With Star Wars: The Force Awakens out in the open, it seems as though the idea of “remix sequels” is in for considerable discussion. The Star Wars saga has been all about remixing, repeating, and repurposing story elements for a while now, and The Force Awakens takes that to something of an extreme. But it’s allowed to do that - it is, after all, Star Wars. What about the legions of ripoffs that did the same thing years earlier, and with less legal license to do so? How do they fare as Star Wars culture mashups?
In the case of 1978 US/Italian co-production Starcrash, extraordinarily poorly.
Directed by Contamination’s Luigi Cozzi, Starcrash was one of the first Star Wars ripoffs, and one of the worst. Rushed out in eighteen months to capitalise on the runaway success of the 1977 original, it represents a fundamental lack of understanding towards what truly made Star Wars the blockbuster it was. All the pieces are there - as Film Crit Hulk would say, “tangible details” - but the heart’s missing.
Like The Force Awakens, Starcrash’s story plays out somewhat as if someone fed Star Wars into a computer and told it to randomly generate a screenplay. Broadly, it’s the story of a benevolent Empire fighting the megalomaniacal warlord Count Zarth Arn, who wields a superweapon the size of a planet. On a smaller scale, it focuses on space smuggler Stella Star, her mystically superpowered sidekick Akton, and robot Elle, all playing their part in the larger conflict. The words are all approximately correct, but they don’t fit together very well, and that’s where The Force Awakens pulls ahead.
Stella Star is no Leia, and certainly no Rey. Caroline Munro gives a game performance, but she’s got nothing to work with, especially when it comes to her leather-strap costume. Akton, a vague Luke analogue, is devoid of personality and exists solely to bring some kind of Force-like powers into the fray. Zarth Arn is, at least, fun to watch, thanks to Joe Spinell’s Mugatu-esque, maniacally cackling performance. He’s on a different planet compared to Christopher Plummer as the Emperor, though, enjoying the free trip to Rome while trying his best to play his exposition and philosophical platitudes as if they were Shakespeare. David Hasselhoff shows up as a lightsaber-wielding space prince, but his character doesn’t even register beyond the description I just gave.
The most irritating Star Wars carbon copy character is “tin policeman” Elle, who may be the most irritating character in space opera. His shitty quips are matched only by his grating, broad Texan accent, and every time he pipes up is another reasonable excuse to turn the movie off. He’s also a fan of “robot chauvinism,” whatever that is. Any lovability that Artoo and Threepio had has been rusted out in Elle.
But Starcrash’s interests lie not in its characters but in its special effects. There certainly are a lot of them, at any rate. The film’s sets are large and elaborate, if cheap, and clearly someone had fun building all the ship models. But the space sequences feel cobbled together out of random shots of ships flying past the camera and shooting laser beams, and they probably were. The final space battle is thuddingly repetitive and stupid and interminably long, demonstrating that shots of ships flying and firing and exploding do not automatically generate an exciting sequence. Starcrash is obsessed with the “stuff” from Star Wars without understanding the character and story glue that holds it all together.
Tellingly, though the film features an Empire and a rebellion, it’s the heroes who represent the establishment, the status quo. Zarth Arn is the rebel here. That’s a fundamental change from the Star Wars movies (the original trilogy, anyway), where the heroes are the underdogs. It's hard to root for the heroes when they're working with an Empire.
Worst of all, Starcrash is dull. Frankly, I don’t know what the story or characters are really about, and I’ve seen this movie multiple times - so boring is the film. Heartless and sexless (despite Munro’s bondage gear outfit), the drama and excitement has been sucked out of everything it’s borrowed from Star Wars. There’s a lot of dialogue that sounds like Star Wars dialogue, but the storytelling takes a back seat to the sci-fi shit. It opens with a laboriously long sequence of an enormous spaceship flying overhead, but there’s no battle going on - it’s just cruising along. The movie does the same; even in battle scenes, you find yourself waiting for them to just end.
Admittedly, many of the misunderstandings that make Starcrash a terrible Star Wars ripoff also make it (sporadically) enjoyable as the cheesy Italian knockoff it is. It doesn’t hurt that there’s a poorly animated, completely nonthreatening stop motion giant robot, or that space torpedoes in the Starcrash universe are designed to land on the enemy ship’s bridge and open up to reveal ground troops. It’s a silly movie, and if you’re into seeing David Hasselhoff share the screen with Christopher Plummer, it’s an occasionally good time.
Starcrash strives for the fun of Star Wars but just doesn’t have the kinetic excitement. On the surface, all the Star Wars stuff is there, but the connective tissue is gone. Like its completely unexplained Force-style mysticism and shockingly derivative John Barry score, it imitates without understanding, and that’s a cardinal sin in the imitation game. It might be enough to cut together a trailer and lure some poor suckers into the theatre, but it’s not enough to make a good movie.
The Force Awakens suffers from the same nostalgia problems as Starcrash (though it could be argued Starcrash, which features cavemen, Amazons, and a superweapon not shaped like a Pokeball, has more originality in its scenarios), but it gets a couple of things fundamentally correct: it’s fun, and 90% of that fun comes from the interplay between characters. It doesn’t matter how many spaceships you throw at the screen if we don’t care who’s flying them and why. At the end of the day, characters will always entertain us more than visual effects do.
Like Luke, Leia, Han, and Vader, it’s conceivable that Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren could continue entertaining us for years. Stella Star and Zarth Arn can’t even sustain one movie.