Spaceballs (1987, Mel Brooks)

spaceballs

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In this spoof of the Star Wars movies, the president of the planet Spaceball plans to steal the clean, fresh atmosphere from their neighbours on Druidia. In order to extort the king, Spaceball military leader Dark Helmet is sent to kidnap Princess Vespa…

WHICH VERSION? The cut released in cinemas in 1987 and on DVD in 2004.

GOOD GUYS

* Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) is the film’s Princess Leia equivalent. She’s a spoilt brat of a young woman with a flash sports spaceship. In the opening scene, she’s being married off to a dull, yawning prince called Valium, so does a runner. After meeting up with the roguish Captain Lone Starr, the pair bicker in a we-clearly-fancy-each-other way.

* Dot Matrix (body: Lorene Yarnell, voice: Joan Rivers) is the C-3PO of this story – a female, gold android with a droll sense of humour.

* Barf (John Candy) fulfils Chewbacca’s function as the hero’s co-pilot. He’s a ‘mawg’ – half man, half dog, who is his own best friend – and has a big appetite. He and Lone Starr travel round the galaxy in Eagle 5, a Winnebago motorhome with wings.

* Captain Lone Starr (Bill Pulman… or is it Bill Paxton? Jeff Bridges?) has a combination of Luke Skywalker’s destiny-driven purity and Han Solo’s edgy anti-hero charisma. Hired by Druidia’s King Roland to save Princess Vespa from the Spaceballs, Lone Starr tracks her down and rescues her – but they then crash-land on an unnamed desert planet (not unlike Tatooine). There, some cloaked midgets (not unlike the Jawas) take our characters to an underground temple where they meet a guru called Yogurt (not unlike Yoda). Later, Lone Starr confronts the bad guy Dark Helmet, who reveals that they have a familial connection: he’s Lone Starr’s father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate.

* Yogurt (Mel Brooks, in one of two roles he plays in this film) is, as mentioned, the film’s version of Yoda. A short, green alien played by Brooks on his knees like someone doing a Toulouse-Lautrec impression, Yogurt teaches Lone Starr in the ways of the Schwarz (a mystical energy field not unlike the Force). He’s also managing a range of Spaceballs: The Movie merchandising. When Lone Starr leaves the temple, Yogurt hopes they’ll meet again… in Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money.

* John Hurt shows up in a scene at a space diner and comically recreates the iconic chestburster moment from Alien. “Oh, no,” he says mid-birth, “not again!” (I never spotted this when I was a kid, but the people he’s with are specifically cast and costumed to resemble Kane’s crewmembers in Alien.)

BAD GUYS

* Colonel Sandurz (George Wyner) is one of the Spaceballs military officers, usually seen at Dark Helmet’s side. His name has seemingly been chosen solely so there’s an extra laugh when Dark Helmet accuses him of being ‘chicken’.

* Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) is obviously the Darth Vader of the story, though a lot shorter than his inspiration. And clumsier. He has an enormous helmet with a retractable visor (when it’s down he sometimes struggles to breathe). He enjoys playing with his Spaceballs action figures.

* Pizza the Hut (voice: Dom DeLuise) is a large sentient mass of cheese, tomato and bread. Like Return of the Jedi’s Jabba the Hutt, he’s a gangster who wants some money from the scoundrel in the cast. He has a robotic Mafia-like sidekick called Vinnie.

* President Skroob (Mel Brooks again) is the leader of Spaceball City. He’s a man of no principles – a smarmy 1980s businessman of a character. He likes sniffing air from cans of ‘Perri-air’ and having threesomes with twins. (Skroob in an anagram of the actor’s surname, of course. Well, I say ‘of course’. I’ve only just spotted it. And I first saw this film 27 years ago.)

* Michael Winslow has been brought over from the Police Academy series to do exactly the same kind of vocal-gymnastics jokes he was doing there. He cameos as a radar technician.

* Gretchin (Brenda Strong, who was later in Seinfeld, Sports Night and Desperate Housewives) is a sexy nurse in a scene where the Spaceballs threaten to reverse Princess Vespa’s nose job.

* The captain of the guard (Stephen Tobolowsky) is very smug when he thinks he’s captured Lone Starr, Barf, Vespa and Dot Matrix. When they turn to face him, however, he realises he’s actually imprisoned the characters’ stunt doubles.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: During Lone Starr and Dark Helmet’s duel (using beams of energy not unlike lightsabres), Dark Helmet accidentally kills the movie’s boom operator.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: Another, more inventive, fourth-wall-breaking gag is when Colonel Sandurz suggests they watch a VHS copy of Spaceballs: The Movie in order to find out where the missing Vespa has gone. As indicated above, the film is littered with self-aware references to it being a work of fiction.

MUSIC: The score is by John Morris and is pretty good.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I saw this film a silly amount of times as a child, but this was my first viewing in God knows how long. A lot of it was still familiar to me.

REVIEW: The Star Wars-spoofing elements are all obvious but generally funny – the wordy crawl of text that starts the film, the ridiculously enormous spaceship seen in the opening shot, the character types and mysticism… But it also pokes fun at Star Trek a few times; has a completely delete-able scene taking off Alien; and also has a Planet of the Apes gag. There are a lot of jokes and they come at a relentless pace – and most are successful enough for the film to gallop along enjoyably. Whether it’s characters being laughably earnest or making intertextual asides, it’s all great fun.

Eight virgin alarms out of 10

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