For better or worse, no conversation about Star Wars’ influence can be complete without mention of Mel Brook’s 1987 film Spaceballs. Like many movies from that era, the film generates a ton of enthusiasm from those who were old enough to get most of the jokes but young enough to think they were hilarious when it came out. That includes me. The only Star Wars movie we had in our house was a taped from TV version of Return of the Jedi. But I sure owned, and watched, the heck out of this.
It’s really not the best movie though, and watching it today feels a bit like a chore. Mel Brooks would go on to make worse films like Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It, but Spaceballs definitely marks his decline into movie parodies that rely too heavily on surface-level silliness for laughs. Blazing Saddles is funny but also has a mean edge. Young Frankenstein is funny but utilizes beautiful filmmaking and displays a true love for what it apes. Spaceballs is just kind of funny.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Even as the paint falls off many of the film’s jokes, there are still some time cannot touch. Combing the desert, for instance, still kills in my house, as does almost any scene with Rick Moranis. Plus, that Planet of the Apes ending! And I’ll be dead in the ground before I stop laughing at “Funny, she doesn’t look Druish.”
Nevertheless, much of the film satisfies its need to be funny with jokes that don’t dig deep enough. Changing Yoda’s name to Yogurt is a sub-Mad Magazine eye roller. The scene revolving around Princess Vespa’s giant hair dryer, so funny when I was a kid, now feels like a big waste of time. I have to admit that I’m still on the fence when it comes to Pizza the Hut (actually no, that’s brilliant), but I think his robot sidekick Vinnie sucks.
Just as a Star Wars parody, Spaceballs is actually kind of interesting if only for conflating Han Solo and Luke Skywalker into one character, an economic decision that really works. As rough rogue Lone Starr (which, by the way, is a pretty goddamn great parody name, way better than Yogurt) Bill Pullman manages to be both funny and somewhat cool at the same time. The Star Wars we have is fine, but raise your hand if you didn’t - if only for a weak moment - wish Han Solo could wield a lightsaber instead of whiny Luke. Spaceballs grants that wish. It’s just that his lightsaber emanates from his wee-wee.
Spaceballs is also very plot driven, so much so that I can remember really caring about what happened to these characters as a kid. I don’t really have that problem anymore, but it still feels satisfying on just a storytelling level when Lone Starr finds out he’s a prince and can therefore marry Princess Vespa. I’m not sure why, but I’m blaming John Candy for this. In fact, I will go on record and admit I may like Barf even more than Chewbacca.
If you love Spaceballs but haven’t seen it in a while, I am sorry to tell you it’s not as good as you remember. If you absolutely hate Spaceballs and think it’s trash, I am sorry to tell you that it’s better than you think. If you think putting an oversized helmet on tiny Rick Moranis represents the height of comedy, I am sorry to tell you that I might agree just a little. If nothing else, I think we can all agree that this is a better Star Wars film than all of the prequels.