Thanks to the news of some big sci-fi film or other being released this week, I decided to re-watch a beloved parody of my youth. While it was kicking off, my wife and I had the conversation that everyone has while watching a Mel Brooks movie in 2015 – when was his last good one? Of course, he had an amazing career as a writer of jokes for other people before the movies, but that falls somewhat outside of our remit here. Anyway, I realised he’s not actually directed anything since 1995, and I think the case is there for his first decade as a director being as good as any decade by anyone – from “The Producers” through to “High Anxiety”, several enduring comedy classics. But then…boy oh boy, did he fall of a quality cliff. “History of the World Part 1”, then a very long break, then “Spaceballs”, and then onto a career-killing trio – “Life Stinks”, “Robin Hood: Men In Tights” and “Dracula: Dead And Loving It”. Ye gods! I walked out of a cinema showing of “Men In Tights”, it’s just unbearably bad.
Since then, he’s seemed content to show up occasionally in other peoples’ projects (including those of the guy who managed for a time to be an even worse version of late-era Brooks, Ezio Gregio), make an animated series based on this movie, and collect fat royalty cheques for “The Producers”. Good on him, I say, but we’re not here to talk about his later life, we’re here to talk about 1987’s “Spaceballs”.
Where to start? Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) has been dispatched from planet Spaceball to go and suck all the air from planet Druidia and take it back, as Spaceball is running out. Druidia has, for some reason, a protective dome covering the entire planet and the only way through it is with a password, so Dark Helmet decides to kidnap Druidia’s Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga). Her father the King then employs interstellar “hero for hire” Lone Star (Bill Pullman) and his half-dog sidekick Barf (John Candy) to get her back. In the course of their adventures, they meet the small, odd mystic Yogurt (Mel Brooks), President Skroob of Spaceball (Brooks again) and Vespa’s robot sidekick Dot Matrix (voice supplied by Joan Rivers).
But really it’s just a long parody of (mostly) “Star Wars”. The Force becomes The Schwarz, Darth Vader is Dark Helmet, C3PO is Dot Matrix, etc. etc. etc. Not only are there bits and pieces of other movies in there, though (like “Transformers” and, most memorably, “Alien”, with John Hurt popping up), but Brooks being Brooks, it’s got more of his humour in it and less straight parody stuff. So Dark Helmet is sort of powerful and feared but he’s more the stereotypical nebbish; the President is nothing like the Emperor, he’s just an idiot; and while you can track Star Wars characters onto the four main cast members, they don’t really share any characteristics with the originals.
Brooks asked George Lucas if he could do a parody movie, and Lucas was apparently delighted by the idea, even letting him use Industrial Light & Magic to do the special effects. The only condition was that they make no “Spaceballs” merchandise at all, which goes some way towards explaining the running gag in the film where they keep having more and more “Spaceballs”-themed stuff on screen…talking of which, the whole gag about there being too much merch has been ruined by the most recent “Star Wars” movie, which has got tie-ins with just about everything – Star Wars water, Star Wars cheese, and so on. Never a good sign when reality is worse than a parody movie.
There are some great bits in it, to go along with the lame parody jokes and awful puns – I really liked the section where, to figure out what was going on, Dark Helmet and his cronies get the VHS tape of “Spaceballs” and watch it. The best jokes were them messing with the fabric of the movie itself, like when the bad guys accidentally captured the stunt doubles (a brilliant idea). Someone as talented as Mel Brooks is always going to be able to throw a couple of gems out there, and I liked the Jewish humour / deep space juxtaposition.
“Spaceballs” is beloved by people of a certain age (mine, roughly); both as a great comedy and as part of that pre “Scary Movie” tradition of parody movies that don’t suck. But…the years have not been kind to it. There’s way too many gags that make you groan or just flat out suck (“comb the desert”, dear me), and it was almost as if Brooks’ heart wasn’t really in it any more. It sadly bears more in common with his later movies than his earlier ones, and while it was still entertaining enough to watch for me, an old fan, I think if you’ve never seen it before then…well, perhaps stick to Brooks’ classic period.
Rating: thumbs in the middle