1987 in Film – Spaceballs

Release Date: June 24th
Box Office: $38,119,483

By the 80s Mel Brooks had assumed a role as elder statesman on comedy built off his early work as a TV writer then director of a run of great comedies: The Producers (1968), Blazing Saddles (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974). Seriously, a great run of films.

After that was somewhat off the boil and didn’t quite compare to his earlier work. In fact, there are six year between Brooks directing History of The World, Part 1 (1981) and Spaceballs (1987). Was it worth the wait?

Almost.

Brooks’ signature was to homage/parody other genres. So Westerns with Blazing Saddles and the black and white Universal Horror films with Young Frankenstein. He certainly wasn’t the first with this type of film; Abbott and Costello did the Universal Films not long after the originals came out, plus the early Carry On films took a good swing at several genres. What was a bit different was that Brooks’ films were liked by the critics and also big hits. Or rather, at least the first two were. Returns were certainly diminishing before his break after making History of The World.

Spaceballs has the Star Wars franchise firmly in its sights, as well as big blockbuster films. It is interesting to look at how the industry had shifted between History and Spaceballs: in 1981 we were a few years into the rise of the Blockbuster, before the Bruckheimer/Simpson era took over. It was a seismic shift so it is ripe for some satire.

Problem is Brooks’ satire was always pretty heavy handed; where something subtle would be best Brooks would also go for the obvious dick pun.

So it is with Spaceballs: the film has Rick Moranis as Lord Dark Helmet chasing a space princess across the galaxy who is protected by Bill Pullman’s Lone Starr, a rougeish space pilot with a mysterious past.

Being that the film is an almost direct parody of Star War (Pizza The Hut, to name one character) Brooks had to get the agreement of George Lucas to make it. After all, movie lawyers are one thing but those empowered by the Force are something else entirely. Lucas loved the script but agreed on the basis of no Spaceballs merchandise could be released.

Which is a bit of a shame considering that’s one of the targets they go after, with Brooks’ appearance as Yoghurt (yes, he’s made up to look like Yoda) centred around merchandising and how important it is. We also get a stab at the home VHS market along the way, not to mention the conventions of science fiction films in general.

Not that going after sci-fi films is something with a high difficulty tariff. Princess Leia Hair earphones? Too easy.

It’s lucky the cast are all game, Moranis in particular not just eating the scenery but smashing it to a pulp first to make it easy to swallow is a hoot as Dark Helmet. Pullman is the right level of heroic blowhard idiot partnered ably by John Candy as Barf, his half man half dog best friend.

The script revels in its stupidity, with a fiercely clever brain behind it at times. The “combing the desert” bit in particular stands out both in it’s setup and it’s execution.

The problem that around these great bits of comedy is some alright at best comedy. It doesn’t have the satirical bite of something like Blazing Saddles not does it have the charm of Young Frankenstein.

In making a parody of the Hollywood machine Spaceballs veers too close to its target and becomes too machine like for it’s own good. It’s funny but not at the top of Brooks’ work.

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