US/Italy (1978) Dir. Luigi Cozzi
Sometimes I wonder if instead of lambasting film producers trying to capitalise off the back of the latest blockbuster with a cheap knock-off, we should admire their chutzpah in thinking they could get actually away with it! Otherwise, there wouldn’t be films like Starcrash to leave us aghast at their audacity.
In a distant galaxy smuggler Stella Star (Caroline Munro) and her alien navigator Akton (Marjoe Gortner) are arrested by Imperial State Police Chief Thor (Robert Tessier) and his robot officer Elle (Judd Hamilton) and sentenced to hard labour for life for their crimes. Less than a day into their sentences, Thor and Elle help Stella and Akton escape on the request of the Emperor of the Galaxy (Christopher Plummer).
He tells them the megalomaniac Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell) is plotting to overthrow the Emperor with a destructive weapon disguised as a planet. Stella and Akton are asked to join Thor and Elle to find and destroy the planet. The Emperor also asks them to find his missing son, last seen on a mission to find the mystery planet.
That the director and co-writer of the screenplay Luigi Cozzi is credited on this film under the pseudonym Lewis Coates must be a sign even he had little faith in his own creation. Then again he was trying to make his own version of Star Wars on a budget of $4 million dollars but this was the least of his problems.
Cozzi has insisted the idea for Starcrash, originally titled Empire Of The Stars, came to him before Star Wars even hit the cinemas, but too much evidence disputes this. First, producers Nat and Patrick Wachsberger, the former also co-writing the script, didn’t join the project until May 1977 – the same month Star Wars was released; filming began five months later by which time EVERYONE knew about George Lucas’ film.
Most damning of all is the opening shot of Starcrash, a direct re-enactment of the now legendary Star Wars opening of the spaceship flying into view as seen from underneath. The only difference is the models used by ILM were stupendously detailed creations; these ones resemble plastic Airfix kits before the paint and decals have been added to them!
To be fair to Cozzi knew he couldn’t compete with the budgets of Hollywood so he compensated with the crazy presentation of brightly coloured light blobs to represent radiation and multicoloured stars and planets in the solar system. Shame it didn’t work but in fact, there are cheaper looking sci-fi films in existence with worse looking models and effects.
Sometimes, a bad looking film can be saved by a compelling story and strong script – Starcrash sadly lacks both. The dialogue (which had an editor according to the credits) is aimed at five-year olds, full of basic exposition and time filling acknowledgments which needn’t exist, illustrated by the rampant use of “Come on” and “I’ll help” type lines.
It’s not that the premise isn’t fertile in its own way, there is no concerted effort to build on it, so our heroes simply jump from one scenario to the next with scant actual development. Perhaps that is unfair as there are some plot developments but handled so clumsily they fail to heighten the drama through being so poorly constructed. Not to mention we never find out why Darth…I mean, Zarth Arn wants to rule the universe.
On the plot hole front is the revelation that Akton can see into the future, but didn’t tell Stella in case she tried to change the future which is illegal. So of course Akton saves Stella from certain death in one scene because he foresaw it happening to her! Oh, and Akton has a lightsabre – as if the stolen Star Wars motifs weren’t already blatant enough – which changes from blue in one scene to green in the next!
Along with a mostly half-naked Stella, as sexist as it is to say, does help make it easier for us chaps to watch, despite clashing with the progressive idea of a female protagonist, there is another diamond in this shameful rough – a young David Hasselhoff as Prince Simon! He may be 4 years away from Knight Rider but no amount of eyeliner can hide his trademark earnest cheesiness that made The Hoff the cult figure he is.
Even if former Bond girl Caroline Monro was undeniably hired solely as eye candy Stella’s skimpy outfits are outrageous. When she is sentenced to a radium mine, instead of being given a standard prison uniform Stella is dressed in her regular bikini costume! Presumably her then real-life husband Judd Hamilton, playing robot Elle, wasn’t the jealous type.
Marjoe Gortner is a legend of the 70’s and 80’s B-movie; if you saw any cheap genre tat from this era, chances are he’s in it, or playing the villain in TV shows like Airwolf, Street Hawk, etc. Displaying more robotic mannerisms than Elle, Gortner’s reading of Akton is curiously inconsistent yet suitably alien, yet this doesn’t excuse the range of ludicrous faces he pulls.
Christopher Plummer admits he only took the role of the Emperor because he’d always wanted to work in Rome, where this was shot, which only took three days. Plummer’s best attempts to bring some gravitas to the proceedings, like the pseudo-Shakespearean delivery of his closing monologue is let down by lousy scripting, but he at least does something with it, which Joe Spinell as pantomime villain Zarth Arn can’t ever claim.
To be fair given the budget restraints, funding issues, food poisoning, and theft of the master copy by Italian activists that blighted the six-month shoot, Starcrash could have been a lot worse. It’s cheapness, tackiness, and sheer incompetence has an ironic appeal ensuring its legacy is as a text book example of how not to make a sci-fi film when your budget and ambition don’t correlate, guaranteeing its well-deserved cult status as an entertainingly terrible film.