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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Spaceballs affectionately takes the biggest film franchise down a notch

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Because it’s Star Wars Week here at the A.V. Club, we’ve singled out some of the more interesting movies inspired or influenced by George Lucas’ beloved space opera.


Spaceballs (1987)

Parodying the Star Wars franchise is like spraying graffiti on the side of the Death Star: It’s easy enough to do and basically harmless. The object of defacement is huge, impervious, and indifferent. It’s thus no surprise that Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs didn’t do much to undermine the popularity of its satirical target, even though a lot of its gags score direct, X-Wing-calibre hits against the goofiness of the Lucasfilm universe. When Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) taunts Luke Skywalker stand-in Lonestar (Bill Pullman) by telling him that “Evil will always triumph, because Good is dumb,” it’s as if he’s speaking for every viewer who preferred the bleaker shades of The Empire Strikes Back to the crowd-pleasing banality of Return Of The Jedi.

Spaceballs is obviously an affectionate riff and the old high-shticker Brooks has never really embraced the dark side of comedy. Leaving aside the savagery of The Producers (1968) and its hysterical depiction of the commodification of Nazism, he’d rather poke fun than skewer sacred (cash) cows all the way through. With Spaceballs, he brought his brand of Hollywood spoofery more up-to-date than it had ever been. Previous hits like Young Frankenstein (1974) and High Anxiety (1977) were snarky love letters to the studio-era horror and suspense classics that had fueled the director’s youthful movie-going imagination. Making fun of the state-of-the-art FX of Star Wars and its sequels was Brooks’ chance to reach out across the generational aisle and stick it to his kids.

The broad, mythological outlines of the trilogy’s plot gave him plenty of space to scribble jokes in the margins. In his vision, the Empire was replaced by a gaggle of prissy technocrats whose leader, President Skroob (played by Brooks) is a dumpy stooge presiding over a spaceship whose sheer size has become a liability—a well-landed jab against the gigantism of the series itself. “If I walk, the movie will be over,” moans Skroob after he’s had to run all the way through his vessel’s endless corridors.

Brooks also plays the quasi-Jedi master “Yogurt,” who explains that the secret at the heart of the universe is brand extension. He shows the heroes a roomful of shiny new Spaceballs products and prophecies a sequel with the subtitle “The Search For More Money.” Star Trek and its fans takes their licks here, along with Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet Of The Apes, Max Headroom, and, um, Franz Kafka—Brooks has always been great at shifting from ruthlessly specific re-creations to a more generalized form of generic mockery. What’s funniest about Spaceballs is the way it filters the Star Wars films’ wide-eyed, earnest mysticism through the jaundiced, seen-it-all perspective of showbiz lifers—hence the presence of Joan Rivers as a distaff C-3PO clone who throws sarcastic zingers into the mix. “This is my virgin alarm,” she tells the sorta Leia-ish princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) when the latter seems to be falling for Lonestar’s Han Solo seducer act. “It’s programmed to go off before you do.”

Spaceballs wasn’t one of Brooks’ great successes, but it’s endured in the shadow of Star Wars as a lone “official” parody version. In retrospect, its comic deconstruction of the most successful movies of all time looks more respectful than Lucas’ own prequels, which ultimately seemed to understand less about the appeal (and pitfalls) of their source material. Certainly, George Lucas had good intentions when he tried to redo his own greatest hits, but as Spaceballs teaches us, good is often very, very dumb.


Availability: Spaceballs is available on DVD, Blu-Ray, digital streaming, and Instant Cassettes (they’re in stores before the film is over).