Thursday, March 24, 2016

Visiting and Revisiting: Starcrash (1978) Pt. 2

This is Part II of a two-part discussion about Luigi Cozzi's 1978 Italian "rip-off" of Star Wars, Starcrash. To read the first part of this article, visit my buddy Rik Tod Johnson's Cinema 4 Pylon website at: 


Rik: The chief influence of this film is clearly George Lucas' Star Wars; that cannot be denied. But there is a huge dose of the legacy of the late Ray Harryhausen at play as well. Stop-motion animation, not even close to being as fluid as Ray's patented Dynamation process, plays a big role in this film in a couple of scenes. The one that played a big part in coaxing me to the theatre was the sword fight between Hasselhoff and a pair of robots that look like Gyro Gearloose from the old Uncle Scrooge comics constructed them. They even look like they have stylized duckbills. Hasselhoff picks up Gortner's lesser form of lightsaber (it now reminds me more of the way that a Schwartz was used in Spaceballs) and has a battle against the extremely jerky, sword-wielding automatons. The swordplay is actually surprisingly engaging, even if the animation is definitely and expectedly subpar to its influences (most definitely the skeleton fights in Harryhausen's Jason and Sinbad films).

Where the stop-motion animation really fails for me, however, is in the scene with the giant "female" robot (with titanic, possibly titanium, breasts for some reason -- who knew robots breastfed?) on the beach. The entire sequence is clearly modeled after the Talos scene from Harryhausen's classic Jason and the Argonauts, but it is almost painful to watch, so awkward are the relatively simple movements involved in the scene. You could say that Talos in the original movie was also jerky and awkward, but he was a normally inanimate statue that had just been magically freed from its base. Talos was towering in stature and composed of metal, like the "female" robot here, but its limbs were not built for movement at all, merely to support its mass as a piece of art; hence the jerkiness in its motions. However, Talos is imbued with remarkable life by his creator -- that god being Harryhausen -- and as stiff as he is naturally portrayed, he has clearly been brought to life fully and his muscles and joints move, albeit deliberately, in a surprisingly life-like manner. The robot in this film clearly has working knees and elbows, and therefore it must be surmised that it is meant to walk around and perform its duties, most likely to guard the planet upon which it resides. However, it moves every bit as jerkily as Talos, even more so due to an obvious lower range of talent attempting to duplicate the moves of the great Harryhausen. Of course, maybe the Amazons on the planet were just inept engineers and technicians, and they made a shitty robot that could barely move as required.

Aaron: That giant robot not only had breasts, but large gear shaped nipples, as well! In a good film, striking design choices like that can easily be explained as atmosphere-enhancing aesthetics, but in Starcrash it just made me wonder, while watching that scene, why the guard had been built that way. I suppose the fact that it’s a planet of Amazons might explain why they’d choose a feminine form, but it did seem strangely sexual. And why hadn’t they bothered animating even a basic bend of the arm at least once? The animation looked like something a bright, enthusiastic nine-year-old would make in their backyard. I mean, it’s great looking for a nine-year-old playing with his action figures, but for an actual movie projected in theatres, it’s laughably subpar.

Speaking of references, I really got a kick out of how blatantly they stole the look of the Martian mastermind from Invaders From Mars for that of the judge that sentences Akton and Stella to hard labor for their various crimes. On top of those references already noted, there’s at least one shot that seems to directly echo Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Zarth Arn bears a more than passing resemblance to Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, and some of the ship-launching sequences look suspiciously like those in Battlestar Galactica. That last one may be nothing more than coincidence considering how close their releases are to each other.

Rik: Starcrash gets a lot of surprising mileage out of just how colorful and charmingly fantasy-like its vision of outer space is. The stars at night may or may not be big and bright deep in the heart of Texas, but they are bigger and brighter here. Every planet, moon, and star is represented in the sharpest of hues, and whatever demerits can be attributed to the film on nearly every other level, one cannot deny that much of the film is very pleasing to the eye. I am only watching the film on DVD, and it is awash in the most brilliant colors, far more than I remember. I can only imagine that the Blu-ray I gave you for Christmas is even more pleasing (not that you have seen the DVD version).

Aaron: I have not seen the DVD as you say, but I have watched some clips online (and on the special features) that feature some of the footage before it was touched up, and the Blu-ray is indeed pretty great looking. Aside from some blurriness here and there as a result of aged film stock, everything is pretty eye-popping. There is one downside to this, however, as the added clarity betrays some of the shots of deep space to look like exactly what they are: multicolored light bulbs placed against a black background.

But yes, of course, the visuals are great fun. The exteriors of the ships are off kilter and interesting (though the ship from the beginning, the one that the emperor’s son escapes from, looks a bit like a guitar frame someone stuck some plastic bits to and then spray-painted grey), and the interiors are full of oddly designed furniture and decorated in primary, often clashing colors.

Rik: As I mentioned earlier, in that attack on the Galactic starship at the beginning of the film, Count Zarth Arn's minions use a weapon that creates a field of floating red spheroids that are undeterred by walls or atmosphere, and simply drift through everything in their path. The red spheroids exert a mind-altering force that serves to drive the crew of the starship mad and ultimately cause the starship to explode. This is the terrible weapon that, later in the film, Stella and her pals are recruited to stop. It is a very simple but weirdly effective scene. The spheroids are never actually touching or even in the same plane as anything else; they are merely superimposed by the filmmakers over everything (according to Starcrash expert Stephen Romano, the images are of various objects floating in a fish tank). While the effect looks as low-rent and cheesy as anything in the rest of the film, I found it to be one of the more memorable images from the film, and it has stuck with me since that first teenage showing. The same effect is used later in the film, on an even larger scale, when Stella's ship is attacked. This time, the effect grows even more psychedelic, with other elements added to the superimposed imagery. Watching it now, even seeing how simple it is, it kind of holds up for me as one of my favorite moments in the film. What did you think of the use of the red balls?

Aaron: I must admit it didn’t quite affect me in the same way. I agree it’s a nice enough image, and a clever use of their limited budget, but the weapon itself seemed so… ill defined. The characters never refer to globular red balls floating through the ship, and instead repeatedly say they were attacked by groups of monsters. But there’s really nothing monstrous about them, other than how unsettling it would be to travel through space and suddenly find yourself inside a red lava lamp. There was a lack of physicality to them that I found hard to connect with, and I couldn’t really suspend my disbelief enough for them to read as menacing in any way. They do remind me, however, of Rover, that giant white ball that acts as a security system in The Prisoner. That’s a similarly cheap and spherical effect that nonetheless still unsettles me when I see it.

Rik: The Prisoner is such a great show, and yes, Rover has always unsettled me, even to this day. Getting back to the red blobs, I did find it amusing that one of the very first things that Starcrash historian and DVD commentator Stephen Romano says when the scene pops up is to discount the theory that the filmmakers have merely superimposed an image of a lava lamp over the rest of the film. It made me chuckle because that is what my friends and I have always figured it was over the years.

Watching Starcrash now, Caroline Munro is every bit as lovely as I remember her, but there is an odd thing that must be told about her performance. Even though she is a British actress, Munro's dialogue was dubbed for its Western release by Candy Clark, who was married to Marjoe Gortner, who plays Stella's super-powered sidekick, Akton, in the film. Supposedly, when they redubbed the film, both Munro and her husband, Judd Hamilton (who played the loyal robot, Elle), were not flown over to America to save expenses, and so Clark and character actor Hamilton Camp were used in their places. It's a shame that we don't get to hear Munro's own voice as this is her biggest role in a film, and because I find Clark's line readings to be as off-kilter and often stiff as many of her own performances. Though I do adore Candy Clark in certain films, I don't think she is a particularly adept actress, and her voice doesn't quite match some of Munro's reactions emotionally. That said, the only voice I find annoying in the film is that of Elle the robot. The Texas twang with which Camp imbued the robot in the English dub is quite tiring and ridiculous, and it adds undoubtedly to the film's cheese factor.

Physically, Munro is jaw dropping gorgeous as Stella Star. She only wears her skimpy leather bikini outfit for the first chunk of the film, and as a teen, I was upset that her outfits gets increasingly less provocative as the film progresses. By the end of the film, Stella is completely covered up in a full bodysuit and cape (and ultimately, a space helmet). While one would look at any another movie for its psychological implications (has the hell-bent Stella been tamed by her conversion from bikini-wearing smuggler to demure heroine?), the real reason here seems to be Munro wanting more to wear in the film than just a leather bikini. On one of the audio commentaries, Romano quotes Harlan Ellison as saying that they had to ugly up Munro a bit for the film so that the cameras wouldn't melt. I've looked around to verify this quote (unsuccessfully so far), but I do have to agree that such a thing might have been possible.

Does Caroline Munro affect you in the same way, sir, or is my lingering affection merely a by-product of my misspent youth?

Aaron: All I can say is that Caroline Munro is delightfully cute, and it was a pleasure to spend a couple of hours watching her traverse the stars. I can only imagine what my opinion would be had I been exposed to her in my formative years. However, it saddens me to know that I can’t really appreciate her performance in this film, as her lines were dubbed by someone else. She certainly appears to be giving it her all, but the lines come out a bit stale, which is a problem that affects almost everyone in the cast, even those who were able to dub their own dialogue. You mention in particular disliking Hamilton Camp’s portrayal of Elle, and while I can’t argue with you, I have to say I kind of enjoyed the hillbilly twang he gave the robot. It was such an out of place detail that some part of me loved the randomness of having a robot in this fantasy galaxy speak like an extra on Hee Haw.

I would like to take a moment to talk about Marjoe Gortner’s character, Akton. As I said, he seems like a Han Solo analog at first, but turns out to be more Obi Wan Kenobi. That may not be entirely accurate, but he’s certainly supposed to be Starcrash’s version of a Jedi master, complete with light saber. But it continually bothered me how little they go into Akton’s powers or background. He just randomly exhibits new powers whenever the plot demands, and while no one ever expects him to have these powers, no one ever questions them either. Discussing plot holes or story inconsistencies seems almost beside the point for this film, though. Starcrash feels beyond criticism, in a way, as if the normal rules of storytelling don’t apply to it. Still, I think a little bit more information about this character would have been much appreciated.

Rik: No one is ever going to mistake Starcrash for Star Wars. But I also think that some of the spaceship design is pretty interesting. One of the ships is even named after science fiction author Murray Leinster, who specialized in pulp adventures such as this (though his works were often more elevated intellectually than Starcrash). By the time I saw this film, I was not only immersed in the technology of Star Wars, but also Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers (I actually watched the TV pilots for both series in theatres). I was swamped with outer space dogfighting, and so when I finally did get to see this film, I had already gotten a bit tired of spaceships due to the over-saturation of the market. Honestly, I really just wanted the film to get to the parts with Stella, so maybe my teenage boy sex drive had overtaken my patience with everything else. Watching the film since, though, I really enjoy many of the ship scenes, especially the quite appropriate design of the evil Count's ship, which looks like a giant, clawed hand.

Aaron: The ships are great, and straddle the line between innovative and old-fashioned. Some of the ships are clearly on tracks, and look like the planes that would attack Godzilla in his early decades, but then some of them are quite interesting and feature more detailed movement. Zarth Arn’s fist-shaped ship (try saying that five times fast) is the clear standout, though it does beg the question; what is that design for? Have you ever wondered why Zarth Arn would need five extendable digits on his space fortress? They don’t appear to provide any protection or added benefits beyond being a cool visual gimmick. Then again, given how flamboyant Zarth Arn is in his fashion sense and demeanor, that would probably be enough for him. In a quick side note, Joe Spinell as Zarth Arn really reminded me of Dave Grohl, which gave me a quick chuckle any time he was stomping around the screen.

Having now seen the film two-and-a-half times, I think I might be done with it for a while. I enjoyed it, but I think I’ll let it sit in my memory for a little while, where I can let the neat visuals and the fun swashbuckling moments overshadow the more perfunctory plot motions. Seeing the film for the first time as a man in his late thirties, I think that might be the best way to experience this film; as a burst of juvenile excitement. Best to allow it to sit in your mind and remind you of how totally awesome sword-fighting robots, spaceship dogfights, and the very idea of ‘the haunted stars’ can be.

Rik: Obviously, the design of Zarth Arn’s fist-shaped ship is so he can pull four of the fingers back to flip the bird at his enemies. He’s just that type of guy. I see your point about Spinell reminding you of Dave Grohl, and I must admit it did cross my mind briefly and made me chuckle a bit. Spinell, as he often does, sort of reminds me of the younger and not yet enormously rotund Ron Jeremy as well.

I, too, am probably done with Starcrash for a good while. Having just watched it about five more times in the past couple of months, I think it is burned in pretty good for the time being. In those two months though, my estimation for the film has gone up ever so slightly, but not so much that I ever forget my long-running disappointment with the film. Loves and hates that stem from childhood or your teen years are awfully hard to shake. I still think Caroline Munro is one of the most beautiful women to ever appear on the movie screen, but I also think Starcrash is well below what constitutes a good film, even on a pure entertainment level. That said, were I ever to throw a video party again (not that I have in the past twenty years), this might be one that I would choose to show everyone a crazy, weird time and allow everyone to riff at will.