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 But at times it’s the humor itself that feels terribly out of date (will any younger viewers recognize Michael Winslow and the Doublemint Twins?).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
I love Spaceballs specifically because I love the movies that it lampoons. It’s also a movie that I grew up with, so that’s one of the reasons I love it so much. I find that not all of Mel Brooks’ movies work with me, but Spaceballs was one of them. Is it the best one he’s done? No. I actually happen to like Dracula: Dead and Loving It quite a bit more, actually. But when it comes to spoof movies, it’s really hard to top Airplane.
I too like Dead and Loving It but it has been such a while since I last saw it. Young Frankenstein is still my favorite Brooks comedy. Such a ridiculous movie and I love every goofy minute of it.
I remember finding parts of Space Balls funny as a kid but this would in no way hold up for me now.
I love absurd comedy and much of Brooks’ goofy humor works for me. But without question some of it hasn’t aged well at all.
Still, it’s better than that god-awful Spaceballs animated show that came out a few years back. I couldn’t even make it past the first episode, it was so awful.
Oh my gosh. I completely forgot about that thing. Never saw it and it sounds like I should be thankful for that.
I would agree Space Balls isn’t my favorite Mel Brooks film (that will ALWAYS be reserved for Blazing Saddles) but I still enjoy it from time to time! It’s also extra funny for me because my dad looks EXACTLY like Rick Moranis – I’m not kidding, he’s been stopped multiple times for autographs only to have to tell them he’s not the real deal lol!
That’s an incredible story. LOL. Surely he was tempted to just go with it at some point, right? I think I would probably have to sign a few autographs. Shame on me. 🙂
Oh he was definitely tempted a few times hahaha! You’re not alone!
I still love this film. I could care less if the humor was dated and such. It definitely capture so much of the silliness of blockbuster sci-fi films but also… moishendising. I still want my Spaceballs the Flamethrower. To me, it’s top-tier Mel Brooks and probably the last great film he did. His output afterwards were alright but it never reached the heights of what he did in the 60s/70s/80s.
When I say dated I mainly mean in how effective the humor is for me. I love absurdist humor. I just found some of it didn’t quite land for me as it once did. Still better than so much of what passes for comedies these days.
Interesting review! I actually love Spaceballs, I can quote every line of dialogue in it… and while I also think that Young Frankenstein is a superior movie, I don’t understand Blazing saddles. I watched it years ago and I didn’t laugh at all, I bought the DVD and rewatched it last year and… the same. I don’t get it.
On the contrary, with Spaceballs I laugh my *** off every time! It’s true that some jokes don’t work now, but there are so many that still do!
Anyway, thanks for talking about this movie!
It definitely gives you plenty to talk about and I do like it and recommend people giving it a shot. Interesting to hear that Blazing Saddles doesn’t work for you. That may have actually been the first Mel Brooks movie I ever watched. I still love it.
Definitely something to be said for how poor this movie has aged. I loved this movie when I first saw it (early 2000s I think), but it’s been some time since I’ve revisited it. Blazing Saddles though, man. Oh jeez. Don’t even get me started on that one. What a classic (that has also not exactly aged well. That’s one racist movie.)
Oh I love Blazing Saddles. To me its a more biting satire masquerading as a straight comedy. And for me it has aged okay mainly because its period setting. You can get by with a lot of stuff with that.