“Nope, Never Seen It!”: Spaceballs

Poster for Spaceballs (MGM)

(Originally posted on Glen’s Lens at WordPress on October 8, 2020)

When a mysterious assailant shockingly attacked a male celebrity last week, people across the country expressed not just their outrage but also the great amount of respect they held towards that celebrity. Of course, I’m talking about the incident surrounding Canadian actor Rick Moranis.

Though this incident would’ve been horrific if it happened to any other person, the fact that it happened to a beloved actor like Moranis sparked a response unlike any other. He hit a certain spot with people that can only come from them being fans of his since childhood. It was as if someone mugged their uncle who they love being around but forget to call as often as they should.

I admit I’ve previously only seen Moranis in two films: Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves (not even Honey I Shrunk The Kids. Its second sequel that was made almost a decade later that was released straight to video) and Ghostbusters. I found him charming in Honey We Shrunk Ourselves when I was a kid. I was always pleased to see “that wacky dad from that 3D Disneyland show ‘Honey I Shrunk the Audience’” wherever I saw clips of him in his more well known films. I admit I had to grow to appreciate his performance in Ghostbusters, as the annoyance I initially felt from his character was a little too grating for me to really appreciate it on first viewing. The same cannot be said for my first viewing of arguably his most beloved film- Spaceballs.

I’ve been wanting to see Spaceballs for years. The film, directed by Mel Brooks and written by Brooks, Thomas Meehan and Ronnie Graham, just seems so well beloved that I felt some major FOMO from knowing virtually nothing about it. I was a teen when I first saw some scenes in a bunch of the Nostalgia Critic videos (regrets, I have a few) and VH1 retrospective tv shows I watched religiously. Now I can say I’ve watched the film in full and I have to say it didn’t disappoint.

Barf (John Candy) and Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) in their sepia toned motorhome (MGM)

The mechanics of this movie are unbelievably impressive- from the writing to the production/costume design to the performances. Behind every gag is a crew who put hours into their work, and it definitely shows in this film. The Pizza the Hutt costume is overwhelmingly stomach-churning in a way that I’ve never seen in a film before, and all the credit goes to the costume designers that worked so hard just to create that effect. I definitely give kudos to whoever designed that absurdly long model ship so intricately. Also, I love that Barf and Lone Starr’s “Millenium Falcon” is a sepia-toned motorhome. The sandy browns of the motorhome and the character’s clothes both emulate the humble beginnings of the characters they’re spoofing and the roguish nature of the new characters. To put that much effort into crafting these designs for a spoof film is definitely admirable.

The comedy is what makes Spaceballs. The fourth wall jokes, meta humor, and its unabashed silliness spells out the tone perfectly — this is a movie, the characters know it’s a movie and yet are still in character, they’re not taking this too seriously but they’re committed enough to make the audience do so anyway. What got to me about this humor is that it’s simple to the point of being childish yet clever and well-timed enough to not make me feel too embarrassed for laughing. Whether it turned Princess Leia (Vespa’s) hair buns into headphones, the Abbott and Costello style back-and-forth routine with the rented Spaceballs tape, or showing a jammed computer monitor by literally dripping raspberry jam down the screen, the film made me laugh out loud in a way I haven’t in a while.

Rick Moranis’s performance as the egotistically pathetic Dark Helmet is integral to this. I found his character to be oddly complex- he’s the only sane man in the room while being just conceited enough to consistently fail at his endeavors. It was so funny seeing a guy I knew for playing a bumbling dad become a villainous manchild. Turns out he had more range than I thought.

Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet in Spaceballs (MGM)

The choices Moranis made when playing Dark Helmet were ingenious. Little things like his exaggerated faces at his doltish subordinates and the knowing glances to the camera aid the film’s sense of balance between childish goofiness and sneaky brilliance. Apparently it was his idea to change his voice when he had the helmet on or off, putting on a majestic façade when faced against the film’s hero, Lone Starr- perfectly satirizing Darth Vader’s iconically intimidating presence.

The rest of the cast was pretty stellar as well. Bill Pullman does a great job as Lone Starr, an interesting amalgamation of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. He is playfully earnest in the role, like a nerd in a homemade fan movie he made with his friends. Also it’s intriguing that they gave the power of the “schwartz” to the rouge smuggler character instead of the more wholesome boy hero archetype. I’m sure there’s a Han Solo fanfic about this somewhere. John Candy as the literal dog man Barf, was a joy to watch. Apparently this is another contribution we can thank Moranis for, showing yet again how integral he is to this film. I first found Barf’s incessant sexual harassment towards the women around him objectionable. Then I realized “Oh. He’s a dog!”. Sneaky. I also love the random side characters whose actors put their all in their parts, such as the curmudgeonly minister played by Meehan and Stephen Tobolowsky’s pompous Captain of the Guard whose crew caught the main characters’ stunt doubles.

Lone Starr (Bill Pullman), Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga), Dot Matrix (Joan Rivers), and Barf (John Candy) join forces (MGM)

The writing of female characters is expectedly yet unfortunately lacking. Besides Joan Rivers’ C-3P0 sendup Dot Matrix, stock characters like the commanderette, the unnamed sexy nurse, and especially the bratty Druish (Jewish American) Princess Vespa, seemed flat compared to the male characters. Daphne Zuniga did what she could with this character but I found her to be a missed opportunity of what a parody version of Princess Leia could be. The film falls into that trope in which the princess eventually drops her prissy demeanor to adopt an Action Girl stance to help her and her friends escape the stormtroopers, gaining a newfound respect from her male counterparts. Rather than creating a complex character, the writers just turned one stereotype into another. It’s something I always found annoyingly reductive in other movies.

In addition, the black characters are a little hit and miss for me. It could definitely be a lot worse but there is a slightly stereotypical, almost Blaxploitation vibe I got from them, particularly the black stormtroopers with their afro-like black helmets stuck combing the desert with a giant pick. The Michael Winslow cameo almost makes up for this. Seriously, he is way too good at what he does and it’s always such a delight seeing him do his trademark sound effects on screen. I do give the writers brownie points for depicting black stormtroopers a few decades before the Star Wars franchise ever did.

The Black Stormtrooper (Tim Russ) hasn’t found shit (MGM)

I can finally see why people love Spaceballs so much. Now that I’ve seen Star Wars, it’s clear that Brooks, Meehan and Graham had a good amount of respect for the material they were spoofing, and it succeeds as a funny film even without the sci-fi parody element. This is the first Mel Brooks spoof film I’ve seen so far, and I’m excited to see more. Of course, Rick Moranis’s contribution to this film is unforgettable. His willingness to go all out in his performance and to be so involved in the creative process shows he’s the key to Spaceballs’ success. Simply put, he’s great. I bet y’all already knew that.

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