Cult film of the week: Spaceballs

Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

With the premiere of The Force Awakens just three weeks away, it seems only fitting to make this week’s cult film a tribute to Star Wars. But though the franchise has a rabid fanbase of its own—some of whom even dress up as Stormtroopers in their spare time, just for the fun of it—Star Wars has become a staple of pop culture, too mainstream to really qualify as a cult film anymore. And so, in honour of The Force Awakens, I propose a different, though equally appropriate, cult film for this week: Mel Brooks’s 1987 parody of the original Star Wars trilogy, Spaceballs.

Much like its inspiration, Spaceballs takes place “in a galaxy very, very, very, very far away.” There, Planet Spaceball is facing an oxygen shortage, so the president sends his villainous agent, Dark Helmet, to kidnap the princess of nearby Druidia, in order to steal air from her planet. His plan is complicated when a rogue-for-hire, the Han Solo-esque Lone Starr, is sent to rescue her, with help from his half-man, half-dog companion, Barf—that’s right, there is actually a character named Barf. Others include Yogurt, a parody of Yoda, and Pizza the Hutt, who is the stuff of nightmares. If you’re looking for subtlety in your satire, Spaceballs is not for you.

Spaceballs’s humour is Brooksian at its core—Yogurt teaches Lone Starr about “the Schwartz” instead of the Force—but it lacks the bite of Blazing Saddles or the sheer outrageousness of The Producers. It’s a mix of gags that an 13-year-old boy might come up if you gave him a screenwriting gig (The lightsabers are their penises!) and wry, meta moments, such as when Dark Helmet and co watch a VHS copy of the very film they’re starring in, so that they can track Druidia’s location. The balance between slapstick and self-awareness is uneven at best, and many of the jokes fall flat, but when Spaceballs is funny, it is funny, in the winking way that Brooks excels at.

Just out of frame: 13 year old boys everywhere, laughing.
Just out of frame: 13 year old boys everywhere, laughing.

While Star Wars is Spaceballs’s main target, no piece of classic sci-fi or fantasy is safe. John Hurt makes a cameo in a diner scene where an alien bursts from his stomach, a nod to Hurt’s role in Alien, where the same thing occurs. Snotty, Spaceball City’s transport operator, is a send-up of Scotty from Star Trek, complete with a kilt and tam. And later, fragments of a destroyed ship resembling the Statue of Liberty land on a deserted beach, à la Planet of the Apes. Spaceballs is much more than just a Star Wars parody. It skewers setpieces from all of those pieces of science fiction and fantasy that fans tend to take oh-so-seriously.

Mid-way through the film, Lone Starr asks Yogurt, who is played by Mel Brooks himself, if he thinks they’ll ever meet again. “Who knows?” replies Yogurt. “G-d willing, we’ll all meet again in Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money.” With luck, those words will prove prophetic: The comedian, now 89, confessed he was open to the possibility of Spaceballs sequel earlier this year. The Schwartz Awakens, perhaps?


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