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Summer of ‘87: Spaceballs: Going O’er the Helmet

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Summer of ‘87: <em>Spaceballs</em>: Going O’er the Helmet

Ah, Spaceballs. I remember the first time I saw Mel Brooks’s science-fiction spoof: 1996, as fifth grade came to a close and my teachers were quite possibly looking forward to summer vacation as much as the rest of us were. As a treat, we were allowed to watch a movie in class one day, and this was one of the choices. Upon a majority vote, Spaceballs was picked.

The movie began (shown on VHS, naturally; this was pre-DVD years, after all). The amusing prolonged opening shot of a seemingly endless spacecraft drew roars of laughter from us kids—so far, so harmless. But then came the first scene, which drew more gales of laughter but which alarmed my teacher with its “naughty” content: first, the “Oh, shit!” that poor radio operator utters as Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) aims his Schwartz ring to punish him for going over his head (or “helmet”); and then the operator’s cry of pain as a beam from Dark Helmet’s Schwartz ring hits him in the balls. Right after that, the teacher—who, I guess, had never seen this film before showing it to the class—turned it off and put in another movie (The Goonies, if I remember correctly).

I eventually watched the whole thing, though first on network television with all the swear words edited out before eventually seeing it uncut and uncensored. Among my various circles of friends, at least, it’s commonly cited as one of those endlessly quotable touchstones of my generation (Y, I guess), occupying a similarly “exalted” plane as, say, The Goonies, Back to the Future, John Hughes movies, and many others. As is the case with many of those films, Spaceballs has never had the same pride of place in my own heart, though not necessarily because I think it’s a bad movie; it’s more likely that, unlike many of my friends, I didn’t watch it at a young age and thus don’t have a nostalgic attachment to it.

It’s been years since I’ve seen the film from start to finish, so watching it again recently in preparation for this Summer of ’87 piece felt like a fresh experience for me. It was also…well, “revelatory” would probably be overstating it, but I did find myself genuinely enjoying the film more than I honestly thought I would going in.

Spaceballs is considered by many critics to be one of Mel Brooks’s lesser comedies—certainly not on a par, at least as far as his spoof movies go, with the likes of that 1974 one-two punch of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Those two films—well, Blazing Saddles, mostly (Young Frankenstein has a sense of discipline to it that was rather foreign to Brooks up until that point, and which hasn’t really been seen again since, in his movies at least)—evinced a grab-bag comic sensibility that the ZAZ trio—Jim Abrahams and the Zuckers, Jerry and David—would later adopt in their own parodies (Airplane!, Top Secret!, The Naked Gun). Such a throw-things-against-a-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach is, by its very nature, hit-or-miss—but, as with Blazing Saddles and those ZAZ movies, Brooks paces his film at a furious clip, jumping from one gag to another, so if one bit fails, there will (hopefully) be another, more successful bit to latch onto. At its best, such a method can carry the exhilarating charge of improvisation—as if Brooks was tapping directly into his id and putting it out there for all of us to see, for better and for worse. In Brooks’s case, it’s an id that’s obsessed with cheesy visual and verbal puns, vulgar jokes about bodily functions and ethnic Jewish humor—but there are more deeply satiric things to be found in Spaceballs than just those bits of broadness.

Spaceballs, as you most likely know by now, is a spoof of sci-fi movies—Star Wars, particularly but also, among other targets, Alien and Planet of the Apes. (Oh, and yeah, there’s a stretch in the middle that pays comic tribute to David Lean epics like The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia—neither of which is science fiction, obviously, but the larger context of Spaceballs remains rooted in that genre.) The fact that Brooks was making fun of Star Wars 10 years after George Lucas’s groundbreaking box-office smash must have seemed somewhat curious to many; in his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote, “The strangest thing about Spaceballs is that it should have been made several years ago, before our appetite for Star Wars satires had been completely exhausted.”

But Brooks’s spoof is, at least in part, about more than just Star Wars; it’s also about the influence Star Wars had on Hollywood, especially in the business realm. Spaceballs has its share of self-aware filmmaking jokes (during a climactic “swordfight,” for instance, Dark Helmet accidentally knocks over the director and then tries to pin the blame on Lone Starr), but it also gleefully attacks the kind of tie-in merchandising that went with the Star Wars phenomenon. So sure, Yogurt—this film’s version of Yoda—has a secret lair which houses all sorts of Spaceballs-related merchandise (including, of all things, a flame thrower bearing its name). That, however, is nothing compared to Spaceballs the video cassette, which Brooks—who concocted this script with Thomas Meehan and Ronny Graham—actually has Dark Helmet watch in order to discover the location of Lone Starr (Bill Pullman), Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) and the rest. This may well be the film’s most inspired bit, building to a positively surreal moment in which Dark Helmet, Colonel Sandurz (George Wyner) and some other Spaceball fast forward through the movie we’ve been watching and end up looking at reflections of themselves on the television screen.

Merchandising isn’t the only thing on Brooks’s mind, however. If Star Wars seemed out of time in 1977—especially coming at the tail end of a decade of American cinema that reflected, among other things, a despairing, pessimistic Vietnam War-influenced mindset—Spaceballs is, in many ways, firmly ensconced in the conspicuous consumption of the 1980s. This isn’t just a matter of extrapolation on a viewer’s part. Note, for instance, one of the more memorable punchlines in the film, uttered by Lone Starr after he and Barf (John Candy) agree to rescue Princess Vespa: “We’re not doing this for money…we’re doing this for a shitload of money!” In the comic landscape Brooks surveys in Spaceballs, it’s also his characters, not just the self-aware film itself, indulging in their purest capitalist impulses. And, of course, what does the quest for untold riches add up to other than basically a dick-measuring contest, as illustrated visually by the way Dark Helmet’s and Lone Starr’s respective light-saber Schwartzes are activated in an erection-like formation? (Brooks also evokes the decade musically, with instances of hard rock and even a synthesizer-heavy, Ghostbusters-like theme song on the soundtrack, neither of which can be found in any of the Star Wars features.)

None of this is to suggest that the wildly uneven Spaceballs is filled with underappreciated hidden depths, or even that it is close to the equal of his Blazing Saddles/Young Frankenstein one-two punch. Nevertheless, there are moments in which Spaceballs evinces a surprising edge not so much toward Star Wars and the like, but toward the kind of crass commercialism George Lucas’s franchise spawned and which continued unabated throughout Hollywood in the ’80s, arguably spurred on by the materialist leanings of the decade itself. Of course, if one were to really think hard about the implications of Brooks’s self-aware merchandising jokes, one might conclude that Spaceballs was engaging in a classic “pot calling the kettle black” situation: Isn’t the film itself also trying to flog the Star Wars brand for more money itself, however aware of its parasitism it may occasionally be?

This line of critical thought may well be going even farther than Brooks himself countenanced in making this film. Maybe in the end, it’s better just to sit back, shut off your critical faculties and enjoy the film’s desire to elicit a laugh, however smart or silly, wherever possible.