films and TV series from the '70s and '80s thrown in. When the spoiled Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) of the planet Druidia flees an arranged marriage with her robot butler Dot Matrix (voice of Joan Rivers) in tow, she gets caught up in a plot by the eeeeeevil President Skroob (Mel Brooks) of the planet Spaceball and his most trusted commander, Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis), to steal Druidia's air and replenish their own. Vespa's distraught father King Roland enlists the aid of galactic outlaw Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) and his sidekick, the half-man half-dog Barf (John Candy), to rescue Vespa. Lone Starr and Barf agree in order to pay off a debt to the grotesque space gangster Pizza the Hutt, and embark on a crazy adventure across the galaxy, encountering bizarre aliens while staying one step ahead of the Spaceballs.

The sense of humor is Brooks' trademark Borscht Belt style applied to a science fiction movie, with all manner of parallels drawn between that sort of material and the characters and situations of the films it's riffing on. Vespa is a pampered "Jewish-American Princess" stereotype who flies a Mercedes-Benz shuttle, had a nose job, and brings along a massive hair dryer even when told to bring only what she needs to survive, insisting that she can't live without it. Dot Matrix is a robotic Jewish mother whose doting nature is part of her programming, along with all manner of features that any young Jewish man or woman would dread their mother having (her preternatural ability to detect when Vespa's about to have sex is an actual "virgin alarm"). From there, you get into slapstick, show tunes, puns, double entendres, general stupidity on the part of the bad guys, and jokes about the more ridiculous parts of the Star Wars mythos, especially the sequels and merchandising that, even in the '80s, had become integral parts of the franchise. (If only Mel Brooks knew what would happen with the prequels and when Disney acquired the franchise...) There are too many good jokes to spoil, and besides, most of the best ones have entered the pop culture lexicon already, from "ludicrous speed!" to "we ain't found shit!" to "she's gone from suck... to blow!"

This isn't a great movie, I'll be honest. The story's disjointed as hell, running entirely on the Rule of Funny rather than any coherent logic, but it's all played so broad that you don't care, as the film is in on its own joke and goes to great lengths to ensure that the viewer is too. The characters do get development, particularly Lone Starr and Vespa with their romance, but they're mostly vehicles for this film to deliver its jokes. For the most part, what you see is what you get. Fortunately, the cast is solid all around, with Bill Pullman and John Candy making for great parodies of Han Solo and Chewbacca, Rick Moranis upending the image of Darth Vader by playing Dark Helmet as a whiny dumbass who makes up for his non-threatening image with a cool costume (that he can't breathe in), Daphne Zuniga being lovably annoying as what's essentially a Jewish-American Princess IN SPACE!!!, Joan Rivers delivering plenty of great snark as Dot Matrix, and of course, Mel Brooks himself as both the smarmy leader of the Spaceballs and as Yogurt, the short alien who teaches our gang the power of both The Schwartz and of "moichandising".

The Bottom Line:

It's a dumb comedy made by smart people who know how to deliver the laughs. It's not Mel Brooks' best, but it's still nice to see it become a cult classic after being dismissed initially. Star Wars fans can probably quote it almost as well as The Empire Strikes Back, but it's still a really fun movie even if you're not a sci-fi person.

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