Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Spaceballs”

Dear Frank,

Spaceballs_DVD_coverIf I ever have kids, I’m not too worried about them being exposed to graphic media. I mean, I’m going to keep them away from the really violent stuff as long as humanly possible, and yeah, maybe I’ll try to keep a lid on the swears.

But when it comes to comedy, I’m pretty confident that if my kids hear a dirty joke, they won’t be terribly scarred for life — because they just won’t get them. How do I know this? Well, growing up, one of my all time favorite movies was the Mel Brooks Star Wars parody Spaceballs.

Here is how much my brother and I watched Spaceballs growing up — the VHS cassette case BROKE, and my mother (whose excellent qualities include a MacGuyver-ish ability to fix stuff) had to transplant the physical tape into a new case. Here is how many of the really dirty references we got: Pretty much zero. Here is how many times I’ve seen Spaceballs as an adult: Maybe one, and years ago. (You might have seen it as well — but I’m certain not recently. We’re both in the same boat here.)

However, the film is available on Netflix, and I’m a sucker for anything set in space. So, Frank, let’s revisit this classic!

The first thing I find really striking about Spaceballs, following the pretty cheap and easy parody of the first few minutes of Star Wars, is the arrival of Rick Moranis as our parody Darth Vader, Dark Helmet.

Frank, remember how great Rick Moranis was? Remember how sad it was when he stopped making movies because his wife died? Point is, man, Frank, Rick Moranis is so great in this movie — taking his wounded nerd persona and giving it just enough edge and dickishness to make the parody work.

How great is this scene? So great!

How great is this scene? So great!

Though it also helps that the scenario is really silly — Dark Helmet commands the military wing of the Spaceballs, a society or planet or something (it’s really not clear) that’s running out of air. So they want to steal the air from another planet, Druidia. I’m not exactly sure what their plan is for that initially, but things get easier for them when Princess Vespa of Druidia flees her wedding in a Space Mercedes (seriously, they call it a Mercedes — we’ll be getting to some of Spaceballs‘s weird cultural stuff in just a moment, Frank).

The Spaceballs successfully chase her down, but who swoops in just in the nick of time to save her? Our weird blending of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, a guy named Lone Star played by 1987-era Bill Pullman, who is accompanied by the amazing John Candy as his loyal sidekick Barf. (He’s half-man/half-dog: “I’m my own best friend,” is one of those jokes that pretty much only works when delivered by a confident comedy genius.)

When I first saw this movie, for the record, I was way too young to have a proper crush on anyone. But now that I have blossomed into womanhood, I am here to report: HOLY SHIT, 1987-era Bill Pullman? In the wise words of Donna Meagle, HE CAN GET IT.

Hi, 1987-era Bill Pullman! Um. Hi.

Hi, 1987-era Bill Pullman! Um. Hi.

Lone Star and Barf have been been hired by Princess Vespa’s father (the King, duh) to rescue her and bring her back home, which is good news for them because they owe a gangster named Pizza the Hut a million spacebucks.

(Frank, Pizza the Hut is JUST AS GROSS as you might imagine. For proper embloggening, I really ought to include a screenshot of him, but he’s just TOO GROSS. Especially the part where his robot assistant starts trying to EAT HIM. SO SO GROSS.)

So they successfully rescue the princess just before Dark Helmet grabs her, Dot Matrix, and the princess’s extended collection of matched luggage, and head back to Druidia. “Matched luggage” gets repeated a lot, and weirdly it’s one of those phrases that ends up being pretty funny the more you hear it.

But it’s at about this point, Frank, that I started finding this movie very confusing. Mostly because it is, tonally, SO SO WEIRD.

Like, a joke about how “We’re not doing it for money… we’re doing it for a shit-ton of money!” is followed by Lone Star and Barf literally firing a jar of jam to jam the Spaceballs’ RADAR. (“There’s only one man who would dare give me the raspberry,” Dark Helmet says.)

Swears followed by bad puns? I have no idea who this movie was made for. I mean, so many of these jokes are just as blunt and obvious as I’m describing them, which is maybe why this movie played so well for two kids under the age of 10.

I can't find any screenshots I like to illustrate all this, so here's a photo of some impressionable young people who weren't horribly scarred by this movie. Maybe they learned the word "asshole" a little earlier than they should have, but that was gonna happen eventually.

I can’t find any screenshots I like to illustrate all this, so here’s a photo of some impressionable young people who weren’t horribly scarred by this movie. Maybe they learned the word “asshole” a little earlier than they should have, but that was gonna happen eventually.

But then there are gags that don’t quite play in a modern context. Like, apparently Mel Brooks thought it was funny that there’s a coffee-maker brand called Mr. Coffee, so there are Mr. Coffee and Mr. RADAR machines on the Spaceballs ship bridge. And at one point, the President of the Spaceballs ends a phone conversation with “Thanks for calling, and not reversing the charges.” That’s basically a joke from the year 1960.

And then there’s all the “Druish” stuff. See, Princess Vespa is played pretty much as a straight-up Jewish-American princess (I’m not even going to touch the acronym version of that), and the “Druish” stereotypes that ensue are just… I mean, I’m not Jewish, and I know Mel Brooks is, but just watching this movie with adult eyes feels vaguely antisemetic.

But then there are delightful things! Like Joan Rivers, who supplies the voice of Dot Matrix, the C3-PO-esque bestie of Princess Vespa. When I was a kid I had no real appreciation of Joan Rivers, but while she’s had her ups and downs recently, the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work will make you respect that bitch hardcore.

Plus, some of the Star Wars parody stuff is great (“They’ve gone to plaid!”), and I like a lot of the meta details. Like when, to track down Lone Star and the princess, the Spaceballs rent a copy of Spaceballs: The Movie and fast-forward ahead to figure out that the Space Winnebago Lone Star drives has crashed onto some desert planet–

Oh, right! I’m supposed to be telling you what actually happens in this movie. So, just after they rescue the princess, Lone Star and Barf discover they’re out of fuel and the Space Winnebago crashes onto some desert planet.

There, after nearly dying in said desert, they’re rescued by some knock-off Jawas and meet Yoda Yogurt, who teaches Lone Star the power of the Force Schwartz and says what I suspect is this film’s most-quoted line of all time: “Merchandising, merchandising — where the real money from the movie is made.”

So Lone Star gets his Dagobah training, but not soon enough to stop Dark Helmet from tricking the Princess and kidnapping her for realz this time.

Yogurt fuels up the Space Winnebago, gives Lone Star a plot device fortune cookie, and Lone Star zooms off to rescue the Princess (because of course he and the Princess have been falling hard for each other this whole time because it is 1987 Bill Pullman and HE CAN GET IT).

Hi, 1987-era Bill Pullman! Um. Hi.

It’s not gratuitous if it illustrates my point.

Blah blah blah laser gun battles at the Spaceballs jail as Lone Star and Barf get their rescue on — for the record, no one ever accused Mel Brooks of being able to direct a compelling action sequence. But there is a surprise appearance by Stephen Tobolowsky! I didn’t know he was in this movie! Yay for Stephen Tobolowsky!

They successfully escape, but the Spaceballs are already stealing away the air from Druidia, thanks to the fact that their big spaceship can transform into a giant maid with a vacuum cleaner. (Why a giant maid with a vacuum cleaner? Oh, for the sole reason of setting up an one-scene reference to Planet of the Apes at the end of this movie, because that is the way Spaceballs rolls.)

Fortunately, Lone Star has the power of the Schwartz, and he’s able to reverse the vacuum cleaner — or, as this film puts it, “She’s gone from suck to blow!” This film is classy.

This is then followed by a sequence where Lone Star flies the Space Winnebago into the Spaceballs ship to set off the auto-destruct… Huh. It’s kind of a dick move, maybe? I mean, the Spaceballs are already doomed to run out of air, and then he blows up their ship?

Before he can blow up the ship, though, Lone Star does have basically-a-lightsaber fight with Dark Helmet, during which Dark Helmet says what is technically my favorite line of the movie: “Evil will always triumph over good, because good is dumb.”

(I was HORRIFIED by how many lines of this movie I didn’t just remember, but could recite with the movie in unison. Complete with accents. I’ve forgotten to do my TAXES, but I remember this crap.)

Lone Star does successfully defeat Dark Helmet, leading to the evacuation of the Spaceballs ship, which is actually a really fun sequence. Here, I’ll just embed it below.

I am especially fond of the original song used to score this sequence. Love those 80s synthesizers!

The ship destroyed, it’s time to drop Princess Vespa off to get married to Prince Valium (oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that Princess Vespa has to marry a prince, and the only prince left in the galaxy is a narcoleptic). Lone Star is understandably bummed, because he thought he was gonna get that, but after attempting to get some dinner at a Space Diner–

–Oh, before we go on, we should talk about the Space Diner scene. Basically, Barf and Lone Star stop by a diner to get some food, and this happens:

And yeah, that’s really John Hurt from Alien! The War Doctor, Frank! But this scene perfectly encapsulates the weirdness of Spaceballs — we go from a spoof of a scene from an R-rated horror movie, which is then immediately followed by a Looney Tunes homage. WHO WAS THIS MOVIE MADE FOR? Aside from me and my brother, that is.

Anyways, after failing to eat at the Space Diner, Barf opens up that plot device fortune cookie from earlier, and out pops a Yoda Yogurt hologram to inform Lone Star that he’s been secretly a prince this whole time! Lone Star is excited about this, because it means he gets to marry the princess after all! So he hightails it back to Druidia to stop her wedding and–

OH MY GOD WHAT THE FUCK WHO THE FUCK MADE BILL PULLMAN WEAR THIS?!?

SERIOUSLY OH MY GOD WHAT IS WRONNNNNNNNG WITH YOU?!?!?

SERIOUSLY OH MY GOD WHAT IS WRONNNNNNNNG WITH YOU?!?!?

The horror of this outfit aside, it is nice to see the Princess and Lone Star get married and make out. They weirdly had pretty good chemistry, Frank! Joan Rivers says “Goodbye virgin alarm” (a callback to an earlier joke that isn’t worth getting into) and they all lived happily ever after. THE END.

This film is not as good as I remember, because rarely anything is as good as you remember if you loved it as a kid. But it actually kind of holds together as a movie! I get emotionally invested in the love story! Rick Moranis and John Candy do stuff!

It may not be perfect, but when you consider the spoof films that have come afterwards, I’m glad to have rewatched it. At the very least, it was a fond trip down memory lane.

(With a lot more swears in it than I remembered.)

Love,
Liz

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About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller, based in Los Angeles, is a writer for the screen and the web, her work including G4's Attack of the Show and the tech blog GigaOM. She also co-hosts the podcast Timey Wimey TV, contributes to the video curation site Here's Some Awesome, and tells her friend Frank about stuff at Liz Tells Frank.

Posted on February 4, 2014, in All the Spoilers, Movies and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. The version I watched as a kid had been taped off of TV, so all of the swears had been bleeped out. I thought honestly thought that was part of the joke for years.

  2. Man oh man, it still stings. Huge Mel Brooks fans, my sister and I were all cranked up to see this in the theater. It was painful. We were so bummed that we snuck into “Dragnet,” which was just starting in the screen across the hall. It shone like pure gold in comparison.

    Enjoy this gooey glob of 80s goodness–the Tom Hanks/Dan Ackroyd rap from “Dragnet:”

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