Some movies are such a product of their time that you can’t help but wonder how they would hold up for modern audiences. Take Mel Brooks’ wacky science-fiction parody “Spaceballs”. It’s a movie that is so distinctly 80s it’s all but certain to push away some people seeing it today for the very first time. It’s one I’ve been anxious to give the Retro Review treatment.
Ever since first seeing it in the summer of 1987, “Spaceballs” was never among my favorite Mel Brooks comedies. And when put up next to his truly great films like “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” (I would also argue for “Silent Movie”), it’s pale in comparison.
But that doesn’t mean “Spaceballs” is a bad film especially for those with their own nostalgic connections to the movie or the decade itself. It has several genuinely funny gags and it never passes over a chance to riff on all sorts of science-fiction movies. “Alien”, “Planet of the Apes”, “Star Trek”, and it’s most obvious target “Star Wars” all find their way into Brooks’ comedic crosshairs.
From the opening crawl (ala “Star Wars”) it’s crystal clear this is Mel Brooks leaning heavily into some of his more absurdist humor. As the story goes Planet Spaceball is running out of fresh air so its buffoonish President Skroob (Brooks) devises a plan to kidnap Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) of the nearby planet Druidia. He’ll only set her free if her father King Roland (a hilariously cast Dick van Patten) hands over the keys to Druidia’s plentiful air supply.
To carry out his nefarious scheme Skroob calls on the villainous (and utterly preposterous) Dark Helmet. He is hilariously played by the least menacing actor Brooks could have cast – Rick Moranis. But just as everything seems to be going according to plan, in flies renowned space scoundrel-for-hire Lone Star (Bill Pullman) and his furry sidekick/best friend Barf (John Candy). Their mission is to rescue the princess and save Druidia from being destroyed.
As much as I love the 80’s and have a soft spot for so many movies from the decade, I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that “Spaceballs” hasn’t aged particularly well. It goes without saying the effects are well below today’s standard but that’s expected and easy to look past. In fact you could easily argue that the old-fangled visuals are part of its charm. But at times it’s the humor itself that feels terribly out of date (will any younger viewers recognize Michael Winslow and the Doublemint Twins?). And Brooks sometimes gets a little lazy, leaning too much on juvenile humor often filled with cheap double entendres.
While there is an inconsistency to the comedy, there are also times where you can’t help but enjoy the unbridled goofiness. I still laugh at Pizza the Hutt, the wise and pointy-eared Yogurt, and Dark Helmet’s collection of oversized headgear. We get other really fun jokes that break the fourth wall and poke fun at filmmaking, merchandising, and big franchises.
“Spaceballs” first hit theaters during the 10th anniversary of the original “Star Wars”. Over time it has developed a fairly devout cult following despite hardly being considered as some of Mel Brooks’ best work. For me the nostalgic pull is undeniable even after all these years. At the same time I fully admit that it’s hard to see the movie the same way I did over thirty years ago.
VERDICT – 3 STARS