The A.V. Club’s Alex McCown puts it the most succinctly: Spaceballs is catnip for 12-year-old boys. That said, Mel Brooks’ intermittently successful but cultishly loved 1987 Star Wars spoof doesn’t play as well now for me as it did when I was 12. It’s not that I grew into having an aversion to dick jokes and lame puns, but that I developed a desire to have more than dick jokes and lame puns in my movies. To that end, Brooks isn’t a director with a gift visual flair or crackerjack plotting, and so his movies tend to live and die by their jokes. But what Brooks does have is an light, unpretentious touch and an ironclad dedication to the bit, whatever it may be, and so while Spaceballs way be wildly uneven in content and piecemeal in structure, it’s a fun time for Star Wars nerds and those tuned into Brooks’ comic sensibility, two groups in which you’d find a decent proportion of 12-year-old boys.
Even the film’s plot summary is filled with groaners: President Skroob (Brooks), leader of the atmosphere-depleted Planet Spaceball, schemes to steal the air from Planet Druidia by kidnapping Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) and blackmailing her father, King Roland (Dick Van Patten). Skroob employs the insidious Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) to abduct the Druish princess, while King Roland enlists the services of roguish mercenary Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) and his trusty mawg (that’s half man, half dog) companion Barf (John Candy) to help bring her back to safety. And that’s just the bare bones of it. The character names give insight into the level of comedy this film aims for. This is the kind of movie where one of the antagonist’s colonels is named Sandurz seemingly for the sole purpose of being called chicken. This is the kind of movie where Michael Winslow gets to do his sound-effect schtick for two minutes. This is the kind of movie where Rick Moranis looks at a buxom nurse and bets that she gives “good helmet.”
Mel Brooks is the last major voice in what is basically an archaic comedic language, savvy and square in equal measure. He specializes a broad mix of low comedy, old-fashioned variety show skits, Hollywood classicism (this is, after all, a loose comedic riff on It Happened One Night), and a voracious appetite for pop culture. But Spaceballs exists as an outlier in Brooks’ filmography: as goofy and sloppy as his work was in the 70s, the wells of influence were somewhat more sophisticated: Broadway, Ilf and Petrov, widescreen Westerns, Whale, Keaton, Hitchcock. Spaceballs feels like Brooks’ first movie where he panders more than anything, though this might have to do more with the source material that with Brooks’ own cynicism. After all, Return of the Jedi was already four years old at this point, so he wasn’t exactly riffing on the current Big Thing, and his films had never been particularly biting or mean, with the possible exception of The Producers. But Spaceballs’ source material is so familiar, even to those who hadn’t seen the three extant Star Wars films, that the jokes still function: if you know who Yoda is and what a lightsaber is, you’re good. Unlike High Anxiety or Silent Movie, this is not a comedy of baggage. This is a not-so-lean, not-so-mean dad joke delivery device.
Brooks the joke writer has not aged well. It has been observed elsewhere that a movie like Blazing Saddles couldn’t get made today, and certainly many of Brooks’ jokes qualify as insensitive and crass when removed from the context of revisionist satire. In fact, the level to which some of the gags now register as tasteless is startling (see: Barf’s tail going up a space waitress’ skirt because “it has a mind of it’s own”), but it’s thrown into starker relief when it’s placed next to a genuinely great absurdist gag. The perfect example of this is during the climax, where the heroes are captured and taunted by the captain of the guard (Stephen Tobolowsky, in his second screen role) in a “comically” effete way, only to discover that they have actually captures the heroes’ stunt doubles. The presence of Brooks the formal prankster is also very welcome. When the movie gets recursive or self-aware, like when Candy comments on a dissolve that he’s fading out of, or when the bad guys acquire a VHS tape of the film to track Starr down, or when Brooks (as Yogurt, get it?) fully embraces selling out by putting an emphasis on the film’s merchandising possibilities, the film works best.
It’s also fun to see the cast embrace the silliness of the material: Pullman is perfectly cast as a bootleg Harrison Ford, while both Candy and Moranis deliver two of the most underrated comedic performances in 80s Hollywood cinema. A wedding dress-clad Zuniga mowing down a horde of baddies with a machine gun makes for an indelible junky image. The film is also a minor miracle of analogue effects, boasting great miniature work and matte paintings across the board, not to mention the still-effective grossness of the oozing Cronenbergian hellbeast Pizza the Hutt. As hit or miss as Spaceballs is, and as dated as much of the jokes are, there’s something special about a movie that takes silliness this seriously.
Spaceballs plays at the Miami Jewish Film Festival today, and is available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and streaming.
Directed by Mel Brooks; written by Mel Brooks, Ronny Graham, and Thomas Meehan; starring Mel Brooks, Rick Moranis, Bill Pullman, Daphne Zuniga, Joan Rivers, Dick Van Patten, and George Wyner; 94 minutes.