WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: Threatened with an undesirable marriage, Princess Vespa flees her home planet of Druidia only to run into Spaceballs One and Dark Helmet’s dastardly plot to kidnap her and hold her ransom, in order to steal Druidia’s fresh air supply for the planet of Spaceballs. To her aid – for the right price – comes Lone Starr and his sidekick Barf, but to defeat Helmet’s weaponry Starr will require tuition in the use of an ancient and mystical power.
Sly tributes to Star Wars are now staples of comedy shows such as The Simpsons, Family Guy and (though it hasn’t reached Britain – yet) Robot Chicken, but it took some time for the ball to get rolling; possibly because of the prohibitive costs of making half-decent science fiction, possibly because the vast majority of Star Wars devotees were still in short trousers, and possibly because the story was already silly enough for writers to find creating a sillier one difficult. Step forward, then, Mel Brooks, fearless poker of fun, and do your worst.
The planet Spaceballs has run out of air, forcing President Skroob (Brooks, as if you couldn’t guess) to send his martial forces under the less-sinister-than-he-might-be Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) and Colonel Sandurz (George Wyner) to use strong-arm tactics against Druidia, whose atmosphere is protected by an atmospheric shield. Helmet plans to kidnap Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) and torture her (by reversing her immaculate nose job) to reveal the combination of the shield, but before he can land on the planet Vespa blasts off it, jilting the soporific Prince Valium at the altar and taking faithful but snippy robot Dot Matrix (voiced by Joan Rivers) for company.
Vespa’s father asks Winnebago-driving Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) to get Vespa back, a job the space trucker and his half-human, half-dog pal Barf (John Candy) would usually run a light year from; except it comes with the handy recompense of a million Spacebucks, the exact amount Starr owes to intergalactic hoodlum Pizza the Hutt. Starr and Barf rescue the princess but get themselves stranded on a desert planet where they are rescued and introduced to the mystical Yogurt (Brooks again), a short, golden Yiddisher fellow who knows the ways of ‘The Schwartz.’
Starr finds he can use the Schwartz to move objects with his mind, a power which serves him well when Vespa is tricked into captivity; a daring rescue mission follows with our hero – drawn despite himself to the Princess – driving his camper van into Spaceballs One, the massive ship transformed into ‘Mega Maid’ to suck out Druidia’s air.
If you have seen a Mel Brooks comedy before, much of Spaceballs will be familiar, an assault on all the comedy senses featuring subtle asides one second and a massive pie – or in this case, Barf’s wagging tail – in the face the next, with plenty of Jewish jokes (Vespa is, after all, a ‘Druish princess’) and funny movie gags (guards capture the good guys’ stunt doubles). Spaceballs, though, has two other writers, presumably responsible for many of the jokes influenced by the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker troupe.
In principle this is no bad thing, and indeed some of the visual gags like the extraordinarily-protracted establishing shot of Spaceballs One or the Mr Coffee/Mr Radar machines are great – but there is a noticeable friction between this brand of wilfully dumb humour (e.g. Princess Vespa’s giant hairdryer) and some of the more knowing digs (for example, the running gag about the film’s merchandising). Meanwhile, the gags that are unmistakeably part of Brooks’ shtick vary in quality: I like most of what he does as Yogurt and dislike most of what he does as Skroob.
The presence of leggy blondes adds nothing to the movie, and whether or not you laugh at Dark Helmet and Lone Starr’s ‘Schwartz’ measuring is perhaps a matter of whether you’re under fifteen years of age; but I defy anyone not to laugh whenever Moranis is on screen, sulking under his Helmet as the diminutive Dark Lord with a Napoleon complex. Pullman and Zuniga play their square-jawed roles amiably enough, and while Candy is not given much to do as Barf, his warm and friendly screen presence remains intact under the fur and make-up.
While much of the script is telegraphed – it’ll surprise no-one that Colonel Sandurz is accused of being “chicken” – it occasionally manages to be inspired, most notably in the use of ‘Ludicrous Speed’ and the tartan trail it leaves in space, the scenario Moranis plays out with Spaceballs action figures, and best of all the characters watching a video of Spaceballs during the film to discover Vespa and Lone Starr’s whereabouts. Plus there’s the added bonus of John Hurt’s Alien spoof in the film’s coda, a laugh-out-loud highlight at a time when most comedies have given up the ghost.
Spaceballs also manages to tell a decent story, which although obviously derived from Star Wars doesn’t stick to it slavishly: it happily ditches Obi-Wan, Luke and R2-D2 as there is nothing to be gained by including them and the film is all the better for it, with Lone Starr, Barf and the Princess providing a compact and nicely-acted little group. I’ve left out Dot Matrix but I have nothing against Joan Rivers’ patter – others may be less tolerant.
For those brought up on Blazing Saddles, The Producers or Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs will probably feel like a comedown for Brooks, and it is certainly broader than those classics. However, though it’s definitely hit-and-miss the film is immediately accessible to a new generation of comedy fans and has plenty to keep audiences laughing, Moranis’s performance alone worth a dozen dud gags. And in an age where film parody has plumbed excruciating depths, finding one with this much invention – however diluted – is something to celebrate.