A Long, Long Line
As hardly any new movies seem to have been released recently, I thought this would be an opportune moment to enjoy another classic from years gone by. So let us turn to a film which secured the services of a number of hugely successful stars and a couple of distinguished, Oscar-winning artists, yet which still languishes in relative obscurity: ladies and gentlemen, from 1978, I give you Luigi Cozzi's Starcrash.
Starcrash is concerned with the doings of comely space-smuggler Stella Star (played by the cult actress and model Caroline Munro) and her partner Akton (bubble-permed evangelical preacher/conman-turned-actor Marjoe Gortner), who seem to spend most of their time being chased by the Galactic Police. During one of their death-defying escapes they come across a lifeboat ejected from a ship in the fleet of the benevolent Emperor of the Universe (Christopher Plummer – yes, that Christopher Plummer) – while searching for the, um, doom planet of the Emperor's arch-rival Zarth Arn...
(I feel obliged at this point to stress that I am not making this up, this genuinely is a real film.)
...Zarth Arn, the ship came under attack and launched three lifeboats, one of which contained the vessel's commander, the Emperor's son Prince Simon (David Hasselhoff – yes, that David Hasselhoff). In order to put a stop to Zarth Arn's evil plan to take over the universe, the lifeboat with Prince Simon in it has to be found!
But clearly not yet, as first there is a subplot about Stella and Akton being nicked and sent to prison to be got out of the way. Stella is sentenced to hard labour, which in the universe of Starcrash consists of dumping radium into a furnace, for fairly obscure reasons. Stella is vocal in her concern as to what the radiation is doing to her skin, although it has to be said her choice of outfit (essentially a bikini top and hot pants) is probably not ideal protective clothing. Soon enough she hits on an escape plan, which is moderately successful as she does indeed escape, although on the other hand everyone else in the prison is killed when the radium furnaces blow up.
Starcrash does not dwell on such trivial things as moral responsibility, however, and soon Stella has had her sentence quashed and, along with Akton, is helping the Imperial secret police look for Prince Simon's lifeboat. The Imperial secret police consist of Captain Thor, who is a bald green man, and Elle, who, despite the name, is a robot bearing a striking resemblance to a man with a bucket on his head, with a yee-haw accent and personality.
So off they go on their quest, which takes in Amazons on horseback, cavemen, badly-animated rip-offs of classic Ray Harryhausen sequences, unexpected betrayal (Captain Thor has decided to join Zarth Arn as his 'prince of darkness'), sparkling dialogue ('No-one can survive these deadly rays!' 'These deadly rays will be your death!'), David Hasselhoff shooting lasers out of his eyes, and so on.
In the end Akton, whose powers have remained wildly variable and completely unexplained throughout, cops it in a laser sword fight with a couple of appallingly-realised stop-motion robots, leaving Stella and Prince Simon to carry on the battle, even though Zarth Arn has rigged the whole planet to blow up in a few seconds. Luckily, the Emperor shows up in the nick of time and Plummer, with an admirably straight face, proceeds to show everyone else what actual acting looks like. 'You know, my boy, I wouldn't be emperor if I didn't have some powers at my command,' says Plummer. 'Imperial battleship, halt the Flow of Time!!!'
Everyone having thus been saved, with the Flow of Time restored they all go off to fight evil Zarth Arn and his space station of doom (which looks like a big hand – I was about to add 'for no very good reason', but pretty much everything and everyone in Starcrash is as it is for no very good reason). The ensuing battle looks much as you'd expect for a film with no discernible budget, but is noteworthy for the imperial tactic of shooting torpedoes in through the space station windows, said torpedoes then popping open and imperial soldiers jumping out, ray guns zapping.
But it is all to no avail, and our heroes are forced into the desperate tactic of finding a big space station of their own and crashing it into Zarth Arn's one. (See what they did there? A big crash, with some stars in the background – hence, Starcrash! This film is so clever.) With Zarth Arn vanquished and Prince Simon and Stella Star engaged in hugging one another, it's left to the Emperor to sum up all that has occurred, before heading off to the nearest pizzeria (Plummer has been very frank about the fact that he only took this part because it let him hang out in Rome, where his scenes were filmed, for a couple of days).
Well, I think we all know what's going on with Starcrash – ever since George Lucas struck gold with one of his movies in 1977, other people have been trying to mine the same seam with varying degrees of success. Some of these Lucas knock-offs have been pretty good. Others are, frankly, exquisitely terrible. Starcrash is definitely one of the latter kind. (The Italians seem to have had a special talent for making dreadful Lucas rip-offs – the year after Starcrash they came up with The Humanoid, starring Richard Kiel, which is probably even worse.)
Starcrash has a terrible script, terrible production values, and (mostly) terrible performances – I suppose on some level the really surprising thing is that some parts of it are not as terrible as the rest. Plummer's presence we have already dealt with, but how to explain the participation of legendary composer John Barry, who provides (as you might expect) a decent score? Maybe even better than decent: it has been suggested that Barry reused much of his Starcrash score when doing the music for Out of Africa some years later, a film for which he won an Oscar. But that brings us much too close to comfort to using the words 'Oscar-winning' and 'Starcrash' in the same sentence, so I prefer to say that most of John Barry's later scores sounded pretty samey anyway.
The thing is, though, that by looking at Starcrash in all its terribleness, you do get a much stronger sense of just how remarkable George Lucas' own movies in this genre are. On paper, the plot of Starcrash and that of the movie I am pointedly not naming are both fishing from the same pond – space smugglers and laser swords and galactic monarchy and space stations of doom abound in both, and yet Starcrash seems to be slapping these elements together at random, whereas Lucas weaves them into the fabric of a cohesive larger backdrop. That certain other franchise of Lucas’ did not achieve the success it did because of its radical characterisation or innovative plotting – I think the true reason it has continued to have some small measure of success and popularity is due to how utterly convincing the world it depicts is, so flooded with detail and colour like no fantasy film before it. Even when the budget falls short or the acting is less than stellar, it’s still disconcertingly easy to believe in the wealth of background detail.
I'm not sure it's just a question of budget or acting talent, either, for all that Starcrash was made for a small fraction of the money George Lucas had at his disposal when making his first foray into this genre. Lucas, if nothing else, is a man who knows his film history and his anthropology, and there is surely a purposefulness to his work which is so often lacking in that of those copying the superficial elements of his films.
These days, it seems to be perfectly acceptable to love Lucas' earlier films while holding the man himself in a sort of amused contempt, which seems to me to be rather like hating the author of your favourite book. It is, I suppose, the most backhanded of compliments – Lucas’ world is so totally believable as a real place that it’s too easy to forget that, in the end, it came out of his own head and assume he is somehow dispensable when it comes to realising or reinventing it. And while hardly anyone would seriously argue the later films are not flawed, they have an honesty of purpose and willingness to innovate which is impressive and laudable: they at least try to do something new and different, rather than taking the easy route of revisiting past glories and riffing on the same few ideas and themes.
Ultimately, you cannot dismiss George Lucas’ contribution to the fantasy genre, let alone what he has brought to his own movies. Lots of people have spent many years and huge amounts of money making a long, long line of films essentially knocking off his vision. Some of them have been motivated by sincere affection, others by purely mercenary concerns, others are somewhere in between. Some of the films, like Starcrash, have been awful – others, genuinely accomplished. But George Lucas brought something unique to the productions he was involved in, and also to the genre as a whole, which is surely what has made them, and it, so popular to this day. He can be copied lovingly, carefully, respectfully – but I don't think he can really be replaced.