Raise your hand if you’re a Star Wars fan. If you actually put up your hand just now, you’d best put it down before someone sees you; if you’re at work, it’s probably too late to save face. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say they love the Star Wars films; it would probably be more interesting to find someone who dislikes them. However, no one can predict when a story or idea will become a cultural phenomenon. I don’t think even Lucas could have known how powerful an effect Star Wars would have, that it would still have a rabid fanbase 35 years later. And when some work of art becomes an immediate pop culture phenomenon, many who see it will say, “That’s so great. I should make something like that. I bet I could do just as well, maybe even better.” Just recently I was thinking to myself, “Man, Adventure Time is a great show. I should write a story like that. You know, a story about boy and his dog having adventures in a fantasy world with quirky characters and surreal situations…” I realized I was just copying the basic premise and style of the series; at best, I had an idea that would be riding on the coattails of the series. It’s only natural to want to imitate the things we love, though. We do it all the time as kids; I remember drawing the characters from video games and cartoons that I loved when I was still in elementary school. In fact, with the right finesse, an artist can imitate the premise or style of other works and create something new and wonderful. George Lucas’s two famous series, Star Wars and Indiana Jones, draw heavily from other genres and old films. Star Wars is a pastiche of science fiction, western, and fantasy. Indiana Jones hearkens back to the old adventure serials of the 30s. In both series, Lucas created something that felt new and exciting, even though it was based on something old. Of course, not everyone makes his or her imitation new or interesting. Starcrash utilizes many of the elements that makes the first Star Wars film great but fails to deliver anything near the quality of the original. Yet, Starcrash is an endearing, spectacular failure and the fact that it tries to imitate one of the most popular films of all time seems deliciously absurd with the benefit of decades of hindsight.
The plot of Starcrash is a little bizarre, so just roll with me on this. The film starts with a spaceship being attacked red floating globules and everyone dying; this will be explained later. The story picks up with Akton and Stella Starr, a couple space outlaws, evading the imperial police headed by a green skinned man named Thor and Elle, a robot that looks like an ersatz Darth Vader and speaks with a Texan accent. Akton and Stella manage to escape them for a little while by jumping into hyperspace, but the police follow their friction trail (!) and surround them. The two are taken to an imperial court and each one is sentenced to hard labor. Stella stages a revolt against her evil captors who are making her dump radium into a reactor (or something) and she manages to escape back to her ship. By coincidence, Thor and Elle meet up with her and tell her that she and Akton will be pardoned if they can provide assistance to the Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe. Once they’ve retrieved Akton, they learn that the Emperor is threatened by an incredibly destructive weapon created by the evil Count Zarth Arn; the weapon is the strange floating globules we see at the beginning of the film. It’s up to Akton, Stella Starr, Thor, and Elle to find the planet where the weapon is located and rescue the Emperor’s son, whose ship crashed on a mission to find the weapon.
The group visits three planets before finding where the weapon is located; they don’t mention it until much later, but there were three ships on the expedition to find Zarth Arn’s weapon. The first stop takes them to a world dominated by Amazonians, where we first see Elle in action and learn that he’s basically C3PO with a Texan accent; Elle and Stella also fight a giant robot in a scene reminiscent of Jason fighting Talos in Jason and the Argonauts (woo Harryhausen!). Next they go to an icy world, where Elle and Stella find a bunch of corpses. Thor betrays the group and knocks out Akton, then takes over the ship. Thankfully, Akton regains consciousness and kills Thor with his force/mind powers. We also learn that Akton has the power to see the future, because he removed a small reactor thingy to prevent Thor from taking off with the ship. Finally, the group travels to the third planet. They’re accosted by the red globules but survive. Akton explains that the weapon was a mental projection that makes people go insane. When they land on the planet, they’re attacked by caveman, who destroy Elle. Akton and Stella discover Simon, a survivor of the expedition that crashed on the planet and together they go to the control room where Zarth Arn’s weapon resides. However, Zarth Arn traps them in the room by setting a couple of robotic guards called golems to keep them in there. He sets the timer for a bomb to detonate the planet, killing them all (what about the super weapon that was so important?). Akton fights and destroys the robots with a light saber, but a flesh wound on his arm means he’s done for. Simon, whom we learn is the Emperor’s son, and Stella are saved by the Emperor, who slows the flow of time with his space ship so they can escape before the planet blows up; they make no attempt to rescue Akton.
The Emperor wants to destroy Zarth Arn once and for all, so he sends a fleet to destroy Zarth Arns hand shaped space ship. He also launches torpedoes loaded with soldiers at the ship. The torpedoes break through the ship’s windows and the soldiers get out and start fighting Zarth Arn’s crew. For at least five minutes, there’s nothing but mayhem: lasers, people dying, torpedoes filled with soldiers breaking windows, and ships exploding into fireworks. However, the whole effort is all for not and the Emperor decides they need to try a risky four-dimensional attack called starcrash, where they send a ship into hyperspace and then blow another ship up before it has a chance to put up its defenses. Stella and a newly built Elle pilot an abandoned city and then go through hyperspace. They slow the city back to normal speed and jump out of a hatch, abandoning the ship before it crashes into Zarth Arn’s vessel; Simon picks them up in his ship. Zarth Arn is destroyed and the day is saved.
Do you see the resemblance to Star Wars? If you haven’t seen the film, then you most assuredly don’t. The plot of Starcrash is all over the place and it’s part of what makes the film so great. A more coherent plot derivative of Star Wars would have only made Starcrash a cheap imitation. Instead, the story makes it more of a beautiful mess. Although the story does little to imitate Star Wars, most of the film is made to look and feel like Star Wars, even if it fails to do so. First of all, the characters all take cues from Star Wars. Akton has some sort of force powers and functions as a sort of wise man like Obi Wan. Stella Starr, who has a porn star name and is frequently half-naked, is kind of a combination Leia and Han Solo; someone has assuredly written a fanfiction to that effect. Elle is a doofy combination of the look of Darth Vader and the wussy personality of C3PO with a Texan accent; he goes so far below the terribleness of an annoying comic relief character like Jar Jar Binks that he becomes awesome/amusing again. Zarth Arn is the evil antagonist character like Darth Vader, but he’s the complete opposite; he chews the scenery at every opportunity and has a wicked evil laugh.
The special effects and overall look of Starcrash are almost exactly the same as in Star Wars, except the producers had only $4 million to work with, where as Lucas had $11 million. The clothes and uniforms often look like Star Wars uniforms but some of the design choices are a little weird. Plus, the clothes Stella and the Amazonians wear show a lot more skin than appeared in Star Wars series, except for the scenes with Leia in the metal bikini. All of the spaceships are detailed models, but noticeably cheaper looking than in Star Wars and in a few instances you can see the instruments used to move the models through space. Speaking of space, the stars in Starcrash look a lot like Christmas lights. The lasers, lightsabers, and even the burning effect when the lasers/lightsabers hit someone are pretty much exactly the same, except they lack the sound effects from Star Wars. Even the musical score seems somewhat lacking when compared the original, though it’s pretty good in its own right, no doubt because it was composed by John Barry. Of course, one of the things that makes this film seem much cheaper is the prominent use of stop motion and superimposed images, both of which make it look rougher than it’s counterpart. However, I feel like Starcrash deserves applause for managing to do what it does with a little over a third of Star Wars budget and produced only the year after Star Wars was released. And no consideration of the film’s worth would be valid without taking into account that the sum of this film’s flaws is what makes it’s a beautiful mess of a movie.
It’s hard to recreate success like the original Star Wars movie had and Starcrash is ample evidence of that; it didn’t help that Starcrash was mostly trying to capitalize on the former film’s success and was trying to accomplish it on a fraction of the budget in a fraction of the time to put the whole thing together. However, it’s probably also worth noting that even creators have trouble matching the success of their creations. One of the criticisms I remember reading of the Lucas’s oft-reviled prequels to the original Star Wars trilogy is that the prequels had all the elements of the originals, but they didn’t feel like the originals. Something was missing. It’s a problem many artists face, but I’ve probably heard it applied to bands more than any other. A band gets signed and they release a couple of early albums to some acclaim. Next, the band creates a great album or several, which garner them mass appeal and their earlier work is more appreciated. The band releases a new album that doesn’t quite live up to the standards of their earlier work or takes the style in a new direction. Everybody laments that their new album isn’t as good as the last and they long for the glory days. If the band tries to go back to their old style, it’s never quite as good as the old work, because it somehow misses the mark and/or it seems like a retread of what’s already been done. I have no doubt that Lucas faced this exact same problem when approaching the prequels. He had to create something that would live up to the massive expectations set by the original trilogy, that wouldn’t be a retread, and capture the style of the original trilogy. Lucas couldn’t do it and I can’t really fault him as an artist for failing.
We’re now on the cusp of a new age for Star Wars, which is currently in the hands of Disney. I actively avoid forums and discussion groups when this kind of thing happens, but I can safely assume that the internet collectively lost its shit when the news first hit that Lucas sold Stars Wars. I am both an optimist and a pessimist when it comes to forecasting what Disney will do with the franchise. I don’t think the series will ever capture the style of the original films because they’re unique, so unique that Lucas couldn’t repeat them twenty years later and he wrote and directed the damned things. On the other hand, they’ll also never be the kind of hilarious travesty that Starcrash is. Wait, maybe that means I’m only pessimistic about this…
This can be found on Netflix and here.