Brooks manages to highlight the absurdity of the Star Wars world years before George Lucas’ prequels led the series into self-parody.
It’s time for another Spaceballs. Given the divisive audience reaction to the most recent Star Wars films, the middling Solo and the critically-lauded The Last Jedi, the brand is once again rife for spoofing.
At the time of its release, Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs wasn’t really understood by audiences or critics. It was too obvious and too crude. Featuring “actors” like Joan Rivers and characters with names like “Pizza the Hut,” Spaceballs seemed sophomoric, particularly when compared to Brooks’ more nuanced work. However, as time passed, viewers began to realize that the stupidity of Spaceballs was directly proportionate to that of its source material. That’s not to say that Star Wars isn’t a classic; rather, it implemented a mysterious, earnest alchemy that allowed it to rise to greatness despite a rather obvious script and an abundance of questionable content. Brooks, recognizing this, pounced, highlighting, for instance, the phallic nature of Darth Vader’s helmet and the strange mix between feminist agency and conventional female role that Princess Leia embodied.
And that is really what Brooks does best. He pounces on the fissures that mainstream Hollywood has hidden in plain sight. Just as Blazing Saddles takes on Westerns and Young Frankenstein takes on horror, Spaceballs addresses the ludicrous nature of many popular science fiction films. Though the main action of Spaceballs is a parody of the original Star Wars, Brooks includes overt references to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien and Planet of the Apes.
The plot mostly mimics that of the original Star Wars, though obviously there are quite a few Brooksian flourishes thrown in. Planet Spaceball has run out of air, so its President Skroob (Brooks) deploys his ally Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) to the planet Druidia in order to steal their air. Their plan for doing so involves kidnapping Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga), the daughter of Druidia’s ruler King Roland (Dick Van Patten). The mercenary Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) and his faithful, furry sidekick Barf (John Candy) set out to save her and her droid sidekick Dot Matrix (Rivers), but soon find themselves wrapped up in a larger intergalactic struggle.
Notably, Brooks uses Spaceballs to give Princess Leia (re-imagined as Princess Vespa here the agency she lacked in her own film. Vespa, played with an abundance of charm by Zuniga, is far more in charge of her own fate than feminist icon Leia is throughout the Star Wars trilogy. Vespa, in the classic Brooks tradition and unlike Leia, is an idiot, but she also largely drives the action of Spaceballs. Symbolically, she pilots her own ship, something not truly adopted (though Leia, and other ladies, have brief piloting moments) until Rey inherits the Millennium Falcon in The Force Awakens.
Brooks’ comedic ambitions are aided by an abundance of comedic talent in Spaceballs. Actors like Pullman, Candy, Moranis, Zuniga, Dom DeLuise and others gamely join in, and their enthusiasm for the material is readily apparent. Impressively, Brooks also manages to include special effects that appear reasonably realistic while also effectively spoofing those in Star Wars.
Some Mel Brooks movies are appreciated upon release and others take time to flourish. With Spaceballs, Brooks manages to highlight the absurdity of the Star Wars world years before George Lucas’ prequels led the series into self-parody.