In Praise of “Starcrash”: The Best Star Wars Rip-off of them All
In 1977, 20th Century Fox had two sci-fi films on their docket: One was called Damnation Alley, a clunky yet endearing post-apocalyptic adventure starring Jan-Michael Vincent and George Peppard which was made for $17 million. The other was Star Wars, the third feature from wunderkind director George Lucas. The studio had high hopes for Damnation Alley and expected it to outperform that silly Lucas-helmed space opera. Oh well…best laid plans and all. Let’s just say that Disney never paid $4 billion to aquire the rights for the Damnation Alley franchise and leave it at that.
When Star Wars opened on May 25, 1977 in less than 32 theatres, no one could predict that a cultural juggernaut was being unleashed on an unsuspecting world. And yet nothing would ever be the same, as the Akira Kurosawa/Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers influenced sci-fi saga went on to change movie making, movie watching, and even movie going from then on in, whether for the better or the worse. And in the ensuing years since the first film’s original release, Star Wars’ fandom may have wavered at times, but it has never waned. The $900 million and climbing domestic gross (the highest in history, not counting for inflation) of Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens is testament to that.
Yet instead of a scholarly examination of the impact of Star Wars, nor a comparative analysis of the sundry sequels, prequels, comics, cartoons, merchandising etc. that the franchise spawned, I am going to look at foreign Star Wars’ rip-offs, particularly my favorite, the Luigi Cozzi helmed Starcrash.
Foreign rip offs of blockbuster American films were nothing new, and Star Wars spawned a slew off them. In the wake of Star Wars’ blockbuster success, it appeared that every country was chomping at the bit to get a piece of that sweet, lucrative, sci-fi pie, and most were quite shameless in their “borrowings” of the original. We had Indian and Turkish versions that have subsequently become quite infamous. Brazil gave us Planet Wars (otherwise known as Brazilian Star Wars, this one is about us insane as Star Wars’ rip-offs get and is a must see.) Kinji Fukasaku, who capped a long and prolific career with the Japanese masterpiece Battle Royale, directed his country’s offering, Message from Space. But what about the land of pizza, pasta, Verdi, Vivaldi, Raphaello and Rocky Balboa?
Ah Italy! Where would exploitation cinema be without the beloved country shaped like a boot? In the late 70s and early 80s, Italian producers excelled at taking hit American films and then ripping them off wholesale. Hence, Jaws begat The Last Shark, Alien begat Contamination, Conan begat Conquest and Star Wars begat…well…a whole slew of rip-offs such as 1979’s The Humanoid and 1978’s Starcrash.
Starcrash is a film that on paper boasts an impressive pedigree. It stars the legendary Christopher Plummer, a very young David Hasselhoff in only his second feature, and one of the most underrated actors ever, the late Joe Spinell, best known for his roles in Rocky, The Godfather, and of course, the titular maniac in William Lustig’s exploitation masterpiece Maniac. The music is composed, arranged and conducted by John Barry, best known for composing the iconic James Bond theme (although the producers were highly reticent to show the respected composer the finished print for fear he might quit the project.) Along for the ride are child-evangelist turned B-movie actor Marjoe Gortner and the utterly delectable Italian actress Caroline Munro.
Although an Italian production, Starcrash was picked up for distribution by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. Thus, director and Dario Argento protégée Luigi Cozzi was renamed Lewis Coates. Anglicizing Italian directors’ names to make the film more palatable to American audiences was common practice at the time. Hence, Lucio Fulci became Louis Fuller, Bruno Mattei became Vincent Dawn and Joe D’Amato became about a hundred pseudonyms, the funniest being Chang Lee Sun. Funny, we would happily slurp down large plates of spaghetti and meatballs but heaven forbid we watch a film directed by a guy named Luigi.
Like Star Wars, Starcrash begins with an establishing shot of a large space vessel floating through deep space. However, unlike Star Wars, this ship looks like it was made out of Lego. On board are two “small time smugglers on the run”, Akton and Stella Star (Akton is a Luke Skywalker analogue and Stella Star mashes up bits of both Princess Leia and Han Solo.) Akton is played by Gortner, who also has appeared in Bobby Jo and the Outlaw and the sublime nature-run-amok epic The Food of the Gods. With his twangy, reedy voice, wooden line delivery, pained facial expressions and curly-blonde ‘fro, Gortner served for a long while as the least convincing action star around; a distinction he would eventually concede in 1989 to Jay Leno when the great usurper of late–night starred as a cop alongside Pat Morita in the woeful Collision Course. But while Gortner was never much of an actor, he did make for a fascinating documentary subject, as seen in the highly-recommended doc Marjoe, both a profile and a searing expose of the “the religion business.”
Much better is Munro as the tough-talking, formidable space pirate Stella Star, who spends much of the film attired in a skimpy leather bikini. According to IMDB, Munro was meant to wear the bikini throughout the entire flick, but American studio execs feared that the provocative attire would prevent the film from being broadcast on network television and insisted that Cozzi cover the actress up for the second half of the film. And to that I say Boo-urns!
Spinell, sporting a Ming the Merciless beard, has a glorious time hamming it up as the evil Count Zarth Arn (supposed to be Darth Vader-esque but his intimidation factor is more akin to Spaceballs’ Dark Helmet) while Plummer, wearing an outfit similar to Captain Power (Google it!), phones it in as the virtuous Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe. Try saying that three times fast! Let’s just shorten it to the EFCU.
The EFCU gives Akton and Stella a vaguely-defined mission to stop the nefarious count by finding his “phantom planet” and rescuing the Emperor’s missing son. They are joined by Star Crash’s version of C-3PO: Elle, a cowardly, slightly effete robot (more like man in robot suit) who has a southern twang and sounds like a refugee from the set of Hee-Haw. Despite his name, Elle is a “male” robot, and while C-3PO was nervous and reticent to enter any sort of fray, Elle is positively petrified. And so our adventure begins!
As Akton and Stella zip their way through the galaxy, they encounter all sorts of strange creatures. Well, actually Stella does. Akton is content to stay within the safe confines of the ship while Stella and Elle do all the heavy lifting. He does practice his “power” which, from the looks of it, simply amounts to having the ability to produce miniature laser light-shows in his palms. While this ability might come in handy if Akton were in a planetarium blasting Dark Side of the Moon, it really is pretty useless as far as mystical abilities go. All the same, despite being no force, this “power” is miles more measurable a concept than the claptrap “midichlorians” nonsense Lucas came up with for The Phantom Menace.
So while Akton practices being a human disco ball, Stella is out kicking some serious butt. And boy can she hold her own. Kudos to Munro who did all her own stunts for this one. Unfortunately, while facing a roving band of space Neanderthals, Elle is destroyed and Stella captured. Things look quite dire for our intrepid heroine when, like a lifeguard racing in slow-motion down a California beach to save a drowning swimmer, the Hoff appears. He rescues Stella and reveals himself as Prince Simon (who also has elements of both Leia and Han), and he’s the one they were looking for all along! The film also pulls a bit of sleight-of-hand, as Akton, who the audience assumes is the hero (he is the one with the power after all) perishes, and it’s Prince Simon who saves the day.
The rest of the film is your usual space battles and ray gun Pyew! Pyew! Pyewing! Suffice it to say, in the end good vanquishes evil, our heroes are reunited, Elle is reassembled, and Joe Spinell cackles maniacally as only he can while his plans for intergalactic domination crumble around him.
It would be easy to dismiss Starcrash as junk if it wasn’t so gosh-darn entertaining. The effects, makeup, set design and costuming are all over the place. A lot of it is inept and hokey, but there is also some seriously impressive Harryhausen style stop-motion going on, and the kaleidoscopic lighting effects are fantastic. And therein lies the paradox of “bad” movies. Is Starcrash awful? Objectively yes. But at the same time, it’s also amazing and incredibly entertaining.
So with interest in Star Wars yet again at an all-time high thanks to The Force Awakens, what I wouldn’t give to see a new installment of Star Crash. All the principals of the original save Spinell are still with us, and I’m sure there are tons of hungry young-actors who would jump at the chance to play Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron analogues. C’mon Luigi: make it happen!
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