Tuesday, October 07, 2008



“From a vast and different galaxy… A space adventure for all time!”


It looks like the end of the road for Stella Star and Akton the Pathfinder, the galaxy’s most daring smugglers, when they are finally captured and sentenced to life working the radium furnace. But when Prince Simon goes missing while trying to locate the eeevil Count Zarth Arn’s Doom Machine, The Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe releases the scoundrels into the custody of Chief Thor and the android Elle so they can pilot the rescue mission. Searching amongst uncharted planets, the band of heroes run afoul of some space amazons and their giant guardian before getting abandoned on an ice planet by the traitorous Thor. Thanks to the “not quite dead yet” Akton, however, the group manages to escape and make its way to the Count’s hidden world where they finally locate the Prince. Unfortunately, Zarth Arn, aware of their coming, activates the planet’s self destruct mechanism. Things look hopeless as the seconds tick off and Akton dies (for real) fighting The Count’s robot golems. Fortunately Simon’s father arrives and uses his authority as the Emperor to freeze time, allowing the gang to escape. Knowing Zarth Arn believes them to be dead, our heroes launch a surprise attack on his doomsday fortress, only to be repelled by The Count’s superior forces. With time running out, The Emperor convinces Stella to pilot his own ultimate weapon of last resort, the unstoppable Starcrash.


There’s no getting around it, the first thing you notice while watching Starcrash is just how hard it really, really tries to be Star Wars. Enormous space cruisers slowly creeping across the starfields, idiosyncratic robots, caped villains with planet destroying weapons, cocky anti-heroes carrying contraband on their starship, light sabers. Oh yeah, they’ve got freaking light sabers in this movie! But even with all that, the second thing you notice while watching Starcrash is just how spectacularly it fails to be Star Wars. The starfields… are Christmas lights. The robot… inexplicably speaks with a Texas drawl. The doomsday weapon… is a lego-esque hand shaped construction which clenches into a fist when enemies approach. The galaxy’s greatest smugglers consist of… former child evangelist Marjoe Gortner sporting an afro and genre vet Caroline Munro wearing an assortment of Barbarella style star-kinis. And those light sabers… well, actually, they’re just light sabers. But they’re those store brand knock-offs us poor kids had to settle for instead of the real Kenner versions that made the cool whoosh sound when you swung them! In fact, forget the good ones, some of us didn’t even get one of those crummy inflatable light sabers Lucas rushed into stores right after the first movie came out! (Sob!) Thank you, thank you Starcrash, for dredging up my old childhood scars!

But I digress. And really the comparison isn’t fair because director Luigi Cozzi never wanted to incorporate elements of Star Wars into Starcrash in the first place. In a 2004 interview he stated that, inspired by the success of the disaster movies of the 1970s, he had scripted a treatment for a similar movie set in space. “It was about a gigantic spaceship for passengers. It's the first trip to Saturn… To see the shores of the rings. When crossing the rings, the ship hurts a space iceberg and then crashes on Titan, a moon of Saturn. So there's only a few survivors who try to wait for the rescue party who is coming… [But] nobody was interested. When I proposed it to Nathan Wachsberger, he was not interested. He called me back after Star Wars opened in America. He tells me "Luigi, I want... not your story... I want Star Wars!".” So, you see, it’s kind of hard to fault Cozzi for his halfhearted attempt at a Star Wars ripoff because what he really wanted to make instead was a Poseidon Adventure ripoff.

Besides being forced to make a different movie than he wanted, Cozzi was faced with an even bigger problem. Star Wars hadn’t been released in Italy yet so nobody had actually seen the thing. How do you ripoff something when you don’t even know what it is? Fortunately, by sheer luck, the avid sci-fi reader Cozzi had actually picked up the novelization of Star Wars as a whim just a few weeks earlier, so he was able to at least get the gist of the story and lift (as noted above) certain identifiable images from Lucas’ movie. To make it enjoyable for himself, however, Cozzi decided to throw in bits and pieces from his favorite fantasy movies. “It was what I wanted to do. But people didn't understand that. They didn't know anything about Forbidden Planet or about Ray Harryhausen's movies… or anything like that… [Starcrash] was very much like a Robert Heinlein's juvenile from the fifties. I love those things. And so I made something similar in my way. I put Barbarella in it. Cause I love Barbarella. I also did use novels of A. E. Van Vogt as a model… As a basis for the whole story I did pick up a book by a science-fiction writer called The Secret Of Sinharat.” So, unable to make a Poseidon Adventure ripoff, and not quite able to make a true Star Wars ripoff, Cozzi instead made a ripoff of every other genre movie he’d watched over the last twenty years.

With all that source material haphazardly thrown together, you might be tempted to think it would be a difficult task to mesh it all into anything resembling a coherent story. Well, for Cozzi and his crew, it wasn’t difficult at all. It was, in fact, flat out impossible. Even more than the homemade effects and nods to older movies, it’s the writing which really makes Starcrash such a treat to the bad movie aficionado. Rarely will you find a script which so utterly fails to make any sense whatsoever. Why have Stella instigate a jail break which apparently results in the fiery death of all her fellow prisoners, only to have her sentence commuted by the nonchalant authorities as she exits the burning wreckage. How can you have a character stop the flow of time, yet still have every person in the room look around and, unaffected, simply walk out. And someone please explain why, in the final confrontation with The Death Glove, don’t our heroes just fire their ship’s lasers? Couldn’t that enormous glowing brain which powers their ship have told them that lasers would be much more effective than shooting hollow torpedoes containing live soldiers through the glass of the space station’s bridge? An act, by the way, which explicably fails to cause the ship’s atmosphere, or anything else for that matter, to be sucked out into space! Somewhere, about two thirds of the way through Starcrash, you simply give up on making sense out of the whole thing and begin basking in the sheer Dadaistic weirdness of it all.

But topping even the near endless gaps in logic, the crowning achievement of Starcrash’s script has to be in its unrivaled use of Deus Ex Machina. Now as you probably already know, the term Deus Ex Machina refers to the plot device in which a complicated or hopeless situation is resolved through the introduction of something not previously mentioned anywhere in the story, something the writer basically pulls out of his… er, out of thin air. Starcrash is THE master class of this technique. Trapped on an ice planet with the temperature dropping 1000 degrees below zero? No problemo, your handy robot will suddenly tell you that, by the way, he happens to be equipped with the ability to lower your body temperature to match, with absolutely no resulting physical or mental damage. Your navigator killed and your ship stolen? No biggie, your navigator will reveal his lifelong ability to see into the future, a talent he never got around to mentioning all those decades you’ve known each other, which somehow allows him to be… not really killed so he can come back and get you. Trapped on a planet armed to explode in 30 seconds? S’alright, your new boyfriend’s dad can waltz in and demand the flow of time to be halted, a power granted to him because he’s Emperor. (And here you thought papal infallibility was a cool job perk.) And best of all, after the eeevil Count has defeated all of your forces, the Emperor will suddenly remember that he has a secret doomsday machine of his own which will allow the good guys to basically drop a city on whomever they choose. Of course, the whole point of a doomsday machine is lost, IF you keep it a secret! WHY didn't the Emperor tell the world, eh? Isn’t it just a wee bit possible Zarth Arn might have reconsidered his whole “taking over the galaxy” scheme if he had known someone could just drop a city on him at any time?

Still, when all is said and done, the use of Deus Ex Machina in Starcrash is so sublimely ridiculous that it’s hard to hold it against the movie. In more serious literature, however, condemnation for this kind of contrivance goes all the way back to antiquity. The Roman poet Horace (last seen in Limbo according to Dante) wrote in his work Ars Poetica, “If you would have your play deserve success, give it five acts complete; nor more, nor less; Nor let a god in person stand displayed, Unless the labouring plot deserve his aid.” What Horace was singling out in particular was the practice of certain Greek playwrights to write their characters into an inescapable corner, only to have a god (deus) literally descend from the heavens (by means of a crane, or machina) and make everything hunky dory. Horace, and countless critics who followed him, felt these “acts of god” were basically a dirty cheat, betraying both the audience and the story itself. If you’ve followed characters all the way through a story and they’ve been making decisions which have led them to a bad end, you don’t just write in a miracle rescue which erases all of the negative consequences and forces a happy ending. According to the critics, it’s best to let the solution to the crisis, if there is one, come through the actions of the protagonists. After all, as Benjamin Franklin put it, the Lord helps those who help themselves.

The problem with all that is twofold. First is the fact that anyone who has actually read the Bible probably recognizes that Ben wasn’t quoting Scripture, he was instead paraphrasing Aesop’s 6th century B.C. fable Hercules and the Waggoner. While the Bible is indeed full of exhortations to personal responsibility like the well-known “anyone unwilling to work should not eat”, the totality of Scripture is pretty clear that no matter how much effort we put into things, in the end, we are to leave the outcome of everything to God. As the Catechism puts it, “With creation, God does not abandon his creatures to themselves. He not only gives them being and existence, but also, and at every moment, upholds and sustains them in being, enables them to act and brings them to their final end. Recognizing this utter dependence with respect to the Creator is a source of wisdom and freedom, of joy and confidence.” The second thing is that along with this ‘utter dependence’ on God comes the simple fact that all of us Christians are actually supposed to believe in miracles, those things the Catholic Encyclopedia describes as “wonders performed by supernatural power as signs of some special mission or gift and explicitly ascribed to God… the wonder of the miracle is due to the fact that its cause is hidden, and an effect is expected other than what actually takes place.” When you combine these two things, the idea of relying on a Deus Ex Machina to pull your fat out of the fire doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch.

And yet, more often than not, it seems like the Deus Ex Machina never shows up in real life. For example, during those times when I’ve felt like dropping a city on someone was the only possible way to extricate myself out of a jam (surprisingly more times than you might think), nobody has shown up and offered me the means to do so. Either God is not doling out enough miracles, or perhaps there’s something more to depending on our creator than just counting on him to (dare I say it) bail us out every time something goes wrong. And of course there is, as long as we accept the premise that God knows what He’s doing. “Believing in God is inseparable from believing in His Providence.” said Cardinal Christoph Schonborn in a Lenten retreat meditation given to Pope John Paul II and the papal household. (Preaching to the Pope; no pressure there.) “Believing in God the Creator is possible only if he is believed in also as ‘governor and provider’ of his creation. Now ruling and guiding means: leading something to its goal. God leads creation to its goal, to its fulfillment: to the Kingdom of God, to the ‘Church universal in the presence of the Father’”. Which is swell, but doesn’t explain why God’s plan doesn’t include saving us every time we get in a pickle.

“God is the sovereign master of his plan.” the Catechism confirms, “But to carry it out he also makes use of his creatures' co-operation... For God grants his creatures not only their existence, but also the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles for each other, and thus of co-operating in the accomplishment of his plan.” And when, acting on our own, we end up in a terrible situation, sometimes God actually does provide a miracle, a Deus Ex Machina if you will, to help us out (which is another long post for another day). But other times, when we mess things up, it somehow fits the overall plan to let the consequences play out. God “permits it… because he respects the freedom of his creatures and, mysteriously, knows how to derive good from it… In time we can discover that God in his almighty providence can bring a good from the consequences of an evil, even a moral evil, caused by his creatures.” That is our utter dependence on God, not that things will always turn out the way we want, but rather that things will turn out the way they’re supposed to so that, when all is finally said and done, the ultimate goal is achieved. It’s beautiful, really, if you take the time to contemplate it, and it brings some comfort during those times when the “big save” doesn’t look like it’s coming.

It takes time and practice to develop that attitude, though. I’d be less than honest if I said there weren’t still times when my first response is, “Boy, this situation would turn out great if someone would just drop a city on that guy.” I’m working on it.


This is where I usually say a few last words, but I'm not even going to try and compete with Plummer. Ladies and gentlemen, The Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe...


Scott W. said...

Excellent as always.

Anonymous said...

LOL!! Really the perfect thing for me to read before marching off to teach the Exodus to a bunch of 11 yr. olds.
Xena C.

EegahInc said...

Thanks guys. Way back when I first started this blog someone asked me about a list of essential bad movies to watch. I'm not sure how I wold ever put together such a list, but I'm pretty sure this one would be on it. It's something to behold.

Type4You/PaperSmyth said...

This essay would make a good foundation for the derivation of "Deus Ex Machina" versus "Predestination" (the Protestant understanding, not the "Predestination Paradox" sci fi thing, although...). But where's the FUN in that? Like it as it is. I think I may have actually seen part of this movie when it first aired on HBO. *blush*

EegahInc said...

Ooooo, predestination paradox, always good for inducing a headache. There's more than enough bad time travel movies to save that one for.