Visiting and Revisiting: Starcrash (1978) Pt. 1


"What in the universe is that?!" -- Stella Star (Caroline Munro), Starcrash

This is Part I of a two-part discussion about Luigi Cozzi's 1978 Italian "rip-off" of Star Wars, Starcrash. To read the second part of this article, visit my pal Aaron Lowe's Working Dead Productions website at http://bit.ly/1Ro6vqH.

Rik: Considering that we very nearly flirted with the heavens in our last discussion regarding Hirokazu Kore-eda's After Life [Wandâfuru raifu], I am crashing us right back down to earth by making us jump over to a "Z" picture like Starcrash. But when I found out that you had never seen the film, it seemed like perfect fodder for our Visiting and Revisiting column that we share across both of our websites. For the uninitiated, in Visiting and Revisiting with Rik and Aaron, we hold a prolonged discussion/dual review about a film of which one of us has a long and possibly intimate history but that the other one has never seen previously.

There is no point in my life where I could admit, after having seen it, that I thought Luigi Cozzi's Starcrash was what most would consider to be a "good" film. Despite some fun and often very silly effects, crazy set design, and a mostly game cast, the Italian-made Starcrash betrays at every turn its third-rate inspiration (and often outright burglary) derived from practically every science-fiction and fantasy film that ever came down the pike, but most especially the original Star Wars film, released to great and never-ending acclaim the year previous in 1977.

However, there was a point where I truly believed that Starcrash was going to turn out to be a great film. In the years of 1978 and 1979, long before the internet, the primary way that a young movie fan such as myself got all fired up for films that were yet to be released, outside of trailers shown at the movies and on TV, was through movie magazines. In my teen years, I was a huge fan of the later years of the original run of the highly influential Famous Monsters of Filmland. Around the same time that I was discovering Hammer horror films on late night TV and other science fiction classics on an afternoon matinee TV show, I had begun an addiction to Famous Monsters. I had no way of knowing that many of the articles were merely reprints of older material, but there were also articles about upcoming films. So what did I care when they were written? All of it was new to me, and I lapped it up like the aspiring horror novice that I was. Other magazines caught my eye -- titles like Starlog and Fantastic Films -- and unlike Famous Monsters -- which was cheap and pretty much newsprint -- these other mags were slick and in gorgeous full color with loads of photographs.

When I read those magazines and saw my first images of Caroline Munro dressed up in leather as Stella Star in the movie Starcrash, I knew instantly that I just had to see this picture. As a not quite teenage boy chock full of raging hormones, I was already deep in adoration over Ms. Munro. She was among my earliest crushes, and ranked pretty highly at that. I had already seen her on the movie screen in such films as The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, At the Earth's Core, and The Spy Who Loved Me. In that last film, she was way hotter than Barbara Bach, but Bond dispatches her without a second thought while he makes off with Bach in his submarine car.) That Caroline was usually quite scantily clad in these parts made her all the more memorable, and like any youth in his near-to-early teen years, I was smitten. Starcrash summed it all up for me. I just had to see this film... but not just for Caroline. The images I saw in the movie magazines not only showed her in wonderful, lascivious detail, but also shots of the spaceships, and a giant robot chasing our heroine, and a lightsaber battle against two other robots. Even then, I knew it was clearly ripping off Star Wars (which I had already seen three or four times), but I didn't care. If Starcrash could get even somewhat close to replicating the style of the far superior film, then that would be all I needed. And Starcrash also had Caroline. How could it possibly be bad?



In 1979, after months of wondering whether I would ever get to see this film (we were not quite to the moment where video madness would change everything for me), Starcrash was released in America. Luckily, the film actually showed up in Anchorage, Alaska -- my hometown, though I grew up in a nearby town called Eagle River (to this day, it pisses me off to be told that Eagle River is merely a suburb of Anchorage, especially since there are 14 miles of unconnected wilderness between the two locations) -- and I went on a frantic campaign to get my family to go see Starcrash. My mother knew exactly why I wanted to see the film, but she was fine with me being all pervy about an actress twice my age. She drove us to the Totem Theatres in Anchorage for a night at the movies. In those waning days of the cinema double feature, Starcrash was paired up with Future World, which was also exciting to me since I had only recently seen Westworld on TV, and Future World was its direct sequel. But my mom opted to see another film that I don't remember, only that the second bill feature for that pairing was Old Dracula with David Niven. My brother Mark chose to go with my mom, and my youngest brother Chris stuck with me. But not for long, as it goes, as Chris grew bored very quickly with Future World, which we saw first, and I had to escort him to the other screen to leave him with my mom and Mark. (I remember being angry then, just as I would be today, that I missed a couple minutes of screen time to perform this task of familial responsibility.)



And my reaction to Starcrash? I was dumbfounded. The movie that I was sure was going to be a masterpiece was nothing but complete crap. Trying to show my mom that I had made the right decision that day and they were all fools for watching the other films (hey, Old Dracula is still no treat) I feigned joy openly at what confronted me in the theatre that day. Inside me, however, I believe it was the first time in my memory that I was actually sorely disappointed in a trip to the theatre. Seeing a movie in a theatre, even though the frequency went way up in my teen years, was still something of a novelty to me, having grown up in a smaller town outside of Anchorage where there were no real movie houses. I cherished every chance I got to go to the movies. (This is probably why I remember most of my visits so sharply.) But then it happened... Future World was nowhere near as cool as Westworld, and even then, the sense of being caught in an inferior, dull rehash swept over me. And after that debacle, Starcrash thoroughly broke my heart...

Aaron, I will relate the details of my initial disappointment at the film throughout our comments to come. But first, knowing that you have never seen the film before, I've been wondering if Starcrash has ever even been on your radar leading up to this moment. Had you heard of Starcrash before or did I hit you from out of deep space when I asked you about it?



Aaron: It’s quite possible that I had heard of Starcrash before, since, like you, I grew up reading a variety of film magazines, chief among them Starlog. Though of course I would have been reading about it as a reference point, or possibly a retrospective piece. To this day I’m an avid reader of books about film, video guides, and retro cinema websites, so it’s almost certain that at some point the title Starcrash had entered into my personal orbit. And yet the first time I actually remember hearing about the film was when you mentioned it to me, and I recall picturing one of those cheap Mill Creek sets of films that have fallen through the cracks in the United States copyright code. Then you mentioned Marjoe Gortner had a prominent part in the film, and I knew I had to see it. I’ve had a small fascination with this odd, middling actor ever since seeing the documentary about his child-preacher background and career as a revival preacher (titled simply Marjoe) that led to his brief moment of fame in the late ‘70s (though he continued acting until 1995).

So when you gave me with the Blu-ray this last Christmas, the packaging alone surprised me. Scream Factory has a bad habit of creating packaging that promises much more than the films can deliver, but even knowing that I was amazed by the design, and the smorgasbord of extras that were included. It appeared as if I had completely misjudged the level of quality Starcrash achieved, and the cult that had grown up around it. I remember I watched it pretty quickly after receiving it, maybe a day or two, but certainly on my next full day off work it was the first thing I popped into the Blu-ray player. I’ll get into my own reactions to the film as we go along as well, but at the time the only information I had about the film was gleaned from the painted cover it came wrapped in. I didn’t even read the plot description; I wanted to have a fresh experience with it.



Rik: Let's get to the basic plot. Starcrash concerns the adventures of Stella Star, a space-crossing heroine who zooms around in her starship alongside her companions, the strangely super-powered Akton (as Aaron mentioned, former child evangelist turned actor, Marjoe Gortner) and her robot bodyguard Elle (played by Munro's then-husband, Judd Hamilton). Like Han Solo, Stella is a smuggler and on the run from the law, but she is given a chance at clemency by the Galactic Emperor (a greatly slumming Christopher Plummer, who apparently did the part so he could spend time in Rome) if she will help him recover his missing son and also seek out the source of the weapon of mass destruction that the evil Count Zarth Arn has been using in his attacks on the Emperor's fleet. The Count is played with mustache-twirling sliminess by none other than Joe Spinell, a character actor who appeared in the first couple films in The Godfather and Rocky series. Spinell later gained film infamy for his role in the ultra-gory, female-scalping, horror epic, Madman (which also co-starred Caroline Munro).

At the outset of the film, the Count uses his weapon on a Galactic starship, which explodes from the attack, but not before ejecting three escape pods, one of which might contain the Galactic Prince Simon (David Hasselhoff... yes, that David Hasselhoff). The pods each land on a different planet, and so Stella and her crew skip from one to the next. They will encounter subzero temperatures, internal betrayal, Amazon warriors, barbarian cavemen, sword-wielding robots, and attacks by the Count's minions. Can they save the Galaxy? Did they save the Galaxy for you, Aaron?

Aaron: Well, here’s where I tell you to brace for disappointment, because I did not enjoy Starcrash on my initial viewing. Even in an ironic fashion, I found little enjoyment out of the film. Stick with me here, because I think I’ll bring you back around in a minute. On my first attempt at watching the film I kept falling asleep, and I had to restart the movie in order to give it a fair shake (I figured I owed it, and you, at least that much). But in the end, I found myself mystified by your excitement for the film, and surprised by the lavish, lovingly prepared 2-Disc Blu-ray set you gifted me with. The film not only felt near-criminally derivative (and not just of Star Wars, but almost every major sci-fi/fantasy work you could think of), but also very slapdash in its presentation. The care that went into designing some of the sets and spaceships didn’t quite mask how threadbare they looked upon construction, and plot-wise, events seem to just occur with no sense of drama or forward motion. There’s no real cause and effect in Starcrash. While ostensibly the plot boils down to ‘save the Emperor’s son and stop Zarth Arn from deploying his horrific weapon,’ those two acts come across as fairly unrelated. Instead we follow Stella, Akton, and Elle from location to location, event to event, and it’s all fairly lifeless and lacking in forward momentum. If you go back and watch the original Star Wars (which was clearly the template over which Starcrash was laid, though Luigi Cozzi would claim otherwise), it’s easy to notice how incident-free it is, how relatively light on story. And yet it has a simple unifying goal and a strong sense of drive that Starcrash is lacking, though more ‘things’ happen in that latter film.



So I didn’t like the film, but I was curious as to what had given the film such a warm place in your heart. Beyond, of course, childhood nostalgia and the overall effect Caroline Munro had as she helped usher you from child to awkward hormonal teenager. To that end I began digging into the movie’s special features (I said it before, but it bears repeating; the presentation of this film on Blu-ray is opulent to a ridiculous degree for a film that might otherwise be called inessential), and one special feature in particular really hammered it home for me: Joe Dante’s commentary for the trailer. Joe Dante used to edit trailers for AIP, and the last trailer he ever put together was the American trailer for Starcrash. He talks a bit on the commentary about how Starcrash is not a very good film, but that it has some really neat visuals, so he decided to focus solely on the visuals and cut together a two-and- a-half minute music video featuring wordless clips from the movie set to John Barry’s score. Suddenly it all seemed to click, and hearing Joe Dante speak about the visual merits of the film while seeing a procession of cherry picked images made me realize that perhaps I had been ignoring the film’s true merits. [Editor's note: Here is the trailer below, shown on the Trailers from Hell YouTube channel, featuring comments by Eli Roth. To hear Dante's commentary, you will have to check out the DVD or Blu-ray...]



On a second viewing, Starcrash performed much more admirably. I’m in agreement with you that it will never quite meet the qualifications for ‘good,’ but it certainly met the requirements for ‘fun.’ I started paying closer attention to design elements, color schemes, references to older (and often better) sci-fi films. Little details stood out, like that weird revolving hallway on the imperial ship in the beginning of the film, where you walk into a room, hit a button, and wait for the room to do a 180 degree turn so you can continue on your way. Why not just remove the middle man? We see people enter from both sides, and it doesn’t appear to be a security measure. It’s just one of those additions that are supposed to make everything look more futuristic. What could be cooler and more futuristic than a hallway with a slow-moving Lazy Susan in the middle of it? Once I stopped worrying about story or plot or even acting, everything became much better. That sounds like very faint praise indeed, but a fun bad film is still better than a boring good one.



One thing I did both times I watched the film was play ‘spot the Star Wars analog,’ which was never a very hard thing to do. Some of them are really obvious, like the always-worrying robot companion or the trademark-taunting name of the villain, Zarth Arn. You mention the similarities between Han Solo and Stella Star, but I initially felt that Akton would be the Han Solo figure, since he has early dialogue about being a simple smuggler, and what could be seen as an oblique rejoinder to one of Han Solo’s most famous character traits from the first Star Wars. When Stella and Akton are about to make a particularly risky move, Stella wonders aloud what the chances of success would be, and Akton begins to rattle off a detailed list of all the possible outcomes and the exact probability of their occurrence. It could just be a coincidence, but I like to think that the film is making an intentional swipe at Han Solo’s ‘never tell me the odds’ line. But then, of course, Akton turns out to be more of an Obi Wan Kenobi figure, with a very vaguely defined set of powers derived from his religion.

Part II of this discussion can be found on Aaron's blog, Working Dead Productions, by following this link: http://bit.ly/1Ro6vqH.

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