Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Mel Brooks: It’s Good to Be the King. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
There is a conundrum when considering Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, his 1987 spoof of the sci-fi genre obliquely and Star Wars specifically. The conundrum is that the movie is so shoddily put together that it’s almost painful to watch yet it’s still so funny. Brooks said on the movie that he took off his artistic glasses and threw them away for this film and he couldn’t be more right. Nothing in this film shows the work of a genius, which Brooks most certainly is (and in terms of his later films, the question that Jack Black’s Barry from High Fidelity asks, “Should once geniuses be held accountable for their latter day sins?” is highly applicable) yet the jokes work for the most part.
The conundrum is that the movie is so shoddily put together that it’s almost painful to watch yet it’s still so funny.
The story is simple (or stupid, whichever you prefer): the evil Spaceballs have squandered their air and are planning to steal the air from the neighboring planet Druidia. Leading the Spaceballs are Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) and Colonel Sandurz (George Wyner) and President Skroob (Mel Brooks) and trying to stop them are Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) and his sidekick Barf (the late John Candy) who is a mog, half man/half dog (he’s his own best friend). Also in the mix is Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) and her droid Dot Matrix (voiced by Joan Rivers). The plan was for the Spaceballs to kidnap Princess Vespa and force her father, King Roland (Dick Van Patton) to relinquish the combination to the air shield protecting their atmosphere.
That story line is what keeps things going, but the film is really here for the jokes, both obvious and clever. Brooks and his co-writers Thomas Meehan and Rodney Graham go straight for every joke possible, like naming a character Colonel Sandurz just so Dark Helmut can say “What’s the matter Colonel Sandurz? Chicken?” and the entire “I’m surrounded by Assholes” bit bothered me, but not enough to keep me from laughing and that is the secret magic of Spaceballs.
The trouble comes when you realize that the satire of his greatest films, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein and his lesser but still successful films Silent Movie and High Anxiety has given way to parody. This ultimately began with The History of the World, Part I, which was a sketch film parodying a wide variety of filmic styles and genres with some more successful than others but still infinitely quotable. Brooks has stopped using genre as a jumping off point for a well-developed story line that pokes fun at the conventions and started mocking the genre outright and almost contemptuously.
Most of the Star Wars gags are obvious and uninspired, except for the character of Dark Helmut as played by Rick Moranis.
Instead of genre, he really just goes after Star Wars, though he does poke fun at Alien too (with a great cameo by John Hurt, who became good friends with Brooks during The Elephant Man, which Brooks produced). All this is fine, but Brooks seems a little late to the party. By 1987, it’d been four years since the last Star Wars film and the whole thing feels dated. Most of the Star Wars gags are obvious and uninspired, except for the character of Dark Helmut as played by Rick Moranis.
Moranis is really the linchpin of the entire film. Without him playing Helmut straight, the whole film would fall apart and indeed the scenes without him nearly do. The whole cast is immensely talented but it’s Moranis’ delivery of each and every line that provides the most laughs in the film. He and Wyner carry the film with their exchanges, the best of which is an Abbot and Costello-like bit “When will then be now?” The character of Dark Helmut is so ridiculous that if it had been played as ridiculous, it wouldn’t have worked. Moranis approaches Helmut as seriously as he can and makes sure we believe he is that character.
One of the other things Brooks miscalculates is the meta quality of the film. What worked so well in Blazing Saddles, with Harvey Kroman’s character “Risking an almost certain Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor” and the ending of the film, falls a bit flat in Spaceballs. Even the setup to the best joke in the film, the previously mentioned “When will then be now?” bit, is a stretch. With Brooks making a direct attack on the speed at which films are available on home video at the time, stating that they’re in the video store before they’re done making it, is kind of funny initially, but even then it took a solid six months before a film was available to rent. It’s even more pertinent now when you can walk out of a theater and into a Wal-Mart or Target and see the digital version of the film you just saw available for pre-order and you can watch it in 1-2 months. Some asides are funny, like when Helmut turns to the audience after the exposition and says “You got that?” but other times when the fourth wall is broken it feels like Brooks is trying to recapture the magic of Blazing Saddles and fails.
All this sounds like I don’t like the film. Despite it being messy and ultimately poorly constructed, I still like the film. I’ve been watching the thing for 27 years, revisiting it every so often to see if the appeal has worn off, but it never does. Brooks engineered the film to have so many jokes flying at you that when a couple don’t work, a good one will keep you laughing through the next few that miss. Watching it now, there are a lot of very 80’s things in it that don’t date well, like the inclusion of Michael Winslow to do his vocal sound effects that were so popular after Police Academy but had mostly faded even by the time this film came out. Parts of his bit are funny, others unnecessary and ultimately makes the part function awkwardly.
Despite all of this, Spaceballs is still Mel Brooks’ most popular and top grossing film. It even spawned a short-lived animated series 19 years after the film’s release starring Brooks, Zuniga and Rivers reprising their roles (Brooks as both Skroob and the heretofore unmentioned Yoda jab Yogurt). It does have its endearing qualities and remains watchable though the uninspired parts and hilarious in the inspired ones. It certainly isn’t great art, but it is great comedy.
Despite all of this, Spaceballs is still Mel Brooks’ most popular and top grossing film. It does have its endearing qualities and remains watchable though the uninspired parts and hilarious in the inspired ones. It certainly isn’t great art, but it is great comedy.