Totally NOT Star Wars, No sirree : Starcrash – The Movie…….

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It’s the late 1970s, and just hitting the big screen is a space opera in which a lightsabre-wielding smuggler embarks on a royal rescue mission, a talking droid sidekick provides comic relief, and a classically trained British thesp slums it as a wizened old man. We are, of course, talking about Starcrash, the first, and most enjoyably ridiculous, Star Wars knockoff.

Released just a year after George Lucas changed Hollywood forever, Starcrash was the brainchild of Luigi Cozzi, a director whose resume included the ribald comedy La portiera nuda and  Lou Ferrigno starring in Hercules. There are certainly traces of the former in Starcrash, as poor heroine Stella Star (former Bond girl Caroline Munro) is forced to spend most of the film in little more than a leather bikini, even when exploring a nippy Arctic-like planet. But the only horrors here are of the completely unintentional kind.

As evident from the opening scene, where a spaceship in a galaxy far, far away is rudely attacked by what looks like a disparate group of pimped-up milk cartons, the special effects appear to have been rustled up in someone’s garage. The dialogue is often both badly dubbed and illogical (“By sunset, I’ll be the new emperor!” goes one zinger, Cozzi appearing to forget the laws of outer space), and the performances run the gamut from daytime soap opera to pure pantomime, with the super-permed former Marjoe Gortner the most wooden offender as Stella’s Jedi-like partner-in-crime, Akton.

Trying to make sense of the plot is a thankless task, one not helped by a structure resembling a handful of Saturday morning serials stitched together. But the gist is (spoiler alert) that after being captured, convicted, and sentenced to 220 years of hard labour, Akton and Stella are given a lifeline by The Emperor (Christopher Plummer). Track down both his missing son, Prince Simon (a bouffant-haired, baby-faced, and unusually restrained David Hasselhoff), and the powerful secret weapon owned by his evil nemesis, Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell), and they’ll regain their freedom. Cue a series of increasingly perilous adventures in which they’re joined by Elle (Judd Hamilton), a C-3PO-esque figure who for some reason has a strong hillbilly accent, and Thor (Robert Tessier), an extra-terrestrial whose green complexion, in another clear sign of financial constraints, disappears below his chin. As the motley crew navigates planets populated by Amazonian women who could have escaped from a Russ (Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens) Meyer sexploitation flick and rampaging cavemen who, in a scene that potentially scarred younger viewers for life, hack poor Elle into pieces, the viewer experience takes a turn. You’re still well aware that Starcrash is unadulterated B-movie nonsense, but you also start to appreciate its ludicrous, super-camp charms. For sure, Spinell is about as subtle as a sledgehammer when playing the megalomaniacal overlord, practically twirling his mustache every time he strides into frame – at one point, he literally cackles whist plotting his quest for world domination – but his obvious joy at living out his comic book baddie fantasy is infectious. And you have to admire a film with such an obviously low budget at least attempting to pay homage to some of the greats, no matter how clunkily. No one’s going to mistake the stop-motion mechanical monster unleashed by Amazon Queen Corelia (Nadia Cassini) for the work of Ray Harryhausen or Stella’s hilariously unconvincing spacewalk for the work of Stanley Kubrick, but as with the nods to Sam Peckinpah in the multiple slow-mo shootouts, they’re a sign that Cozzi’s references extend far beyond the Millennium Falcon.

Furthermore, Starcrash boasts a handful of genuinely impressive qualities that prevent it from falling into the realm of pure schlock. Essentially hoodwinked into the project, legendary composer John Barry serves up a sweeping orchestral score that wouldn’t sound out of place amongst his Oscar-winning works. And in an age where most cinematography requires night vision goggles, it’s refreshing to see a film so boldly committed to a primary colour palette, with the starship scenes, in particular, awash with striking reds, yellows, and blues. Plummer, also appears to be having fun whilst delivering such lines as  “Imperial Battleship, halt the flow of time!” with the same reverence he would bring to a Shakespearian production. Unlike Star Wars’ Alec Guinness, the Academy Award winner appears to have taken his unlikely foray into sci-fi in good spirits, later quipping that he signed up when promised a free holiday to Rome. The naturally charismatic Munro also impresses in a role that could have reduced her to mere eye candy, imbuing Stella with a steely determination that was, contrary to her outfits, actually rather progressive for the time.

Cozzi has long insisted that Starcrash was conjured up long before Han Solo and Darth Vader became instant pop culture fixtures, although he did acknowledge that producers consistently fought with him to boost its likeness to Star Wars. The director, now running Dario Argento’s memorabilia store in Italy, obviously lost the battle. Still, he can take heart from the fact that out of all the imitations that emerged between the original and The Empire Strikes Back (see Messages from Space, The Humanoid, The Black Hole, etc.), his labour of love remains the most sincere.


© DJM 2024