Saturday, October 29, 2005

Review: Star Crash (1979)

Synopsis

Far ago, in a galaxy long, long away...

The starship "Murray Leinster," crown jewel of the Imperial Space Fleet, is on a secret mission to locate the home base of the evil Count Baron Zarth Arn. Zarth Arn has been at work on a terrible weapon that could threaten all the peace-loving inhabitants of this candy-colored universe, and the Emperor of the Stars (Christopher Plummer) is determined to find him and stop him. The Emperor has sent his own son Simon (David Hasselhoff) to head the mission. Unfortunately, when the "Murray Leinster" gets a little too close to Count Zarth's planet, the ship is attacked by glowy red bubble-things that cause really nasty headaches. Simon and some of his shipmates manage to get away in escape pods before the ship crashes and explodes.

Meanwhile, intergalactic smuggler and foxy space-babe Stella Star (Caroline Munro) and her fluffy-haired navigator Akton are picked up by the Imperial police and sent to a prison colony for several hundred years of hard labor. After five minutes of work Stella can't take it any more and starts a riot at the prison. She gets away but is almost immediately captured by green-skinned police chief Thor. The Emperor needs someone to lead a mission to find Simon and locate Zarth Arn's HQ, and since Stella and Akton are the best pilots in the galaxy, he gives them a pardon and recruits them.

The three escape pods from the "Murray Leinster" went down on three different planets, so Stella and Akton (with help from Thor and police robot Elle) must visit each of the mysterious planets and search the landing sites for survivors. The first pod they find is on a pretty nice planet that looks a little like coastal California. The pod is empty but Stella and Elle (the away team) are captured by a band of bikini-clad Amazons. They are brought before the Amazon queen, but thanks to Elle's superhuman abilities they manage to escape, narrowly avoiding being stepped on by the Amazons' incredibly broke-ass giant robotic woman-warrior-thing.

Next our heroes are off to a frozen wasteland of a planet, where Stella must don her warmest leotard to survive the brutal temperatures. They find no survivors at the crash site, but we discover that Thor is secretly working for Zarth Arn when he conks Akton on the head and locks Stella and Elle out in the cold. Fortunately, Akton uses his strange and unexplained mental powers to get the upper hand on Thor. Elle and Akton have to defrost Stella when they bring her into the ship, but she was evidently flavor-sealed in her space-age spandex and shows no signs of freezer-burn.

The final planet they search looks like an abandoned slag-heap and is populated by some really homely cavemen. When Stella and Elle are checking the escape pod on the planet surface the cavemen attack, smashing Elle into a mound of Radio Shack parts. It looks like Stella is about to become the main course at the caveman jamboree when a mysterious stranger in a goofy golden helmet appears and saves her. It turns out to be - gasp! - Simon, the Emperor's lost son! Akton wanders down to meet them and they realize that Zarth Arn's secret base is, rather conveniently, just around the corner.

Ol' Zarth is waiting for them, though, and uses Simon as bait to lure the Emperor himself to the planet (which Zarth has rigged to explode). The Emperor arrives just before the whole place blows up, but Zarth's little plan didn't take into account the fact that the Emperor has the power to stop the flow of time (!?!). He does so, just long enough for everyone to get away. A long and confusing space battle ensues between the Imperial forces and Zarth's own space fleet. This culminates in Stella piloting a small manmade planet into Zarth's space station, causing the titular "star crash." Zarth is defeated and the Emperor gives a weird speech celebrating peace.


Comments

After reading that synopsis you may feel like your brain has been attacked by glowy red bubble-things, and for that I apologize. A plot like this one does not lend itself well to summarization; in fact, I had to consult a synopsis written by director Luigi Cozzi just to understand some of the film's more mind-scrambling moments. Having said that, I must admit that I loved this movie. Probably way too much.

Star Crash, or as it was originally titled, Scontri Stellari Oltre la Terza Dimensione, is an Italian production which followed hot on the heels of 1977's genre-defining Star Wars. The similarity is evident from the opening scene in which a huge star-ship cruises slowly over the camera, and in basically every scene that follows. Star Crash rips off its predecessor at every turn, but does so with such a lack of skill that the results are quite unique. The final product is so cheap and corny as to be quite charming in its own way.

For example, when you look into space in Star Crash, you don't see thousands of tiny white stars - you see about a dozen huge ones, mostly in primary colors. It's like somebody hung a string of those big 50's Christmas lights on a brick wall. It's so unconvincing that you want to buy into it out of sheer sympathy. According to a Star Crash fansite (www.pachanko.com/starcrash) the not-so-special effects were brought to us by Armando Valcauda, a man who had never done effects for a motion picture before. This is not hard to believe.

I do give Armando credit for trying - he used just about every effect available at the time. My favorite has to be the stop-motion animation used for the Amazons' giant robot. It's a wonder that Stella didn't fall down laughing at the thing instead of running from it. Ray Harryhausen could probably have trained an orangutan to create a better stop-motion sequence. Another weakness is the poor spaceship design. In Star Wars, you could really believe that those ships were the size of cities. Here, they just look like sad little plastic models filmed at close range.

But Star Crash is about more than just the effects - it's about characters! There are some real prize-winners here, too. Akton is about as weird an individual as you'll ever encounter, what with his massive sphere of blonde curls; vast, luminous eyes, and assortment of vague psychic powers. Zarth Arn isn't very intimidating - he looks more like a fry-cook at Denny's than an evil overlord. And I don't know what Christopher Plummer was high on during the making of this film, but I want some of it. When he's making his final speech he looks so blissed-out that you start looking around for his space-bong.

I guess Elle the robot (who, despite his name, is a "he") was supposed to stand in for C3P0, but since the British accent was already taken Elle was given a Southern drawl. In my opinion: bad idea. Unless you are building the personal android servant of Jesse Helms, there is no reason for anyone to give a robot a Southern accent. Being from below the Mason-Dixon myself, I should know. The two things simply do not go together - it is a scientific fact.

Caroline Munro's Stella Star really takes this movie to the next level. A cheap Star Wars rip-off is one thing, but a cheap Star Wars rip-off starring a legitimately hot woman in a black vinyl bikini is something very different. I like the fact that she's not just window-dressing, though - she kicks butt; she karate-chops Amazons; she pilots her ship in death-defying space-battles. Of course, she also changes outfits more often than Cher on her Farewell Tour, but a complicated woman needs a complicated wardrobe, okay? In addition to her gravity-defying space-cleavage, Stella actually has some charisma too, which goes a long way toward making Star Crash enjoyable to watch.

I can't forget to mention the climactic battle between the Emperor's forces and Zarth Arn's. It goes on for so long I began to wonder if the Emperor was using his powers to stop time again, but no - it's just that boring. The laws of physics seem to be a little different in this part of space; personally, I was a little confused when the Imperial troopers crashed their space-canoes through the windows of Zarth's ship, then climbed out to tangle with Zarth's henchmen. You might think it would be a little breezy in front of that open window, but space must have been calm that day.

Final Analysis

I really could go on and on about Star Crash - it's one of the most enjoyable bad films I've seen in ages. It's beautifully stupid without having the disturbing edge that taints so many crappy movies (i.e. Invasion U.S.A.). Read more at the aforementioned fansite, then get out there and grab a copy if you can find one. It's a mom-approved escape pod of pastel-colored joy for the whole family!

3 Comments:

At 9:07 PM, Blogger Ambivalent_Maybe said...

I was going to ask you to describe in more detail what a "giant broke-ass robot" looked like--the term 'broke-ass' being the most confusing part of the phrase--but after reading the full review I think I get the picture.

I checked out the fansite hoping for some images of the giant robot, and perhaps some of his bikini-clad Amazon owners. I guess this is the robot in question?

I can't wait to get the DVD special edition of the movie, and read the forthcoming book about Star Crash. I know the internet is a medium through which tiny bits of fandom, scattered randomly all over the world, can be easily concentrated and made to seem larger and more important than they really are. But the fansite for Star Crash reinforces my belief that ours might be the first civilization to die from too much free time.

 
At 4:46 PM, Blogger sacrifice pawn said...

Well, I haven't been able to locate a dictionary that lists a definition of the term "broke-ass," so in the interest of clarity, I'll make an attempt at it myself. Here goes:

broke-ass (bro' kass) adj. Slang. 1. Lacking funds: broke-ass college students. 2. Of poor quality: "They are brought before the Amazon queen, but thanks to Elle's superhuman abilities they manage to escape, narrowly avoiding being stepped on by the Amazons' incredibly broke-ass giant robotic woman-warrior-thing." (Sacrifice Pawn)

There you go. If this is the first official definition of the term, let this be the record - you are all my witnesses.

The picture you linked to is indeed the robot. I think there are a couple of other shots of her/it on that fansite, but most of them are similarly small. It's hard to get the full effect of just how pathetic it is until you see it actually move.

I can understand your skepticism about the fansite, but having seen the movie myself I also understand how a person could fall under its strange spell. That DVD is going on my Christmas list, I can tell you that much!

 
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