Wednesday, February 8, 2017

No Apologies: Spaceballs

by Rob DiCristino
My first Mel Brooks film is still my favorite.

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.
In Spaceballs, the peaceful Druidians (specifically Dick Van Patten as King Roland) have come under threat by a ruthless race of dingbats led by the bumbling President Skroob (Mel Brooks). After depleting his own air supply through one incompetence or another, Skroob targets Druidia, kidnapping the beautiful Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga — the stunning, sharp, underused-in-anything-she’s-in Daphne Zuniga) hoping to extort the planet’s air shield combination from her father.* The desperate Roland hires renowned space pirate Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) and his sidekick Barf (John Candy) to rescue her. Meanwhile, the battleship Spaceball One — under the command of Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) and Colonel Sandurz (George Wyner) — carries out the evil Skroob’s machinations against Druidia. While he searches for the lost princess, Lone Star must study the mystical Schwartz with the wise and powerful Yogurt (Mel Brooks again) and discover the truth about his secret lineage.

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 clich√© after clich√© 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.
This is where Spaceballs made its mark on me. It was one of the first movies I’d seen (maybe a year or so before 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.
“I’m both proud and ashamed of that joke,” Brooks repeats throughout his commentary, referring to Spaceballs’ “spaghetti-meet-wall” approach to comedy. Alone, these tactics would tire fast, but Brooks’ always-impeccable casting keeps things fresh: Rick Moranis’ nebbish and insecure Darth Vader clone owns the film (helped tremendously by his comedic timing with George Wyler), and Bill Pullman makes his first strong argument for the leading man status he’d soon achieve. Most impressively, Spaceballs is a comedy starring John Candy that doesn’t actually need John Candy. He’s a bonus, a little treat for the kids. And it’s kids like me who are going to remember Spaceballs most fondly, the kids in whom it sparked an interest in a specific type of comedy that would only grow with age and experience. Spaceballs led me to Young Frankenstein, which led me to Blazing Saddles, which led me to Woody Allen and Monty Python. We often cannot choose how the world unfolds itself before us, but I’ll always be glad it showed me Spaceballs first.

*Seriously, tell me you didn’t think of Spaceballs when you saw that planet shield thingie in Rogue One.

4 comments:

  1. Great read Rob and it taught me something I didn't know about Spaceballs (although JB referred to it briefly too): that Spaceballs isn't universally beloved comedy classic. I was about 8 when a RICH friend of my parents with the movie channel taped it for me (along with Monster Squad - smart people) and I wore that mother out! I probably haven't watched in 20 years so it remains to me a masterpiece - I've had the blu-ray unwatched for a few years and I'm almost scared to watch it but I'm going to go for it tonight - May the Schwartz Be With Me!

    I'm thinking this was probably the first thing I watched that broke the 4th wall - I wish I could remember how my 8-year-old mind processed that...

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    1. So...watched it and a bunch of the gags still worked for me and I definitely enjoyed it - it was like hanging out with old friends - but yeah, I get why adults didn't like it at the time. There's a lot about it that objectively doesn't work.

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  2. I also watched this movie so many times as a kid that I can't view it objectively. One of the first films lampooning another that I ever really got. And the one liners were perfect. It worked as a great gateway to more Brooks films as I got older. And kid me always wondered why Bill Pullman wasn't in everything. No apologies for this film in the least.

    "We've been jammed."

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  3. Mel Brooks is one of those directors that I understand I'm supposed to like and regard as a comedic master, but most of his films just leave me cold. Spaceballs however hit its mark with me as an 80s kid obsessed with Star Wars. It was like one of the movie parodies from my beloved Mad magazine had come to life on the big screen and I ate it up.

    Pizza the Hutt especially was like the funniest play on words I had ever encountered as a 9 year old kid.

    I remember the scene where the doctor apparently motorboats the busty nurse when the lights cut out was also one of the first times as a kid that I had an inclination that there was adult stuff going on between the sexes that I was not yet privy to.

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