Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Starcrash (1979)

I like to think that, in his youth, Luigi Cozzi was the kind of kid who made plastic toy soldiers fight model dinosaurs. And then melted the soldiers with a solar death ray (read: magnifying glass). As an adult, he seems to have retained a good amount of this childlike sensibility, and it is reflected no better than in his Star Wars quasi-rip-off, Starcrash. While birthed and promoted on George Lucas’ coattails, Cozzi’s film – apart from a few surface elements – wants nothing to do with the more popular film.
Space smuggler, Stella Star (Caroline Munro), and her alien navigator, Akton (Marjoe Gortner), are captured and sentenced (by a living head lifted straight from Invaders from Mars) to separate prison planets. Stella becomes embroiled in an escape attempt, but she and Akton are freed by the Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe (Christopher Plummer). Recommended as the best at what they do by robot lawman, Elle (Judd Hamilton), the smugglers are tasked with finding Count Zartharn’s (Joe Spinnell) “Doom Machine”, which is so vast it requires an entire planet to hide it. Like, say, a “Death Star”? The team, joined by the blue-skinned Thor (Robert Tessier), encounters many obstacles on their quest, including rescuing the Emperor’s son, Simon (David Hasselhoff), and carrying out the “Starcrash” – yes, it is an actual event – of the title.
This is some pretty lowbrow stuff, and the script doesn’t try to elevate the material at all. The story is stuck in juvenile mode, with planets, people, things named with whatever sounds “sci fi”, and characters who use expressions like, “What in the universe?” You would think that’s as good an excuse as any for the actors to just phone it in. However, it must be said Munro does an admirable job as our alliterative heroine. While she plays it for fun, she only goes over the top a few times. The same can be said for Plummer, even though he’s clearly only cashing a check on this one.

Sadly, the same doesn’t hold true for either Gortner or Spinnell (who did not dub his own voice for the role). Gortner, whose oddly-plastic look somehow fits the part of an alien, has a very narrow acting range. Basically, he veers between wholesale smarm and primal ferocity, and his line delivery is always accompanied by an emphatic shaking of his head. Spinnell, for what it’s worth, tries to exude some air of menace, but he’s so cartoonishly malevolent and one-note, he doesn't succeed.
Even bad performances in a film like Starcrash are something to be savored, however. No, the biggest detriments here would be the indifferent performances of Tessier and Hasselhoff. Tessier – who I like to imagine was Jack Kirby’s model for The Absorbing Man – at least knows why he is here. He’s an intimidating physical presence with an interesting face, and he apparently doesn’t mind being painted blue. That’s pretty much it. But, while Tessier’s performance adds nothing, Hasselhoff’s adds so much less. With his sculpted mane of hair and vacant eyes, he’s really nothing more than eye-candy for the ladies who might be offended by Munro’s costuming dearth. But their children would probably be gorgeous.

As with any space opera, the special effects and set designs carry the majority of the film’s credibility. And though the filmmakers try valiantly, they are hamstrung by a shoestring budget. Composite shots and double exposures are shaky, and elements routinely bleed into one another. Explosions consist of spark showers with no tangible substance. The lights used to illuminate the background expanse of stars (presumably thousands, if not millions, of light years away) reflect off passing spaceships. The ships themselves are just shapes with model pieces glued on. The sets are overlit and standard of what one expects of the genre, no surprises. The stop motion animation is photographed flat against the background plates, destroying any illusion of depth. Yet, the animation is fun to watch, and these models, at least, have some interesting features to them. Nonetheless, these failings really only add to the movie’s appeal. They have a DIY charm you can’t help but admire.

The official impetus for Starcrash is undoubtedly Star Wars, but Cozzi’s film borrows – if not outright steals – from sources much older. Most notable is the influence of Ray Harryhausen and his fantastic adventure films. The giant, silver guardian is a blatant riff on Jason and the Argonauts’ “Telos”, but the sword-fighting robots are a much subtler variation on the same film’s famous skeleton battle. Even the casting of Munro was due to her role in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. The film also takes heavily from the tradition of pulp sci fi originating in the 1930s. Stella’s ship’s computer is a giant, glowing brain. Soldiers are fired in bullet-shaped torpedoes through the large, gothic windows of Count Zartharn’s hand-shaped space fortress. Need I say more?

The film moves along at a steady clip, what with no character development to bog it down and all. The characters encounter obstacle after obstacle, and while their solutions may have a disingenuous feel, the bizarreness of the situations alone is entertaining. An ice planet threatens to turn Stella and Elle into popsicles. Cavemen attack and hang our heroine upside down (presumably to eat her). The journey’s hurdles are clearly defined, and the protagonists keep the momentum going through each one.
The action of the film is fairly clear and easy to follow, though the camerawork wavers between shots that are crisp and clear and shots that are soft and blurry. After a while, it becomes distracting. Speaking of action, it must be noted that Munro displays a facility for physical action scenes. She never looks stilted or unsure of herself, and she handles the choreography well. The eponymous “Starcrash”, on the other hand, is extremely underwhelming. Vaguely described as “a fourth dimensional attack”, the maneuver is not presented in a manner that conveys any specialness. It feels like what it is – an excuse for titling a movie Starcrash.
This is not a particularly well-made movie. It’s sloppy and threadbare in all the areas that distinguish its betters. Nonetheless, a couple of decent performances and an innocent sense of wonder help make for an endearing film that succeeds because of, not in spite of, its many flaws.
MVT: Caroline Munro is in just about every scene, and if she couldn’t pull off the role of “Stella Star”, the movie would sink. Luckily, she is attractive, charismatic, and agile enough to make it work.
Make or Break: The scene where Stella and Elle encounter Space-Amazons on red Space-Horses is the “Make” for me. It displays the infectious exuberance of the filmmakers, and if you’re not all-in by this scene, you never will be.
Score: 7/10


  1. So glad you included a screenshot of Hoff with the knockoff light saber. This is a so bad it's good for me. Hoff, Spinell, Munro and Plummer - although you are right about his Michael Caine/Jaws The Revenge-like reasons for being in this.

  2. Hey, Geof. Any excuse to show Hoff and his hair in a review is a good one. I think everyone's heart was in the right place on this one. It's just the production couldn't rise to the enthusiasm level. Nice Caine reference, by the way. Thanks for reading. :)