1980s, 2.5/4, Comedy, Mel Brooks, Review

Spaceballs

Spaceballs (1987) - IMDb

#8 in my ranking of Mel Brooks’ filmography.

The funniest movie Mel Brooks had made since Silent Movie, Spaceballs is an amusing film with solid jokes and a misplaced sense of satire that eludes actually hitting the intended target, George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise, instead creating a generic space fantasy adventure without a satirical bite, relying entirely on the comedy to carry things through. It would be enough if the film embraced comedy completely, instead of spending the absolute minimal amount of time to try and tell a heartfelt story of love on the tail end without any sense of irony. It ends up a weird marriage of comedy, attempted catharsis, and missed satire that entertains well enough while its on but could have been more.

The planet Spaceball has run out of air, and they have a plan to steal the air of the Planet Druidia, protected by an air shield. President Skroob (Mel Brooks) sends Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) in Spaceball One to kidnap King Roland’s (Dick Van Patten) daughter, Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga), on her wedding day. When she runs away with her droid Dot Matrix (Joan Rivers’ voice and Lorene Yarnell in costume) without marrying her betrothed into her brand new Mercedes spaceship, King Roland calls upon the services of the hero for hire Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) and his loyal mog (half-man and half-dog) sidekick Barf (John Candy) to rescue her.

The comedy of the film early on through to the end is the sort of humor that Brooks had become known for. There are jokes that play on how “Druish” sounds like “Jewish”, much made of Barf’s name, a Jabba the Hutt type character named Pizza the Hut, Princess Vespa using headphones that look like Princess Leia’s hair buns, and the contrast of the dark figure of Dark Helmet with the bespeckled face of Rick Moranis underneath. There is funny stuff here, but it’s mostly stuff that could have been in any comedy, not necessarily one supposedly targeting Star Wars.

Lone Starr gets away with the princess, and they crash land on a desert planet where they meet the mysterious figure, owner of the mighty power the Schwartz, Yogurt (also Brooks) who gives them shelter and a lesson on merchandizing. This merchandizing bit is the funniest thing in the whole movie and shows that what Brooks understood most about Star Wars wasn’t the story but the rather crass way Lucas had monetized it to his financial benefit, placing the name on every little thing to sell. The irony is that Lucas, in having signed off on the parody personally after reading the script before production, extracted an agreement from Brooks to never sell Spaceballs merchandize himself, providing an extra level of irony around the whole thing.

Dark Helmet gets Vespa to come out of Yogurt’s hideout, stealing her away, and using the threat of giving her a bad plastic surgery nose job to convince King Roland into giving up the codes to the air shield. In terms of the humor that doesn’t really connect to Star Wars, this is actually some of my favorite. The formula is that the bad guys have something the good guys want, and the bad guys will leverage what they have to get what they want. The specifics aren’t important as long as the formula is followed, and making the point of negotiation something silly like a bad nose job is kind of inspired.

There’s a rescue in Spaceball City that gets Vespa back into the Winnebago owned by Lone Starr, a routine bit of action, and we’re off to our big finale. The finale, of Lone Starr sneaking into the morphed Spaceball One that now looks like a Giant Maid with a vacuum cleaner, is a bit of a disappointment to me. It’s the weird marriage of comedy and attempt at actually telling a space adventure story that keeps both sides from following through fully. I think the comedic side works better, with the laser sword fight between Dark Helmet and Lone Starr, the lesson on the Vulcan nerve pinch, and Helmet’s relationship to Lone Starr being the highlights, but the clash comes when the self-destruct button gets pressed. I keep advocating for anarchy towards the end of comedies, and we get a sliver of that anarchy here. However, it’s barely set up, happens quickly, and then is over. It’s not really built up and is over too quickly.

The real ending of the film is Lone Starr discovering that he’s actually a prince and is eligible to marry Vespa, saving her from the boring marriage she was set up for. The romance of the two was only ever perfunctory, so ending the film on an earnest portrayal of love between them feels off to me. Expecting this kind of genuine sentiment in a movie this wacky doesn’t really work.

I will say that, as opposed to the complete misfire that was High Anxiety, Brooks managed to actually tell a cohesive story under which he laid his jokes. I don’t find all of the story all that good, the romance being a key failure, but the ability to tell the story itself is a nice undergirding structure on which to hang jokes.

Now, I feel the need to explain how Spaceballs doesn’t understand Star Wars. Star Wars is not a complicated thing. That’s actually the appeal. It’s a newer telling of an ancient story built on archetypes as outlined by Joseph Campbell. Brooks didn’t seem to get that. He created a thin mimicry of Star Wars‘ structure without understanding the ideas behind it. There’s no comment or inversion on the archetype of the hero plucked from nothing, the inevitability of the journey, the wizened old man who puts the hero on the path. The closest thing is probably Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet, undermining the figure of the dark evil with a funny little white guy underneath. Star Wars isn’t some sacred thing above satire, but Brooks just kind of missed the mark.

And that underlines some of my issues with the film’s comedy. Yes, it’s often fairly funny, much moreso than Brooks’ previous two efforts as director, but the humor is often off and soft when it should be on point and biting. That miss keeps me from really appreciating the film, though there is something to be said for getting Lucas’ support in terms of the special effects, getting his Industrial Light and Magic to create the effects of his movie making fun of Lucas’ creation. They really are quite good, helping to lead to one of Brooks’ best looking movies.

In the end, I find the film amusing but off at the same time. There are real laughs to be had, but the uncomfortable unity of the type of comedy and the type of storytelling, along with the missed opportunities for humor at Star Wars‘ expense, make it a lesser comedy than it could have been. It’s fine.

Rating: 2.5/4

7 thoughts on “Spaceballs”

  1. I think it’s a pretty solid ‘space satire’ as opposed to a Star Wars satire. Star Wars, of course, looms largest in both the setup of the plot and in the majority of the jokes. But Brooks was intending to be more broad, he even said he was going to ‘kick the balls out of space’ for this movie. So a tighter focus would have been a better satire but it wasn’t what he was going for.

    Going broad lets him add in the Star Trek stuff (“Ludicrous Speed” even making it into Tesla cars) and more generic ‘space fantasy’. Vespa works more as an object of desire than as a romance, but that was also true of Leia in the first Star Wars movie. Mel Brooks is also more of a gag writer, a vaudeville fan, than he is an auteur or screenwriter. And good thing, too.

    Spaceballs is a comedy and it makes me laugh, so it’s very successful by my standards.

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    1. Without the earnest ending, I’d give this half a star more. I do think it’s pretty funny in a generic sort of way, but I can imagine a more pointed satire of Star Wars that probably plays better in general.

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  2. I think its funnyness keeps it ahead of its lack of substance. It’s actually a haircut of “Blazing Saddles,” with the same deconstruction of a genre by demonstrating how silly its tropes are. There’s also an underlying theme in both (prejudice in BS, marketing in SB). Plus, it does the “reality intrudes” bit (BS went into Hollywood, SB captures the stunt doubles). And Mel Brooks plays two roles again.

    I would recommend it as a comedy. It’s funny. There are parts that drag, parts that are too silly.
    Maybe it could have been more? Maybe, who knows?

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