Movies to See Before You Die: Spaceballs
This is a touchstone from my own childhood. I watched this VHS quite a bit – I think at a certain point, I must’ve confused Spaceballs and Star Wars with one another, thinking one was a sequel of the other. There’s so much in this movie to enjoy; as I grew up I got more of the jokes and started appreciating it beyond the slapstick comedy. First the slapstick, then some of the puns and other fun lines, like “Somewhere in the Ford Galaxy,” and then beyond that, a parody of sci-fi tropes and a satire of bureaucracy.
Mel Brooks released Spaceballs in 1987, four years after Return of the Jedi completed George Lucas’ sci-fi epic trilogy, never to be touched or added onto again (DO YOU HEAR ME, GEORGE?!). Brooks himself played both President Skroob and Yogurt, the Schwartz master. Rick Moranis did his best work outside of Ghostbusters and Strange Brew as Dark Helmet, and John Candy was the great Barf the Mog (part man, part dog). He follows Bill Pullman as Lonestar, an errant hero tasked with rescuing Princess Vespa, who has just fled her arranged marriage to Prince Valium, only to be sought after by the Spaceballs, who plan to use Vespa as ransom to gain access to the life-giving air on Planet Druidia, as Planet Spaceball has squandered its supplies.
Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet is a large part of what makes this movie great. The character is a played as a middle-management type, more concerned with micromanaging than making sure the goals are met. This makes for some great moments, like the moment where he demands that Spaceball I go to Ludicrous Speed instead of the measly Light Speed. There’s also the beginning of the movie when Dark Helmet is introduced, and a minion went over Dark Helmet’s head (not really over – more to the side) to call the President and is swiftly punished. His costume even seems like he’s overcompensating for his middling position within the evil empire: the tie, the comically-oversized helmet, the round glasses.
One theme in particular, which is present is much of Mel Brooks’ work now that I’m reflecting on it, is making fun of authority figures. Dark Helmet is a micromanaging mid-level bureaucrat; President Skroob is a typical politician, providing lip service to the constituents while working a different angle, and not really knowing what goes on during a normal day (“I can’t make the decision! I’m a president!”). The real work is done by Colonel Sanderz who never really gets any recognition. And then there are the faceless grunts (“I knew it, I’m surrounded by Assholes!”).
Another fun element Brooks throws in is the all the meta humor about movie-making and franchising. For example, Yogurt’s whole shtick is about the merchandising of the movie itself, and then there’s the bit about the instant video cassettes that help Dark Helmet and Sandurz locate Princess Vespa. I also counted at least two Star Trek references.
What I appreciate so much about Spaceballs is how it takes the elements of Star Wars trilogy and essentially throws these elements into a blender and still create an enjoyable story from them. So often, we see parody movies attempt this and basically forget to have a story, instead going for gags that never pay off. I’m looking at you, Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. Actually, I take that back, I don’t want to look at you, or whatever it is you call the thing that you do.
For all of the fun that Mel Brooks has had with genres, like Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, I find Spaceballs to be his most accessible film. Not everyone is a fan of Westerns, or has delved into the genre enough to get some of the jokes in Blazing Saddles. Same with Young Frankenstein and old monster films. Not there isn’t plenty to love in both of those movies regardless, but Star Wars is such a cultural phenom that basically everyone has seen Star Wars at least once, or if not, knows the story by cultural osmosis (I just made that term up, as far as I know, and I demand a copyright on it).
Spaceballs is almost as important to me as Star Wars is for a very important reason: you can’t take everything so seriously. It’s okay to love something very much, as I do with Star Wars, and still enjoy seeing a skilled comedic legend make fun of it. If you’re a fan of Star Wars, or even have a passing familiarity with it, it’s definitely a movie that you need to see, preferably sometime before you die.
One more thing: I recently watched Alien for the first time. I know, I know. Stop it. Anyway, because of Spaceballs, during the chest-bursting scene, I laughed really, really hard. I know it’s supposed to be a scary movie and a really intense part of that movie, but I couldn’t help but start singing “Hello my baby, hello my darling, hello my ragtime gal…”