Movie Review: Starcrash (1978, Italy)

The good old Hollywood Bandwagon. A surprisingly successful movie will (or at least would – copyright lawyers are a bit more active these days) frequently spawn legions of imitators. This happened with Jaws back in the late 70’s, and became common enough so that any movie that even so much as vaguely resembled a previous one got stuck with the “knock-off” or “rip-off” label. Sometimes this was deserved, sometimes it wasn’t. With Starcrash, an Italian space opera, it wasn’t. Sure, there’s the opening shot of a long slow pan across a giant spaceship, light saber-like weapons, and there was that one version of the movie poster that looked like a MAD Magazine parody of a Star Wars poster, but that’s about it. Not everything brown tastes like chocolate…

Let’s get the basics out of the way first. Smugglers Stella Star (Caroline Munro) and Akton (Marjoe Gortner) have been captured and sentenced to prison. Star manages to lead an escape from her work camp, just in time to find that the Emperor (Christopher Plummer!) has ordered their release. Seems his son has gone missing in a battle with the forces of the EEEvil Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell), and the duo are the only ones who can find the missing Prince Simon (David Hasselhoff).

That’s not necessarily a bad story idea, but the cast ought to clue you in to the fact that this is in no way to be mistaken for a good movie. Munro and Gortner are certainly competent enough given modest roles and fair direction. Here, though, they are asked to play the leads. That task is beyond them. The inane dialogue they are asked to spout doesn’t help, either:

Akton: “We’ve just survived an attack of the most powerful weapon in the entire galaxy!”
Stella: “We have?”
Akton: “Yeah. Count Zarth Arn, watch out!”

Add in extreme low budget effects (the spaceship models, by all evidence, are simply unpainted pieces of toy store model kits glued together), a robot with a “good ol’ boy” Texas drawl, Christopher Plummer out-acting the rest of the cast combined despite being in only three scenes, deus ex machina escapes from peril, and you have a great steaming heap of an incredibly entertaining movie.

Not in the normal sense of the word, of course, but in the “I can’t believe they actually did that” slack-jawed amazement sense. It’s clear that it wasn’t deliberate, either. This was before movie makers intentionally went for camp/self-parody, and I don’t think the Italian film industry ever went that way. Given the utter lack of talent on display, it is unlikely director Luigi Cozzi could have intentionally succeeded at anything.

So, we don’t have a Star Wars knockoff here. What, then, do we have?Episodic plot.

  • Inexplicable hairsbreadth escapes.
  • Art deco sets, props, and costumes, many recycled from other movies.
  • Low budget everything.
  • Overall lack of quality that could only appeal to the most unsophisticated audience.

Starcrash is essentially an old sci-fi movie serial compiled and edited into a feature film. Think of it as “The Perils of Stella Star”. If it had hit the U.S. three years later, it would have been called a knock off of Flash Gordon (1980). But since they chose to market it like Star Wars, they have to live with comparisons to Star Wars.

Just because we’ve got a better idea of what it’s (possibly) trying to be doesn’t make it a better movie. It is still a train wreck of cinematic ineptness. The end result, however, is one of the more entertainingly awful movies of living memory. There are movies where it’s said you have to leave your brain outside the theater in order to enjoy them. With Starcrash, you had better leave your brain outside, else it might explode from trying to comprehend the wonderful ludicrousness onscreen.

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