Let’s just get this out of the way up front: 1987’s Spaceballs is not Mel Brooks’ best film. Not by a long shot. It’s nowhere close. Hell, it’s not even the best Star Wars parody out there. There are a lot of things about it that are objectively bad, and many people find it completely obnoxious. Those people are total heroes. Patriots. We can still be friends. But we often cannot choose how the world unfolds itself before us, and it just so happens that this cruel, uncaring world unfolded Spaceballs upon me early — early enough that it would come to play a major role in my understanding of satire, parody, and goofball comedy in general. I won’t go into how often my brother and I rented it or how we loved reenacting the Schwartz ring fight scene long before we knew what our dicks were or why they were hilarious, but the movie made an impression. And again, it’s a dumb movie. It’s cheap and dated and a lot of the jokes are lazy as hell. But the point is that certain movies program our sensibilities and create a baseline for future experiences, and Spaceballs did that for me.
The script, penned by Brooks, Ronny Graham, and Tom Meehan, finds a nice balance between Star Wars parody and general fairy tale adventure. No, I’m serious. It’s totally ridiculous and fatally disjointed, but it manages to forge its own satirical path through cliché after cliché while retaining endless charm and self-awareness. There’s a universality to Star Wars’ tropes that allows them to serve a number of narrative functions. Right away, from the opening crawl to the preposterously-long entrance of Spaceball One, we’re all in on the joke. That joke, as it turns out, is angled as much at the phenomenon of merchandising and ancillary video cassette markets as it is at the text of the film itself. Recalling Blazing Saddles’ final sequence (and, honestly, a thousand other sequences in Brooks’ films), Spaceballs takes a brilliant metatextual conceit to its logical conclusion through a recurring thread of fourth wall annihilation. It wasn’t a new idea, but it was especially resonant in a world that had completely absorbed Star Wars into its cultural vocabulary.
Last Action Hero) that functioned as a commentary on other movies and addressed me, specifically, as a movie lover. It broke through my childhood delusions about the infallible and immaculate nature of the Star Wars trilogy and taught me to have a sense of humor about it. Yes, Darth Vader’s helmet is kind of silly. Yes, it’s weird that Han Solo talks to his dog. And yes, the number of Star Wars lunch boxes, t-shirts, and action figures was (and still is) goddamn ridiculous. But it never felt cruel or dismissive. In fact, by imitating Star Wars’ sprawling locales and swashbuckling action, it was codifying what makes them so appealing. It actually made my Star Wars viewing experience better, somehow. Seeing those films through this new lens gave me a better picture of myself as a movie fan, giving a name to the language and cadence my favorite movies shared and pushing me to further develop that vocabulary. It opened my door to Mystery Science Theater 3000 and everything that would come after.
And look, a lot of what Joan Rivers does as Dot Matrix (including being called Dot Matrix) feels outdated. The whole “Druish princess who had a nose job” thing is kind of cringeworthy in our age of wokeness. I’ll probably have to explain to my kid who Michael Winslow is if he’s going to understand the radar scene. But the best gags in Spaceballs work because they expose filmmaking as a technical process with flaws and limitations: take the stunt doubles joke, for example, or the instant cassette scene. They felt truly innovative, the product of a group of comedians who — as Brooks says in his commentary track — loved mocking the movie business until they discovered how hard movies were to make. Those jokes may or may not work for you, but they’re super risky, dependent almost entirely on an audience’s willingness to have that same sense of humor about themselves as I did. Dark Helmet fast-forwarding trough the movie to find out where his enemies are hiding is fucking hilarious, but it’s going to confuse people if they’re not on board with Brooks’ particular, cynically-edged ethos. For a film often associated with the “end” of Mel Brooks, Spaceballs pushes an impressive set of boundaries.
*Seriously, tell me you didn’t think of Spaceballs when you saw that planet shield thingie in Rogue One.