The Ice Pirates (1984)


My “Awesome Movie Monday” group of friends celebrated Christmas with…well, it’s got ice in it, and ice is more common during the winter months? Should you pop it on over this festive period, you could be forgiven for abandoning it after 10 minutes as the folly of some coke-addled major studio executive – “pirates! In space! Everyone dresses from random eras of Earth history! We’ll borrow bits from every famous sci-fi franchise of the last decade! Romance! Comedy! Action!” – but should you force your way further into it, you might even have a good time.


It’s the distant future, and a group called the Templars (oh no “Ancient Aliens” was right) have destroyed almost every planet with naturally occurring water in the galaxy, turning it into the most valuable resource. If you’re looking forward to seeing what the filmmakers did with such an interesting concept, you’re out of luck as it’s just a backdrop – ice is valuable, people want to steal it. Our pirates are led by Jason (Robert Urich), alongside Roscoe (Michael D Roberts), Maida (Anjelica Huston, one year away from the Oscar for “Prizzi’s Honour”), Killjoy (former NFL player John Matuszak) and Zeno (a very young Ron Perlman). And robots. Lots and lots of robots. It’s very obvious someone wanted this movie to get a PG rating, so the enormous majority of deaths are robot ones – I think someone gets crushed under the wheels of a car, but that’s about it.


They find the gorgeous Princess Karina (Mary “daughter of Bing” Crosby, a TV regular throughout the 80s and 90s) in some sort of cryogenic suspension, but after failing miserably to steal any ice, decide to take her with them for some potential ransom, only they’re captured pretty much immediately. But there’s a look between Karina and Jason! Sparks are flying! Anyway, some of the pirates escape but Jason and Roscoe are to be turned into castrated slaves – no, they don’t bother mentioning why they need slaves in a galaxy full of robots, especially as slaves need water to survive – only be to saved at the last minute by…Princess Karina! She wants them to find her Dad, who went searching for the mythical “Seventh Planet”, covered in water.


It’s just a riot of styles and “homages”, really. You’ve got that very 80s action (think Indiana Jones / Romancing The Stone); lots of “Star Wars” borrows, from music to graphics to scenes (there’s a bar where I was just waiting for the Cantina music to kick in); and very broad comedy, all pratfalls and weird accents and lowest common denominator stuff. The bit with the castration machine is quite funny (as well as being stupid and OTT), as it’s just a conveyor belt and a pair of serrated metal teeth. There’s “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior”, with a brief detour being made to a desert planet. There’s a sprinkling of “Alien”, as they accidentally allow Space Herpes to hatch on their ship, which looks a little like a penis with teeth but does try to attach itself to both Jason and Roscoe. There’s even a “Sleeper” (the Woody Allen movie) riff in there.


This is quite unlike most of the movies we review here, despite being set in outer space and being sort of obscure these days. It’s got real major studio money behind it (MGM, in this case) and a cast full of decent-sized names, for the time at least – as well as the people we mentioned, there’s John Carradine as “The Supreme Commander”, who does his entire part laid down, which might be a new ISCFC record for laziness; and Max von Sydow, who makes a brief cameo. Then there’s Bruce Vilanch. If you know of Vilanch at all, it’s as the guy who writes the scripts for the Oscars  – I’ll take a brief pause while you all update your “if I was a billionaire” assassination lists, now you know the name of the guy who supplies those dismal hacky gags.  His career has been writing “jokes” for the stage shows of people like Bette Midler and doing the Oscars, but he tried for a while to act, I guess, and he’s a disembodied head here with all the snarky comebacks you’d expect from such a naturally likeable, quick-witted fellow (SATIRE).


“The Ice Pirates” has a campness to it that feels like a holdover from the disco era, which is partially explained when you see the name of the co-writer, Stanford Sherman. He got his start writing for “The Man From UNCLE” and “Batman”, two of my favourite shows, and this was his last ever script, following on from “Every Which Way You Can” and “Krull”. That’s pretty much the definition of going out on top, for the sort of writer we encounter anyway. Director / co-writer Stewart Raffill also made the original “Philadelphia Experiment” the same year (we covered the SyFy Channel remake) and is still working today. It was apparently originally going to be a drama with a high budget, but then the decision was made to turn it into a comedy and drastically cut back on the cost.


What’s perhaps easiest to say is that it doesn’t really feel like a movie. It doesn’t end so much as find a convenient place to pause (the climactic battle, a time-dilation masterpiece where the characters all age 50 years in a few minutes, while really well done and a lot of fun, doesn’t really resolve anything); and it’s more a series of sketches round the theme of space than it is anything else. I like the idea that space travel is boring and ordinary and everyone does it and all the ships are falling apart and the robots are knackered, but that was covered better and earlier in “Dark Star” so it’s not a recommendation in itself.


But…some of the jokes work, and Urich and Crosby have tons of chemistry (as do Urich and Roberts, not one of the decade’s most memorable mixed-race partnerships, but good all the same). It’s definitely tolerable, although I’d recommend a stiff drink and an animated group of friends to enjoy it with.
Rating: thumbs in the middle



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