Starcrash (1979)


The success of Star Wars (1977) provoked one of the last great waves of B-movie cash-ins, as every producer from Burbank to Tokyo got busy making their imitation space operas, on the cusp of the era when VHS would radically change the market for low-budget cinema and kill off the drive-in quickie tradition. Starcrash can boast of a peculiar afterlife as an icon of retro cheese, a ready-made punch-line to farm for clips to show on TV comedy shows and use in YouTube surveys, and referenced as part of the background iconography behind self-conscious lampoons like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), with the presence of a young David Hasselhoff a particular lightning rod for mockery. It’s definitely true that Starcrash is a weird and gleefully ridiculous blend of the cheap and flimsy and the oddly ambitious, sporting some big-name collaborators bringing varying levels of commitment to the project, and flagrant in its filches from its model. Where Star Wars has somehow transcended its era, Starcrash seems perfectly of its moment, something you’d leave the fondue party to go and see before snorting some coke and heading on down the dance the night away at Studio 54. Or so I believe was what people did in 1979.


But Starcrash is also one of the most wholehearted cinematic reproductions of the disreputable side of science fiction, a continent of anthology magazine and comic book imagery, sporting intergalactic heroes gallivanting through a mash-up of mythical motifs. It’s the closest anyone’s ever come to ripping out an assortment of panels from old Barbarella, Metal Hurlant, Valerian and Laureline, and Flash Gordon strips and roughly taping them together, and is certainly preferable to several of the films based more directly on those works for its quickness of pace, the tatty vivacity of its images, and straightforward pulp zing of director Luigi Cozzi’s handling. Cozzi, billed here under his preferred English pseudonym of Lewis Coates, was a jack-of-all-trades player on the Italian genre film scene who often worked with Dario Argento, helping pen the story for his Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971). Starcrash was also the only real starring vehicle for the dashing Caroline Munro, the fox-eyed, bronze-skinned actress who had first gained some notice in Hammer horror films like Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974), as well as decorating The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) and At The Earth's Core (1976), before stealing the show with her brief appearance as a saucily winking assassin in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).


The setting is a far-distant future when the known universe is divided between a mighty but creaking, iniquity-riddled Empire and a rebellious zone controlled by the evil Lord Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell). Stella is a smuggler whose talents as a spacefarer are unmatched, allied with Akton (Gortner), a human-looking alien with rarefied psychic powers. During a jaunt through deep space, the two outlaws are chased by Thor (Robert Tessier) and the robot Elle (Judd Hamilton), Imperial Space Police detailed to bring them down. Stella and Akton halt to inspect a derelict rescue shuttle from a larger Imperial craft found on the fringe of a portion of Zarth Arn’s territory called the Haunted Stars, and retrieve a terribly injured survivor mumbling warnings of ghostly red monsters, glimpsed in a prologue causing calamity for the crew of an Imperial cruiser. Their altruism only gets the smugglers netted by the space cops and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment on separate, hellish prison planets by the Empire’s computerised justice system. Stella escapes thanks to a sudden, violent revolt that sees her prison destroyed in a nuclear meltdown, only to fall back into the hands of Thor and Elle. This time, however, Stella is reunited with Akton and commissioned by the Emperor himself (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the loss of the cruiser and find survivors, as the Emperor’s son Simon (Hasselhoff) was on the ship, and only the two smugglers would have the gall to venture into the Haunted Stars.


Stella and Akton are joined by Thor and Elle and form a tenuous working relationship as they track down the lost ship’s other escape shuttles. Elle proves himself, in spite of his occasional outbursts of timorous anxiety in the face of moisture and other threats to his dubious circuits, to be a robust fighter and helpmate to Stella, to the point where she describes him as “the best friend a girl ever had,” which gives a touch of subtext as to why he looks like a walking vibrator. The robot, who speaks like a Texan sheriff from a cowboy movie, saves Stella when she’s nabbed by a gang of Amazons ruled by Queen Corelia (Nadia Cassini), one of Zarth Arn’s allies. Thor proves to be a double agent and tries to kill Akton, intending to leave Stella to freeze during another planetary visit, but Elle manages to keep her alive with energy from his circuits long enough for Akton to recover and kill Thor before rescuing them. Searching for the last shuttle, the heroic trio defy the red monsters, which prove to be psychic projections sent out by a great machine complex concealed by Zarth Arn on a planet inhabited by brutal primitives. Elle is smashed to pieces by the brutes, but Stella quickly encounters Simon, who initially keeps his identity from her. They battle off the marauders together before linking up with Akton and tracking down the mind-monster projector. But they soon learn they are mere props in Zarth Arn’s extremely convoluted plot designed to lure the Emperor into a trap.


After Starcrash, Cozzi would go on to try and revive the Italian movie industry’s once-vital peplum genre with a post-Conan the Barbarian (1982) lilt with two Hercules movies starring Lou Ferrigno, and the peplum tradition lurks just under the post-Star Wars mode here. Stella embarks on an odyssey through diverse lands, encountering Amazons and Yahoos and androids dubbed Golems. The first appearance of the Amazons on horseback approaching the heroes comes right out of half the period adventures ever shot. A Ray Harryhausen-esque colossal robot monster under the Amazon Queen’s control lurches forth in stop-motion glory to stalk Stella a la the monstrous Talos of Jason and the Argonauts (1963), whilst the later duel with the Golems recalls the battles with the skeletons in that film. Munro is often costumed in a way that breaks down the rigid barrier between the more familiar brand of scantily-dressed sex appeal and the body-worship of the peplum’s usual, muscular manly focal points, a fitting (and fit) heroine for the burgeoning hardbody philosophy of the late ‘70s. 


Munro already knew her way about sword-and-sorcery fare thanks to The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and here, at last, got to play the swashbuckling hero in her own right, but as in so many of her roles finished up being dubbed over with someone else’s voice, in this instance with an American accent. Although she’s most definitely the film’s central figure, Gortner is billed ahead of her. Gortner, the former evangelist turned movie actor, remains one of the strangest phenomena in the history of cinema, looking and sounding like a muppet who’s been creatively shaved. Akton comes armed with the lamest “May the Force be with you/Live Long and Prosper” wannabe conceivable: “Have faith and never give up hope.” He also turns out to be able to see the future, but can’t talk about it because of…well, something. Apparently he still can’t avoid getting himself killed battling evil robots. 


For better and worse, Star Wars redefined the pulp sci-fi style in cinema by insisting that such fantasias had to be rendered in an ever-more convincing manner through advanced special effects. Although it generated a slew of imitations, George Lucas' blockbuster also helped doom the old-fashioned exploitation film model as it opened up the new divide between film industries that could keep up with the special effects game and those that couldn’t. Starcrash, with its delightfully tacky models and matte effects, fails utterly to keep pace, and yet it’s a beguiling artefact of cheap hype, one of the last occasions where you might glimpse that old-fashioned brand of screen fantasy where you can see the strings on the models and sets can be seen through double-exposed actors. Cozzi’s drenching colour effects and low-rent but ingenious model effects occasionally strongly recall Mario Bava’s venture into sci-fi on Planet of the Vampires (1966). Indeed, at its best Starcrash looks and feels like what a space opera made by Bava might have resembled. Elsewhere it’s feels more closely akin to the no-budget, toasted bravura of Dark Star (1974), if John Carpenter and company had tried to make Buck Rogers.


Threadbare charms flit by in increasingly delirious refrains. The clouds over the ice planet that dash along as if in some lost rotoscoping effect from Yellow Submarine (1968). The beams of energy that shoot from the Amazon Queen’s eyes to command her giant robot. The planetarium-level star fields hovering behind wire-winging actors and ponderously gliding models. The outer space torpedoes-cum-man capsules that punch their way through the hull of Zarth Arn’s fist-shaped space base and disgorge Imperial soldiers ready for battle. The swooping camera drives aimed straight at the spaceships with all their crudely reapportioned Airfix model segments. Akton’s sudden appearance with a made-in-Taiwan knock-off lightsaber. The judge at Stella and Akton’s trial, an octopoidal alien with a human face reminiscent of the Martian leader from Invaders From Mars (1953). A ship’s computer shaped literally like a giant, glowing brain. The attack of the mind-monsters is pure funny-mushroom ecstasy. The image of Stella and Elle lying frozen and holding hands echoes the fadeout cliffhanger of Fritz Lang’s The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959), whilst the Emperor’s ship is a golden space galleon, as if Druillet redrew a Renaissance depiction of the Battle of Lepanto, and Simon swans into first sight wearing a gilded mask that suggests Zardoz (1974) gone disco. 


Cozzi and Wachsberger did at least seem aware that a large part of Star Wars’ mystique lay in John Williams’ scoring, and they seem to have blown a big chunk of their budget on commissioning a score from a figure of comparable stature in movie composition, John Barry. Barry’s work proves to be one of his more counterintuitive efforts in this regard – a great deal of the action is set to music that sounds like those sonorous chords Barry used to play over any scene where James Bond went scuba diving. But the lush and dreamy scoring does give the movie a certain epic lustre it wouldn’t approximate otherwise, and seems strangely well-tuned to Munro’s spry smile and affect of sheer joy in doing ridiculous things. The script, penned by Cozzi and producer Nat Wachsberger, rocks along with scant regard for life or limb in its made-up-as-we-went-along random twists and storytelling, but that’s part of why the film genuinely approximates one of those cut-down, feature-length editions of a classic movie serial. Cozzi insisted Starcrash be called science fantasy, which is accurate enough, in a storyline that reaches an apex of randomness when the Emperor releases the command, “Halt the flow of time!”, an episode of Shakespearean grandiloquence in chintzy fantasy up there with “Release the Kraken!” 


For the most part Plummer plays his few scenes with an aspect of mellow indulgence, as if he made sure to get good and baked before coming on set, overseeing the final battle with unflappable cool as he sends wave after wave of troops and fighter craft in to be decimated by Zarth Arn’s hordes. Spinell counteracts Plummer’s serene detachment by playing his bad guy as a pure pantomime or opera villain, with devilish beard and cape ripe for spreading out in moments of triumphant declamation. Starcrash drags the entire idea of space opera back to its roots in Victorian-era operettas and greasepaint takes on the epic cycles from the classical inheritance. Meanwhile, arming Elle with a broad Texan accent is a more tolerable way of acknowledging and latching onto the obvious influence of westerns on Star Wars than Battle Beyond the Stars’ (1980) horse-shaped spaceship, and echoes the employment of Slim Pickens for the same idea on the virtually concurrent The Black Hole (1979). Elle is rebuilt in time to help Stella mount the last, desperate attack on Zarth Arn by performing a “starcrash” manoeuvre, attacking through a time warp by hijacking a “Floating City” and guiding it into the villain’s base. Cozzi finds time before the fade-out for a romantic liaison for Stella and Simon that pinches Stan Freberg’s John-Marsha routine, and Plummer recites a languid postscript before getting back to whatever Roman orgy he left long enough to shoot his scenes. There's no doubting Starcrash is silly fun. But's also a far more authentic cinematic capsule of pure comic book essence than the billion-dollar efforts to distil it so common today.


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