Mel Brooks Monday: Spaceballs

As a big Star Wars fan, I’m always down for a good spoof of George Lucas’ seminal sci-fi saga. But, let’s face it, Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs is really dumb. It’s less Blue Harvest and more Thumb Wars.

It’s strange to compare Mel Brooks’ comedy to any other Star Wars spoof because Spaceballs, refreshingly, is not intent to re-hash the story every movie fan knows so well. It’s more of an original story that uses comedic archetypes of Star Wars’ major characters. But the movie’s biggest sin is that, no matter how badly I want it to be, it’s just not very funny. The gags are pretty tired and the puns are mostly groan-worthy. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing.

The story opens with Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) of the planet Druidia and her arranged marriage to a narcoleptic cad of a prince whom she doesn’t love. She runs away with her robot assistant Dot Matrix (voiced by Joan Rivers) but is soon captured by the (initially) menacing Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis). Under the orders of President Skroob (Mel Brooks), he plans to save the planet Spaceball, running low on air, by stealing Druidia’s oxygen supply.

Spaceballs is a rather sluggish but occasionally funny sci-fi spoof.

Spaceballs is a rather sluggish but occasionally funny sci-fi spoof.

The Druidian king (Dick Van Patten) hires mercenary duo Lone Starr and Barf (Bill Pullman and John Candy) to save the princess and ultimately the planet from destruction. Along the way, Lone Starr learns of a mysterious presence called “the Schwartz” as he attempts to unravel his own troubled backstory.

I admire the way Brooks and crew managed to create original, unique characters while still playing off of the major Star Wars players. The memorable characters are more thanks to the acting than the writing. Joan Rivers’ C-3PO knock-off falls pretty flat, but John Candy and Rick Moranis easily steal the show. Moranis is a perfect Dark Helmet, making the dichotomy between his menacing reputation and his stunted, dweeby appearance all the more funny. He gets the film’s best (and really only) physical comedy, which I found to be pretty brilliant. Candy, as Chewbacca substitute Barf, manages to add weight as well as humor to an underwritten role.

The production design is also pretty excellent, from the sometimes imaginative sets (a flying Winnebago rather than the Millennium Falcon) to the music (John Morris’ score is a pretty suitable substitute for John Williams’ famous tunes) to the spot-on costumes. Even in the world of a spoof, Brooks manages to create a universe all his own.

Thank goodness the acting and visuals are generally good, because the writing is not. This is Brooks’ cheesiest dialogue by a mile, and his ever-famous puns are pretty eye-rolling. The pacing of the film is painfully slow, even at an hour and a half, and the stretches that go without a joke that hits can feel interminable. Many of the references to franchises like Star Trek and Indiana Jones feel phoned in for name recognition, like they’re not even trying to get a laugh.

But there are very funny moments here. Consider Pizza the Hut, a marvelously disgusting creation, who melts and oozes cheese and pepperoni while trying to sound menacing (he only gets one scene, but it’s great). It’s incredibly absurd, but so odd that it somehow works (it probably helps that he’s voiced by Dom DeLuise). A great meta-joke involving VHS tapes gets big laughs and also doubles as a Mel Brooks film history lesson. And a clever running gag is a great commentary on the commercialization and rampant merchandising of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters.

Sadly, these great jokes are few and far in-between. The majority of Spaceballs is a bit of a slog. It’s a charming little film, and one of Brooks’ most visually appealing, but this is light years away from the acerbic, groundbreaking wit of something like The Producers. It’s worth seeing, but there’s not much here worth re-visiting a second time.