The Ice Pirates (1984)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Absolon (2003)

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When you start recognising the landmarks that low-budget movies are filmed around (either Canada or Eastern Europe), it’s a good sign that you’re perhaps wasting your life. And that’s sadly how I felt when giving yet another post-fame Christopher Lambert movie a try – a potentially interesting dystopia ruined by a lack of anyone seeming to give a damn.

 

Incompetence is handy, in a way. If you see it early on, you know you can mentally check out, start thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner, pay attention to the cat that’s climbing all over you, that sort of thing. So, right at the beginning of this movie, when we get both a text info-dump and then, immediately afterwards, a guy narrating the plot to his grandson, you’re all “ah, they’ve had to do all this to explain this garbage, it’s going to suck”. But in case you’re not sure, or you’re one of those innocent fools who insists on giving a movie a fair crack of the whip, here goes.

 

After environmental disaster, a virus hidden underneath the rain forests is set loose, and wipes out more than three-quarters of the world’s population. Some scientist guy invents Absolon, the drug that holds back the virus’s progress, but needs to be taken every day and the UPC corporation controls the drug. Plus, we don’t have money any more but time – Lambert’s character Detective Norman Scott says he only earns 500 hours a week – which seems somewhere on the pointless/confusing axis; although if you’re a primacy junkie, you could note that the Justin Timberlake movie “In Time” used the same concept several years later, only they bothered to make it work.

"Well...that was disappointing"

“Well…that was disappointing”

Some other scientist guy (I think, although it might have been the same one) has managed to invent a complete cure, and naturally UPC aren’t thrilled with this, so boss guy Ron Perlman sends agents from the World Justice Department to kill him. He hides the disk with the important information, under his desk in an envelope which luckily the bad guys don’t think to look for, and for reasons too tedious to go into Scott and his team only have three days to crack the code on the disk, find the antidote and start producing it. Scientist guy’s old assistant Dr Claire Whittaker (Kelly Brook) helps Scott out, and the two of them go on the run, with the cops helping them and the WJD trying to kill them.

 

Along with a few twists and turns, that’s pretty much it for the plot. The thing I like about conspiracy movies like this is how quaint they seem in the post-Wikileaks world. While our governments haven’t tried anything quite this evil on us yet, all they’d need to do would be to claim the scientists were socialists, or Islamic sympathisers, and gangs of thugs would do their work for them and no-one would take the antidote, even if it were free. That they go to such lengths to suppress it, and are so absolutely terrible at hiding their global conspiracy, is like a relic of a far simpler age. There’s secret handoffs of documents, sneaking “clean” phones to your partner, all that Cold War-looking stuff.

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“Absolon” is awful, of course. Lambert was clearly coasting at this point in his career, and looks washed out; him being the love interest of Kelly Brook, 22 years younger than him and (to be fair) way way out of his league, is worse even than the Hollywood standard. This is Brook’s first push into the US market, as this was from roughly the same time she was doing her recurring role on “Smallville”, leaving her days of TV presenting in the UK behind. It was the start of a decade or so of small roles on film and short recurring roles on TV, and from here she certainly got better at acting, although not too much admittedly. Talking of odd acting, Lou Diamond Phillips and Ron Perlman clearly realised what sort of movie they were in quite early on and just chewed scenery and shouted randomly – plus, I’d lay good odds on Perlman only being paid for a day or two, as he shares basically no screen time with the rest of the cast and does his entire part from one office. Lambert’s cop sidekick Ruth (Roberta Angelica) looks like a reject from some mid 90s rave movie, all wild hair and with the crop-top / ultra-baggy trousers combo.

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Even ignoring the problems that come from this being a cheap TV movie (budget, filming schedule) it’s no good. A script which feels like it sat in a cupboard for 20 years from a scriptwriter who made a weirdly large number of Christopher Lambert movies, a director who should stick to the storyboarding where he seems to have most of his credits, and a cast who seem unsure why they were all brought together.

 

Rating: thumbs down