Even those less familiar with Italian cinema's glory days have at least some awareness of the ease and skill with which that country's film industry could seize on a popular Hollywood movie trend and steal the hell out of it. Sometimes, say with Westerns, they actually improved on a genre for which Hollywood had lost its touch, turning it into populist art. In other genres, like horror, Italian filmmakers pushed the gore envelope so completely that they created whole new outlaw subgenres of their own.
The Italian STAR WARS knockoff is a less amusing endeavor, and arguably the least successful trend of the bunch. After all, Cinecitta studios, even at their grandest heights, could never dream of replicating the elaborate effects that George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic introduced to a new generation of fans. As borrowed futuristic themes go, it pales pitifully in comparison to the immense ROAD WARRIOR post-apocalypse knockoff trend that proliferated in the '80s. Still, they tried their damnedest for a brief time. The most famous of these efforts was 1979's STARCRASH, an international affair helmed by Dario Argento protege Luigi Cozzi, a genre journeyman whose enthusiasm for science fiction and horror shines through on nearly every film project - even the really goofy-ass ones. STARCRASH is definitely one of those.
Our story opens in true STAR WARS fashion, with a big-ass starship fly-over. In the farthest reaches of space (where every single star is a different color), we join this rumbling pile of Legos, which is revealed to be starship "Murray Leinster." Wait a second. "Murray Leinster?" I won't even try to figure out why they settled on that name. I mean, it doesn't exactly have the oomph of "Millennium Falcon" or even "U.S.S. Enterprise." Murray Leinster? So there were choices, and Cozzi picked that one? I mean, Murray Leinster sounds like a guy from AccounTemps who got fired on his first day for playing EverQuest! Anyhow... the Murray's crew are summarily overcome by the first of a hundred crappy optical effects: a superimposed red lava lamp.
Meanwhile, the space-cops are in tepid pursuit of Galactic Enemy #1: Stella Star, played by the supernaturally sexy Caroline Munro, her silky-smooth English accent apparently overdubbed by a hideous American voice actor. In the role of her Brillo-haired, bug-eyed telepahtic sidekick Akton, we have former evangelist Marjoe Gortner, who, in red jumpsuit and heavy eyeliner, looks like a cross between Mork from Ork and Tammy Faye. Eventually caught, the ever-optimistic duo is consigned to a prison planet, mining dilithium crystals or some damn thing. Stella, of course, gets to opt out of the standard gray prison coverall for black S&M garb and thigh-high stiletto boots. (For this I am eternally grateful.)
Within minutes, Stella manages to escape, aided by the same police agents who sent her up the stellar river in the first place: bullet-headed robot "L" (Judd Hamilton, Munro's husband at the time), who sports an unexplained Southern drawl; and bullet-headed thug Thor (Robert "Mr. Clean" Tessier), whose skin is a refreshing minty color. They free Akton as well, and reveal that they have been chosen for a top-secret mission by the "Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe" (Christopher Plummer, on the verge of laughing his ass off in every take) to find the secret base of dastardly Count Zartharn (Joe Spinell, who looks like Darth Vader's mobbed-up cousin Louie). Along the way, they're to locate the Emperor's long-lost son Simon... played by... drumroll please... David Hasselhoff! He shoots laser beams from his eyes! I mean, it just doesn't get any better than this.
That's pretty much it as far as plot goes, but don't worry, you'll hardly notice. Instead, you can thrill to Caroline's sultry pout and cosmically perfect navel, revel in Spinell's "Dilbert's Boss" hairstyle, shudder at Marjoe's googly eyes as he wields his lightsaber (and magically repels lawsuits from Lucasfilm), gasp at Hasselhoff's sparkly lip gloss, quiver as the Amazon women unleash their totally stacked secret weapon, puzzle over the imperial torpedoes which spit out armed men (I won't even try to explain), and cheer as Plummer commands, "Imperial Battleship! HALT THE FLOW OF TIME!" STARCRASH offers all these delights, but mostly, it invites you to look at Caroline and say "ahhhh," the way you would when you drink a tall glass of iced tea on a hot day. Try it. Ahhhh.
If STARCRASH itself offers a certain adolescent charm, that's where the fun ends, at least as far as Cine FX's 2-disc "Collector's Edition" is concerned. The sexy slipcase design, featuring a stylized Stella Star, suggests a lavish presentation which, sadly, the contents fail to deliver. Despite one of the first-ever widescreen presentations of the film (16X9 enhanced as well), the image is a mess. The original exploding-candy-store pallette is absent, with most colors dull and desaturated, denying one of the film's few outstanding features. What looks like frequent dropouts throughout the first 30 minutes suggests the image was struck from an inferior tape master. Even if this were not the case, the source print itself is dirty and worn in spots. Only the French language track is in 5.1; the English and Italian tracks are in stereo... and not very good stereo at that. John Barry's lush, sweeping score (which later showed up in OUT OF AFRICA!) is ruined by overmodulation, and all the peaks are driven to distortion.
Then there's disc 2, which might be quite a bounty for collectors - provided they speak either French or Italian, as English subs are not an option. My painfully limited grasp of Italian allowed me to ascertain the main points of the cheap but amusing "Making of STARCRASH" documentary, which clocks in at 80 minutes, and the rather tedious 40-minute Cozzi interview, before the language cortex of my brain locked up completely. There's enough interesting behind-the-scenes material to suggest that the cast and crew had a pretty good time. In her interviews, Munro seems pretty excited to have landed her first starring role (she had just come off a brief but memorable bit in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME), and comments that the film was pretty much made for kids. I mostly agree with that, but I'm still grateful the filmmakers put her in a black leather bikini, and wrote a scene where she gets dragged around by a group of nubile Amazon women. (There is an alternate unrated version of this scene which exists only in my mind.)
Disc 2 also contains the abomination that is STARCRASH 2. In summary, imagine a sequel that is identical in every way to the previous film. Then remove the original cast, replace them with unknowns, drop the John Barry score, eliminate the sense of childlike fun and playfulness, cut all the action sequences, then recycle all the tacky spaceship scenes from the first film a la Roger Corman (with an even smaller budget). The constipation-inducing end product is STARCRASH 2. That's about all I can say about it, except that it's entirely in French, with no subtitles whatsoever. No big loss; I have a feeling I wouldn't have known what was going on even if the proceedings were in English.
Despite the aforementioned drawbacks, STARCRASH itself is still a freakin' hoot on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Don't think of it as a low-rent Italian STAR WARS knockoff - after all, Cozzi had written the script before Lucas's epic had even been released. Really, with all its Christmas-light starfields, Lego spaceships and goofy characters who shout "yaaa-hoooo!" after winning each battle, STARCRASH puts you in the mind of a couple of nine-year-olds playing STAR WARS in the backyard. I can roll with that, even though none of the chicks in my old neighborhood looked even remotely like Caroline Munro. Come to think of it, they all looked like Joe Spinell.
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