Viking Night: Spaceballs
By Bruce Hall
May 3, 2016
Do you remember The Princess Bride, where Peter Falk plays the kindly grandfather and tiny, adorable Fred Savage plays the sick grandson? Do you remember how the whole film was the old man reading a delightful children’s story to the boy, whose imagination conjured what we saw on screen? Picture the same thing, but in 1977. Instead of Fred Savage, it’s you. Instead of Peter Falk, it’s your crazy Uncle Mel who always smells like peach brandy. And instead of quietly reading you a book, he loudly blathers on about this new film called Star Wars. You were too young to realize at the time, but Uncle Mel fell asleep 20 minutes into the film, and made up the rest from memory.
So years later, when you finally saw it for the first time, you saw Star Wars the way it was meant to be seen - Han shooting first - rather than through the prism of an old man’s alcohol induced psychosis. If that seems bleak, I can assure you that 1) I’m mostly kidding, and 2) I’m man enough to blame my problems on my OWN alcohol induced psychosis, thank you very much. And while there were Star Wars parodies made before Spaceballs, and there Star Wars parodies made after, how fitting that the most definitive one of all comes from Hollywood’s Crazy Old Grandad of comedy.
And the best thing about it is that unlike some of Mel Brooks’ more recent fare, Spaceballs still holds up pretty well.
No, I take that back. The best thing about Spaceballs is that it’s not just a goof at Star Wars, it’s a fairly pitch perfect goof on the whole Space Opera genre in general. If there’s any serious criticism you can levy at Star Wars, it might be that the stories are entirely personality driven, and the personalities are rather thin at that. And what plot there is more or less resembles the “reluctant hero/mysterious/rescues semi-helpless maiden/confrontation with evil" template that has been the bedrock of storytelling since the dawn of time. Translation - some of our favorite stories are the dumbest ones, and they make such easy targets that you hardly even have to try.
So of course Spaceballs hardly tries, and succeeds anyway, because the fundamental premise is actually kind of true.
Imagine two neighboring planets, the evil planet Spaceball and the noble planet Drudia. Spaceball is a mechanized wasteland, desperately in need of air supply. No, not the band. Actual air. They’re running out of it. Spaceball is run by evil President Skroob (Mel Brooks) and his half cybernetic, half Jewish-Canadian strongman, Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis). Conversely, Druidia looks like the painting on the front of a box of dutch cookies. Its windswept, snow capped peaks are ruled by the loveable King Roland (DIck Van Patten) and his pretty/shrill daughter Vespa (Daphne Zuniga, whom you should know from Melrose Place because that show is awesome). The Spaceballs would love to steal all the air from Druidia, but Roland has wisely encased his planet in an invisible shield (probably because he lives next door to a guy named “Skroob”).