Okay, as I warned you last week, this is not a superhero film, nor is it based on a comic book. But Starcrash is heavily influenced by Barbarella, a comic that was itself made into a movie starring a young Jane Fonda. Barbarella also starred a young John Phillip Law, who later went on to star in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, which also featured the sultry star of Starcrash, Caroline Munro. So it’s all connected, see.
Anyway, in mid-1977, a young Italian director named Luigi Cozzi was hired to make a science-fiction film to cash in on the success of Star Wars. One problem: Star Wars hadn’t been released in Europe yet. So Cozzi’s script bears only the slightest resemblance to the storyline of Star Wars, while also drawing heavily on other influences. A lot of other influences.
As I mentioned before, Starcrash stars Caroline Munro, a model-turned-actress who developed a cult following despite having relatively few movie roles in minor films like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, and At the Earth’s Core. She had just reached her biggest audience yet as a Bond girl in The Spy Who Loved Me and made quite an impression, so bigger things seemed to be on the horizon. I won’t say Starcrash killed that, but it didn’t help.
So what’s it about, this Italian version of Star Wars made by people who had never seen Star Wars?
Well, it’s a little insane, actually. There’s so much insanity that it won’t fit into one post. It starts with a flyover by a massive spaceship, in the same style as the one in Star Wars.
However, even in the very first shot, we can see some of the problems the film will have. Where the flyover in Star Wars occurred in the context of an action scene, this one is pretty static. The effects are obviously much cheaper than in Star Wars as well. I kind of like the cheesy multi-colored lights for stars, and I admire the thrift in the way the effects crew, in kit-bashing the models, even used the sprues that the model parts come attached to…
But the models are all spay painted a solid color, with no weathering or shading to give them that extra touch of authenticity, so they don’t sell the illusion on screen.
Cozzi manages to work in a couple of old-school sci-fi references to authors Murray Leinster and Ray Bradbury in the opening scene, though, so at least he has his priorities straight. As for the scene itself, it’s straight out of James Bond: a ship suffers an unexplained disaster, but manages to launch a few lifeboats to safety, except instead of a submarine being swallowed by an oil tanker, it’s a spaceship being attacked by weird red globules.
Even the music is James Bond-y, which makes sense, given that the composer is veteran Bond composer John Barry. Don’t ask me how this cheap Italian exploitation film landed Barry for the music, though.
Roll Credits! Marjoe Gortner gets first billing, Lord knows why. And director Cozzi uses the Americanized pseudonym Lewis Coates.
So now we’re into the movie proper. Think we’ll find out what was going on in that first scene? Nope. So we should at least be introduced to the main characters. Not really. I’ll describe this one scene in detail so you can understand just how disorienting this movie is.
Marjoe Gortner and Caroline Munro are sitting at the console of their spaceship, when two other ships approach them.
Unnamed character played by Marjoe Gortner: “Ah ha, looks like the cops.”
Their screen changes to a view of some bald-headed dude.
Bald-Headed Dude: “As Thor, Chief of the Imperial Police, I order you to surrender at once!”
The screen changes to show the head of a humanoid robot.
Humanoid Robot Who Talks Like a Cowboy: “Stand by, you cheap smuggler. I am Police Robot Elle. You have the right to remain silent.”
Unnamed character played by Caroline Munro: “Go for hyperspace!”
And away they go. We don’t know the names of the two main characters, we don’t know why they’re being chased, or whether we should be rooting for them to be caught or get away.
In the course of their chase, their ship is destroyed, but they escape in a launch or something and run across one of the escape pods from the opening scene. The Woman Whose Name We Still Don’t Know gets in a spacesuit and heads over to the escape pod in a scene that seems heavily influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey.
She finds a survivor and takes him back, where she is caught by Police Robot Elle (who also finally informs us that her name is Stella Star).
Meanwhile, there’s this giant mechanical hand in space. Really.
Only it’s not a hand. It’s a space station that can maybe kill planets by punching them or something. An obviously bad guy (played by Joe Spinell with a cheesy mustache and Princess Leia hair) gets the news that a survivor has been found.
He summons some badly animated sword-wielding robots, but never gets around to mentioning what he wants them to do. Must not be too important, because we don’t see them again for like an hour.
Over ten minutes into the movie, and we finally learn the name of Stella’s friend played by Marjoe Gortner. His name is Acton, and he’s an alien with conveniently unexplained powers (convenient when there’s a jam and Acton needs to grow a new power to save them). He’s an E.T. Ex Machina.
He and Stella are sentenced to separate space prisons by an alien judge who is ripped straight out of the 50’s classic, Invaders From Mars.
Stella decides working in a prison mine while still wearing a black bikini sucks, so she decides to break out. Luckily the other prisoners decide to help, so Stella can escape in the confusion while all the other prisoners are being killed. But now she’s stuck on a bleak planet in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, a ship arrives and Police Robot Elle tells her he’s taking her away from there.
Now it’s around twenty minutes in and we finally learn the set-up for the story. Stella, Acton, Elle and Thor are contacted by a hologram of the Emperor, played by Christopher Plummer. Plummer explains that the Murray Leinster (although he never actually says the name of the ship, we saw it on the model in the opening scene) was searching for a devastating space weapon developed by Count Zarthon (IMDB says that it’s actually Zarth Arn, but everyone just says Zarthon, so that’s how I’m spelling it). It was attacked and the crew killed, but three more pods managed to escape, which have landed on three different planets. The Emperor’s son was on one of them.
So Stella, best space pilot in the galaxy, is recruited to rescue him.
They head for the first planet, where Stella and Elle find the first pod. Elle, the robot who talks like a goofy cowboy, seemed like a throwaway character when he first appeared, but now it looks like he’s going to stick around for a while. Stella and Elle are captured by Space Amazons riding pink unicorn ponies.
Elle is shot, and Stella is taken before the sexy Queen Coralia, who’s working with Zarthon (gasp!). But Elle is a very durable robot, so he suddenly turns awesome, shoots up the place, and saves Stella.
Queen Coralia isn’t thrilled by this turn of events. So she sends her giant Guardian after Stella. The Guardian is a gigantic stop-motion metal colossus, a tribute to Talos from Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts. Only with tits.
Yes, the model is crude, but on the other hand, it’s also very badly animated. The special effects guy on the film was this huge Harryhausen fanboy who had done a few animated TV commercials in Italy, but had never worked on a professional production. He was obviously thrilled to get the chance to work on something like this–a theatrical feature film with effects scenes just like Harryhausen’s!–which is sad, because he totally whiffs it.
Anyway, after Stella and Elle escape into space, the Queen sends her fighters after them, and there’s a big space battle. There’s lots of whooshing and shooting and shouting and exploding, but it’s all cut together sort of randomly and nothing makes any sense. You don’t realize just how well constructed the TIE Fighter Escape sequence in Star Wars is until you have seen this utterly wretched attempt to do the same thing.
Our heroes then travel to a frozen planet, where Stella finally gets to put on some clothes. Stella and Elle discover that the second pod had no survivors, while Acton discovers Thor is a spy for Zarthon (and by “discovers,” I mean “gets killed by”), Thor then locks Stella and Elle out of the ship as night approaches, when we’re told the temperature will fall “thousands of degrees.”
Poor Stella, doomed to die. And poor us, with something like half the movie to go with only badly-animated robots and Joe Spinell’s goofy hair to look at. Do something, Awesome Space Cowboy Robot Elle! Save us from this fate!
Be here next week for the big finale!