Thursday, July 24, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Starcrash (1979)

Star Wars proved such an enormous blockbuster in 1977 that intrepid filmmakers around the globe went stark-raving crazy for galactic swashbuckle and before you could say "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." voided into international cinemas a series of new cosmic sagas, as well as bald imitators and slavish rip-offs. Some were great. Some...not so much.

In America, we had Glen Larson's Battlestar Galactica. From Canada came The Shape of Things to Come (1979). Why, even James Bond himself went to outer space in Moonraker (1979); Walt Disney followed suit and went 20,000 leagues closer to the event horizon in The Black Hole (1979).

Finally, direct from Italy came the swashbuckling but utterly inane Starcrash, also known as The Adventures of Stella Starr. It's an anti-classic, I guess you'd say. It's so bad that it's...amusing.

Directed in utterly scatter shot fashion by Lewis Coates (really Luigi Cozzi), Starcrash follows rogue "star buggy" pilot Stella Starr (Caroline Munro) on a perilous stellar journey. As the movie commences, Stella is captured by Imperial forces when she and her enigmatic Pathfinder navigator, Akton (Marjoe Gortner) investigate a derelict escape pod/launch near "the border of the Haunted Stars."

Turns out, an Imperial Ship (the Murray Leinster), while investigating a "phantom planet," was attacked there by a gaggle of awkwardly super-imposed blob monsters, or something like that. Anyway, before this tantalizing mystery can be fully investigated, Stella and Akton are captured by their perpetual nemeses, bald Thor and Southern-fried robot policeman, Elle.

Stella and Akton are quickly arrested and remanded to separate penal colonies. Before long, however, the Emperor (Christopher Plummer) comes-a-callin' with a mission only the talented amd widely-known Stella can possibly undertake. She is tasked to solve the mystery of the space blobs, uncover the concealed weapon of "Evil Count Zarth-Arn" (ruler of the "League of Dark Worlds") and -- if she has time -- rescue the Emperor's missing son, who captained the ship that was assaulted by the blotchy blobsters. Got it?

I hope so, because thus begins an incredible cosmic clash between the forces of good and evil. Elle and Stella grapple with Amazon warriors on one planet, facing down a giant robot with equally giant mechanical breasts (and nipples). The giant robot throws a giant knife at Stella on an alien beach, and she dodges it just in time...

On another world, Stella and Elle face a dangerous environment where the temperature drops "thousands of degrees"(!) in an instant. After being frozen, Stella is thawed out, fortunately, under the auspices of badly-botched time-lapse photography.

Finally, our heroes head to the Phantom Planet, where they grapple with hostile cavemen. These cavemen leap into the frame with great power and fanfare (courtesy of off-screen trampolines), but are quickly dispatched by Simon, the Emperor's son, who is wearing a Zardoz mask that shoots laser beams from the eye slits.

Together, the heroes then learn that Zarth-Arn's blobs are actually part and parcel of his impressive new "doom weapon," which
creates monsters (or at least blob monsters) based on the fears of men. Then, Stella, Simon (David Hasselhoff) and the apparently-mystically-powered Akton are captured by Zarth-Arn, Cackling wildly (literally -- he cackles), Arn (Joe Spinell) abandons the protagonists in a subterranean control room (with two robot sentries) to die a horrible death. Akton battles the robots with a green light saber (I'm not kidding), before he fades away (just like Ben Kenobi), following a flesh wound.

All looks grim for Stella and her entourage until the Emperor arrives just before the planet can be destroyed (forty-eight seconds before, to be precise...) and with a wave of his hand, he orders time to be halted. "Imperial battleship: halt the flow of time!" he commands imperiously, and gosh darn it, time is indeed stopped, giving Stella and her cohorts time to escape. Wow, I wish I could command such power...

With the flow of time taking a much-needed hiatus, the Emperor orders an attack on Zarth Arn's space station, a vast facility shaped like a human hand and adorned with cathedral windows. There's a massive space battle next, and things look bad for the Emperor and Stella until the Emperor suggests a final tactic. "There's only one solution left...," intones Plummer solemnly, "...starcrash."

With a little help from Elle, Stella then crashes a conveniently-evacuated floating city into Zarth Arn's space station, killing the surprised villain. Finally, The victorious Emperor delivers a Shakespearean soliloquy from the throne of his gold-plated spaceship. "The stars are clear. The planets shine. We've won..."

My my my, where to begin... ?

Okay, Starcrash is an absolutely innocent film that combines, in awkward proportion, ingenuity with idiocy. The film successfully captures a fun pulpy vibe with its colorful snow planets, sexy women, silly robots and the simple Manichean narrative of pure good versus pure evil. It's virtually impossible to hate the movie because it seems to have been created by enthusiastic eleven year-olds. It is so earnest and happy, you feel downright curmudgeonly for pointing out all the examples of blatant stupidity.

Take for instance, Akton's enthusiastic reception of enemy pursuit at the film's beginning. "A ha! Looks like the cops!," he says cheerily, apparently pleased to be followed and arrested. And Stella almost constantly wears a smile, no matter what else she's doing. It's nice to like your job, of course, but a result of all the happy, scrappy hero swashbuckling is that a feeling of menace is lost.. If the characters are having such a good time, why worry about the pudgy, cackling Zarth-Arn?

The special effects in Starcrash are frequently inventive, if also decidedly terrible, but I'm not going to diss them here too much, because the special effects, costumes, sets and locations are all serviceable (and interesting) enough to make for a very cool space movie. It's easy to forgive a weak effect here or there, if other elements of the story are right.

But they're not.

And as much as I like and admire Caroline Munro as a cult icon, the biggest finger (maybe one on Zarth Arn's spaceship...) should be pointed directly at her. To put it politely, she doesn't craft a character for Stella. Like, at all. Munro is undeniably beautiful, but there is absolutely nothing behind Munro's pretty eyes to indicate she is inhabiting a character, and wasn't just present on set for the ride. Who is Stella? What's her background? Why is she a criminal? Where did she learn to pilot? What's her world view? Philosophy? If she's a criminal, what's her crime? How does she feel always being pursued? Recruited by the Emperor? Those are the questions that one asks, looking into the empty, glazed eyes of Miss Munro, which essentially equate to a giant black hole in the middle of the movie. Munro manages to snarl a few times and widen her eyes a lot, but other than that, she's entirely limited in her responses.

The screenplay doesn't help matters for poor Stella. In fact, Stella does precisely nothing in this film. I mean, really. She's supposed to be our lead and the greatest pilot in the universe, but what does she actually do? Well, she gets arrested. Later on, she gets into trouble with the Amazons and the giant nipply statue...but Elle rescues her. Then, she is frozen solid on the ice planet...but Elle and Akton rescue her again. Then, when faced with the evil sentry robots, Akton and Simon save Stella. She just literally...stands there. In the back of frame, doing nothing at all.

Stella is a totally passive heroine and does absolutely nothing to move or motivate the storyline. All the men around her do the heavy lifting for her. She might as well sit on a cosmic sofa and eat bon-bons, for all the action she instigates in the film. If these are "the adventures of Stella Star," the script should have involved her more heavily in the decision-making. Then again, it's tough to compete with a.) a man who knows the future so is prepared for every situation (tough actin' Akton) and b.) an Emperor who can stop time with the wave of a hand. Being a good pilot kinda pales in comparison, no?

I love the dialogue in this film too. I mean, it's utterly atrocious, but god is it fun. One of my favorite lines is "Remember what the Amazon Queen said." Another is Plummer's brilliant, out-of-the-blue order to stop time. I also appreciate Akton's line: "I must obey destiny." Best of all is Stella's line, which mirrors the impressions of viewers: "I thought I was going to go insane."

in terms of presentation, it's not necessarily that the special effects in Starcrash are bad; it's that they are badly abused. The editing is terrible. Scenes seem to stop at random, swept away by random "wipes." Another problem: the film opens with the trademark Star Wars shot. A vast spaceship cruises in view of the camera, and then seems to stretch on, forever and forever. It was a good shot in Star Wars. And it's a good shot here. But then, it is followed in Starcrash by four additional shots of the same spaceship going by the camera. Slooooowly. The second shot is from above; the third is from the side; the fourth shot is a full shot of the ship near a planet, and the fifth shot is from above again. Jeez, talk about overkill. If the editor had used two shots instead of five to suggest the scope of this massive space vessel, the viewer would not have had the time to notice that someone forgot to paint the miniature; or that it seems to be put-together entirely from model kit parts.

Less is more, Starcrash. Less is more.

Again -- proving that in Starcrash ingenuity goes hand-in-hand with idiocy -- there's a near-great moment at the climax of the film, when the Emperor launches torpedoes at Zarth Arn's space station. The torpedoes breach the hull (and windows) of the station, land in the control room, and out pop heavily-armed infantrymen, ready for combat. Lasers flash everywhere! It's incredibly cool to see. But...what about explosive decompression? I am certain that Starcrash knows what explosive decompression is, because it remembers to adorn Stella in a spacesuit every time she leaves her ship. So, what are we to make of the fact that these space torpedoes break windows, but there's no explosive decompression? And, are infantry-carrying torpedoes really necessary when the Emperor can stop time? Just saying...

On and on this could go. How detailed should I be? Should I comment on the fact that during her stint of hard labor on a penal colony, Stella Star is allowed to remain dressed in her trademark gear of go-go-boots and dominatrix bikini?

Should I mention the fact that Akton boasts a number of special powers and weapons that always seem to show up at the precise moment they're needed (I know, I know...he can see the future, he just can't tell anybody...). Should I comment on the sound effects that accompany the stop-motion sentry robots, which sound suspiciously like coins jingling around in a washing machine? Should I mention the overall hokey nature of the film? That everybody comments on "the Evil Count Zarth Arn" as if that's his actual title? Or that I want to know where I can apply for membership in the League of Dark Worlds? (What's their mission statement?)

Starcrash is such a terrible movie, it makes Bo Derek's Tarzan The Ape Man look like high art. But, by point of contrast, Starcrash is never dull and never pretentious. On the contrary, this is an absolutely terrible movie made with total zeal, naivete and enthusiasm. The results speak for themselves, but I sure do love that enthusiasm. All bad movies should be this happy with themselves.


  1. I love Starcrash, I first watched this when I was told by one of my brothers mates that it was as good as Star Wars !! I had it on VHS for years then lost it, I got the New World cut of it which was hacked to bits, then got the full version again on DVD a few years back ! I love the line Stella says "It's a Spaceship !!" in true amazement like she'd never seen one before, even though they're sat in one and they've just been chased by 2. I also love the part where she asks David who he is, he takes off the mask and says "This is an energy shield mask, and it's powers are limited" he then pauses for a moment and says "Then I fear we're lost" What ?! It's like someone has just grabbed any bit of footage from the scene and edited it into any random order, he later tells her that his name is David. I made this CG version of the Space Claw ages ago here There was a guy called Stephen Romano writing a book called 'Compromising Hyperspace' about the making of Starcrash, I even wrote an account of why I liked it, the book was due out ages ago, I even seen the cover on his site but it seems his site has gone and there's no sign of the book getting released !

  2. Anonymous1:59 PM


    This may help clear up the mystery a little.

    Here's a quote from Stephen Romano's BIO section of his website at

    "Compromising Hyperspace
    Written by Stephen Romano
    Non-fiction, concerning the making of Luigi Cozzi's Starcrash. Researched methodically since 1999, the book is currently held back from publication by legal issues. A "renegade edition" is currently being considered by it's author."

    The book had originally been scheduled for release in December, 2006.


  3. Anonymous8:48 PM

    I had dismissed Starcrash years ago, but its new DVD release gave me a chance to reevaluate it. The Shout Factory 2010 DVD is the first time I had ever seen Starcrash with a beautiful pristine print. Some of the colorful spacescapes are stunning and in sharp detail (in-camera and not process shots). The story is still silly, but the director comments about the studio imposed changes (more Star Wars-like elements) the studio insisted upon.

    I think you are being a bit hard on Caroline Munro. It's hard to really judge her acting because she was redubbed by an American actress. Her character was given an insincere 'gee golly wiz' American voice. Ms Munro certainly wasn't happy about that. Throughout her DVD interview, she is upbeat until the subject of the 'dubbing' comes up. She becomes visibly upset about it. I always wondered about how actors feel about being redubbed without their consent (such as Peter Duncan in Space:1999's "The Exiles').

    The only actor who strikes me as truly awful and inappropriate in Star Crash is Marjoe Gortner. He's awful period.

    Since I mentioned Shout Factory, they've also recently released the obscure "Galaxy of Terror" as part of their Roger Corman classics. It also has a new beautiful new pristine print. You should definately checkout "Galaxy of Terror". It has some superb effects and production design in it. James Cameron did some great work in it!