Monday, March 28, 2016

SPACE CAMP VOL. 1: STAR WARS RIPS

Long before internet pirates and torrent sites were ripping high quality Blu-ray copies of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, industrious filmmakers around the globe were ripping off the original box office behemoth, A New Hope, to make a fast buck. Their motivations may have been less than artistically pure, but the "sweded" movies these cinematic robber barons churned out were frequently delightful, liberally borrowing plot lines, settings and archetypes from the original Star Wars and warping them to their own creative ends. In some cases (The Man Who Saved The World or "Turkish Star Wars"), they actually smuggled copyright-infringing space battle footage into their films, lifted music from the soundtracks of Flash Gordon and Raiders of the Lost Ark because, hey, why not?

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that's true, then the seven Star Wars clones I watched over the last few weekends are certainly blowing the sweetest of Huttian joonga smoke up George Lucas' derriere. You know that scene in Empire when C-3PO gets dismembered in the Cloud City recycling plant and then poorly (but charmingly) reassembled by Chewbacca a few scenes later? Well, I like to think of these laughable but largely entertaining Star Wars rips kinda like that.

Here are some quick (space) capsule reviews of the films I watched, with rocket ship icon ratings in place of stars. Yep, I can be just as cheesy and opportunistic as the filmmakers featured herein.

MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978) - Kinji Fukasaku 🚀🚀🚀


Leave it to the Japanese (and my favorite Japanese yakuza movie director) to get to the Star Wars exploitation game first. At this point in history, they were churning out automobiles better and faster than Ford and Dodge, so why not the movie assembly line too?

As with Lucas's space opera, Message begins with a peaceful planet (Jillucia) in danger of destruction by an evil empire (the Gavanas). The Darth Vader in this scenario is an evil emperor in kabuki makeup with mother issues. Instead of a hologram hidden in a droid, the leaders of Jillucia send eight magical Liabe Seeds into space to help them recruit rebel heroes to defend their planet. Basically, the seeds are intergalactic walnuts that glow intermittently (see above). If you happen to be in possession of one, it's something like having a bite-size piece of "the force." Woe to the hero who receives a seed and is not up to this noble challenge. Woe to the hero with a serious peanut allergy.

The ensemble cast borrows liberally from New Hope character tropes. There's a spunky princess (Emeralida), two wisecracking "rough rider" pilots (think Han and Chewie with less fur), a heroic prince played by Sonny Chiba, a lovable droid by the name of Beba-2 (note: Beba-1 suffers a cruel demise in the beginning, R.I.P.). Best of all, there's Vic Morrow in what could only be described as the alcoholic Obi Wan role. With every line of cornball cosmic wisdom he delivers straight-faced and ruddy-cheeked, you can see the question behind the great actor's eyes: "How did I get here? In space? In Japan? Spouting faux wisdom to a garbage can with legs?" For Morrow's sake, I hope the Suntory they plied him with was not just "movie scotch."

Message makes very little sense in any galactic language. It has way too many characters, and probably too many Liabe Seeds. But, thanks to Fukasaku's energetic direction, it's a peppy trash compactor full o' fun. Sample the Message for yourself right here.

STARCRASH (1978) - Luigi Cozzi 🚀🚀🚀🚀


The Japanese might have gotten there first, but, in the case of goofball Star Wars clones, the Italians absolutely got there best. Starcrash has everything you could ever hope for in a drive-in friendly, late '70s exploitation movie, Star Wars themed or not. A beautiful model-turned-actress (Caroline Munro) who wears a revolving door of skimpy outfits and occasionally gets to kick ass with equal style. A hero with a sketchily defined mystical powers and a John Holmes curly perm that's even more mystifying. It's got a robot with a Georgia accent for no apparent reason, a glowing Christopher Plummer cameo in which he actually glows. It's got stop-motion robot/creature fighting that falls just short of Clash of the Titans quality, a villain played by a Scorsese veteran and the original Maniac (Joe Spinell). Most importantly, it's got a young David Hasselhoff...at least for a few minutes. Blink, and you might miss him. In case you were worried Starcrash isn't Star Wars violating enough, yes, it actually ends with a green light saber fight.

I have no idea how this movie passed me by as a youngster. Had I seen it, I know I would've loved it as much as Star Wars, hounded my parents ceaselessly for a Stella Star action figure, an Elle droid which when you pressed its stomach shouted something along the lines of "darn tootin'" or "gosh darn dang." Seeing it a few weekends ago was gift enough though, and I'm pretty sure I'd rather re-watch Starcrash any day of the week than any actual Star Wars movie new or old. Pop a freeze-dried brew and treat yourself if you haven't. Here's a link to the full movie. Here's the MST3K version if you want a commentary track. If you only have time for highlights, here's a fun trailer narrated by Eli Roth, who I usually can't tolerate but, in this case, will endure as a kindred fan.

THE BLACK HOLE (1979) - John Barry 🚀🚀1/2


Decades before Disney was buying legit rights to the world's most lucrative sci-fi franchise, they were shamelessly aping its business model in 1979's The Black Hole. I never caught this one as a kid but remember going over to friends' houses where it was playing in the background, wondered how they could get as excited about their V.I.N.CENT and Maximillian action figures as everyone else did about R2 and 3PO. Even at that tender age, the whole thing whiffed of cash-in. I remember the merchandising attempts in toy stores more than wanting to see the film in the movie theatre or on TV. To put it in '80s sneaker parlance, Star Wars was Nike; The Black Hole was Zips at best.

As it turns out, The Black Hole has a little more going on narratively than your average Star Wars rip. The storyline is more Heart of Darkness than "let's ban together to destroy the Death Star." A crew of astronauts (and great actors) including Robert Forster, Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine and Yvette Mimieux happen upon a lost craft orbiting a black hole, cautiously decide to board. Inside, they encounter eccentric scientist Dr. Reinhardt (a perfect Maximilian Schell), a Kurtz-like figure who may have gone off the deep end, turned his entire crew into drones and now has designs on piloting his ship (and his new guests) directly into the black hole.

Like Starcrash, there's another robot with an inexplicable Southern accent...B.O.B., a damaged version of V.I.N.CENT voiced by Hollywood's then go-to hick Slim Pickens. Unlike Starcrash, The Black Hole doesn't have much of a sense of humor beyond that, though watching Perkins slowly get indoctrinated under Schell's spooky cult leader influence is kinda fun. It's a handsomely mounted production with a quality John Barry score, and there's an interestingly ambiguous black hole dream sequence near the end which, this being Disney, of course must conclude unambiguously upbeat. Ever heard of a white hole? Well, someone at the Mouse House surely did.

BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980) - 
Jimmy T. Murakami 🚀🚀🚀


George Lucas has always claimed the heaviest influence on his "space western" Star Wars was Kurosawa (especially The Hidden Fortress). So it's only appropriate Roger Corman's rip-off of Star Wars would be ripping off one of the first westerns to rip off Kurosawa, namely The Magnificent Seven.

Battle Beyond the Stars, as penned by a young John Sayles, is basically an hour and a half long recruitment film. When peaceful planet Akir (yep, short for Akira) is threatened by an evil space tyrant (John Saxon), Richard Thomas ("Johnboy" of The Waltons pedigree) takes it upon himself to gather up the best of the best in the galaxy, a motley crew of space mercenaries including Space Cowboy (George Peppard), a beautiful brainiac doctor's daughter (Darlanne Fluegel), a well-endowed Amazonian warrior (Sybil Danning) and a reluctant master assassin in hiding (Robert Vaughn) who's persona non grata throughout the cosmos but looking for a new planet to couch crash. I'm probably forgetting three or four other recruits, but that's OK...by the end of the film so will you.

The best parts of Battle include a group of albino clones called Nestor (top right) who share a single consciousness and are absolutely fascinated by Earth-imported hot dogs. The movie also boasts the most judgmental, hen-pecking on board computer system in movie history. If you thought HAL in 2001 had a passive-aggressive chip on its shoulder, wait until you spend a little time with NELL. Her primary function seems to be denigrating Richard Thomas's Shad, to the point where you wonder if she is truly his ship's navigational system or the voice of his Jewish mother beamed in from Nyack.

TURKISH STAR WARS (1982) - Cetin Inanc 🚀🚀


Of all the Star Wars rips I watched, The Man Who Saved The World (aka "Turkish Star Wars") is certainly the most literal objet d'theft. Virtually all of its outer space scenes are cribbed footage from Star Wars scrunched together in the wrong aspect ratios and overlaid with abrupt music cues pilfered from John Williams, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Flash Gordon and, most baffling, Ben-Hur. The Turkish talking head actors spout nonsensical subtitled dialogue against rear-screen star field projections, and occasionally a poorly recorded narrator booms across the soundtrack making even less sense. Things get more fun once our two buddy heroes crash land on a desert planet, begin karate chopping and high-kicking creatures that look like oversized plushies or benign adult furries. Our placeholder Luke and Han make awkward advances at local space women and indulge in five minute training sequences that involve lots of running and jumping in canyons and tying boulders to their legs. There's also a bad guy somewhere in here who looks like Ming the Merciless with a cadre of Tin Man henchmen.

Is Turkish Star Wars a good movie in its own language? I tend to doubt it. Is it even a good Star Wars rip? Well, if it didn't have literal stolen footage and music from Star Wars, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have known what movie it was ripping off. That said, at times it reaches a level of inspired absurdity that left me gasping at my screen. It's like that long buried VHS epic you made with your friends in grade school (if you happened to go to grade school outside of Gaziantep), an amateur effort you'd probably rather stayed buried. But just in case you're feeling archaeological or nostalgic, here's the link to see for yourself.

SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN 
THE FORBIDDEN ZONE (1983) - Lamont Johnson 🚀1/2


After watching five unseen Star Wars rips, I decided to circle back to my childhood comfort zone, revisit a few space operas I remembered enjoying as a kid. For some reason, Spacehunter always held a sweet spot in my movie memories, but seeing it again some 30+ years later I'm not sure exactly why. The Forbidden Zone isn't really that forbidding. And our hero Wolff (Peter Strauss) is kind of a drip, Han Solo without the caustic wit.

Perhaps it was the 3-D. Spacehunter was among the first movies in the early '80s 3-D revival craze, reportedly one of the most expensive too. I know for sure I saw it in the theatre, so I must have seen it originally with those ubiquitous red and blue lens specs. Perhaps it was Wolff's shrill young sidekick, Molly Ringwald. Sixteen Candles came out around the same time, and my affection for the film could have been the byproduct of some adolescent crush. Ernie Hudson as Spacehunter's comrade in arms? Doubtful. Ghostbusters didn't come out until the summer of '84. In retrospect, it probably had more to do with the OTHER movie Spacehunter was ripping off. The souped post-apocalyptic trucks and armored transport vans. The chain mail outfits. The obstacle course fortress of the evil Overdog (Michael Ironside) that reeked of "poor man's Thunderdome." Two words, neither of them Star Wars. I'm talking Road Warrior, folks.

THE ICE PIRATES (1984) - Stewart Raffill 🚀🚀🚀


By 1984, the last of the original Star Wars trilogy had come and gone, I was speeding dangerously towards puberty and growing weary of all things Jedi. Girls were becoming the new creatures worthy of prolonged contemplation, and the sci-fi action figures littering my bedroom floor were starting to seem like sad opposable jokes. Apparently, I hadn't gotten all the Wars out of my system though, because I remember being quite excited about this new space opera that had just hit Betamax and VHS. It was called The Ice Pirates, and, boy, was I in for a cold splash of water to my still acne-free face.

The shock was that the movie itself was in on the joke. Couched somewhere between Star Wars homage and its later, funnier straight-up spoof, Spaceballs, Ice Pirates was an odd '80s middle child. It mucked about in the George Lucas Universe but also made half-hearted attempts to breach the Land of Zucker Brothers too. Put it this way: A few of the robots in the movie speak "jive," one or two of them are working pimps. There's a subplot involving an outbreak of "space herpes" (pictured, bottom left), fleshy nubbins that erupt from cracked pods and scuttle about the spacecraft. The movie is rife with eunuch jokes, and the most memorable scene in the film involves a factory castration device that chomps people's private parts. Did I mention that Bruce Vilanch is in this thing? First as a decadent space king/queen and later as a wisecracking severed head.

Long story short, I loved The Ice Pirates, maybe more now than I did then. 50% of the jokes do not connect whatsoever, but, light years later, I finally understand the very adult-oriented targets at which they're taking aim. Open Letter to Rian Johnson: I'll give you $100 if you give a major character in Episode VIII a nagging case of space herpes, $50 if you squeeze in a cameo by a bodiless Bruce Vilanch. Just for kicks, mind you. I'm pretty sure, given the box office returns of Force Awakens, he won't be needing the cash.

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