They don’t make films like this anymore.
As Star Trek: Discovery nears its release, with Seth MacFarlane’s television parody The Orville hot on its tail, it felt only prudent to take a look back at one of the sci-fi parody precursors produced in the 80s, the golden decade of parody and pastiche in which Airplane and The Naked Gun trilogy were born. While The Scary Movie franchise and other ‘Insert Genre Here’ Movie titles harken back to this type of comedy in an often much cruder fashion, the trailer for Seth MacFarlane’s new series seems really out-of-place in 2017, where we have already had Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver and the late Alan Rickman do the same thing almost twenty years ago with Galaxy Quest.
Comedy genius and legend Mel Brooks directs and appears in postmodern Spaceballs (1987) as both President Skroob and Yogurt (or The Emperor and Yoda respectively). The comical cast also features the late and loveable John Candy as Barf (Chewbacca), Bill Pullman as Lonestar (a mix of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker), Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet (need I say who?), and Daphne Zuniga as Princess Vespa (Leia). Joan Rivers also lends voice to Dot Matrix, a female C3PO with a virgin alarm, and Michael Winslow, that amazingly talented sound effect guy from Police Academy, is a hilarious Spaceball Radio Operator. Lastly, another late acting genius John Hurt puts in a hilarious cameo, parodying his own part in Alien. Man, that’s a lot of comic genius and acting legend death in two paragraphs, so at least the lingering hilarity of Spaceballs somewhat blankets that.
Parodying primarily Star Wars and Star Trek, with little hints and references to other films and television shows of the space genre, Mel Brooks’ film came almost four years after the final Star Wars: Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi. Star Wars‘ success would be still echoing four years after finishing up in the 80s, where Seth MacFarlane is wasting no time at all, releasing his trailer to coincide with the debut trailer of the new Star Trek series, set to release in this very same year. We understand that MacFarlane is a sci-fi fan himself, referencing both Star Wars and Trek in both American Dad and Family Guy, even producing the animated Star Wars/Family Guy parody trilogy, but to release a show with such a resemblance to another, set to release at a similar time, hints that MacFarlane is out of ideas, especially considering that there is now an abundance of adult animated shows hitting high levels of acclaim.
This 80’s sci-fi parody has value in repeat viewings. This could be down to an entire myriad of reasons, if we go by Rick Altman’s pragmatic genre theory – nostalgia may play a role for some, revisiting the career of now dead stars may be another. See, I’m not sure I could go back to, for instance, The Scary Movie…movies…as they are, essentially, parodies of parodies, and they feel somewhat out-of-place and time, just as the Resident Evil, xXx and Underworld sequels of the 2000’s. As opposed to earlier parody and pastiche, and even Shaun of the Dead and Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy, these later films feel much cheaper, cruder and lewder, throwing in sex jokes willy-nilly as if they don’t trust audiences to laugh otherwise.
Spaceballs, I would argue after a recent viewing on Netflix, is the perfect parody, and a brilliant product of its time. Masterfully, it reiterates and transforms elements, settings, cinematography and character from beloved science-fiction films and television. Pizza the Hut makes a gross appearance, and the opening establishing shot of the spaceship we are all used to drags hilariously and uncomfortably on. Ironically inverting our expectations and subverting the conventions of the science-fiction genre, Spaceballs offers the hyperbolic acting synonymous with parody, from visual comedy and slapstick to comical misdirection and hilarious word play – take this scene for example:
Jokes come in thick and fast, from a variety of angles with a variety of speeds, to the extent that if you blink you may miss them, adding yet more re-watch value to this film. Take comical literalisation, for example, as a staple of postmodern parody and Mel Brooks’ work – Dark Helmet orders his Spaceballs to ‘comb the desert’, and so we cut to the Spaceballs dragging massive combs across the desert. It is simple, yet hilariously effective. I could discuss the jokes within the film forever, but I would rather not spoil it entirely for those who have not yet seen it.
Self-reference and self-awareness are also at the heart of this down-right loveable 80s gem. Characters step aside to look at the camera, a technique employed by Ferris Bueller just a year prior, and, poking fun at the merchandising surrounding Star Wars as it milked its cash cow for it all was worth, Dark Helmet finds a video cassette copy of his own movie, fast-forwarding it to the present moment in a hilarious and foregrounding sequence. Techno-babble, a convention of science-fiction, is also mocked throughout, notable as Rick Moranis pushes the ship to ‘Ludicrous Speed!’
While there are a few moments tha really ground the film as a product of its time – Dark Helmet’s ship transforms into a Lady Liberty of sorts, this time called Mega Maid, armed with a hoover, with John Candy remarking ‘she’s gone from suck to blow’ – but overall, as the Star Wars franchise refuses to die, it is a timeless parody. There is not a Spaceball’s chance in hell that this would ride soundly in the current film landscape, as jokes come under fire as soon as they are deemed too offensive or low-taste, which makes one wonder just how tame The Orville just might be. In the context of time and plae, however, Spaceballs shines as a perfect postmodern parody.
The Film Fanatic