It's easy to lump Starcrash (1979) in with the countless space operas that followed in the successful wake of Star Wars (1977). Starcrash is more than an imitator. It manages to establish its own set of rules (logic be damned) in a wacky, low-budget, fantasy universe.

The adventure begins with a giant battle ship, christened the Murray Leinster of all things, which cruises past the camera and off into space. The shot was clearly "inspired" by the beginning of Star Wars. The crew is attacked by red "monsters", a lighting effect achieved by superimposing lava lamp blobs over footage of the crew writhing in agony. Three life boats are launched before the ship explodes.

Intergalactic smugglers Stella Star (former Bond girl Caroline Munro) and her alien friend Akton (70's relic Marjoe Gortner) are being pursued through brightly colored star fields by space cops. "Go for hyperspace!" Stella shouts, their escape made possible by a cheesy video effect that's reminiscent of a Windows screensaver, "Let's hope this star buggy holds together."

On the border of the haunted stars, Stella and Akton encounter one of the drifting launches from the Leinster. Stella slips into her transparent plastic spacesuit and goes for a space walk to investigate. She returns with a badly injured crewmember. Akton is somehow able to decipher the man's inaudible mumbles. Can he read lips? Can he read minds? The extent of Akton's alien powers are never fully explained. Perhaps, like the biblical Sampson, his hair is the source of his power. Gortner's blond afro is mighty … mighty scary.

 

While our heroes have been helping those in need, the police have caught up with them. Thor (Robert Tessier) is a bald and blue peace officer, his partner Elle (Judd Hamilton, Munro's husband at the time), is a robot with a twangy Texas accent. They arrest our heroes and soon Stella and Akton are standing in judgment before an octopus with a human face. With his badly animated tentacles waving about, mollusk man sentences them to hard labor.

To pay for her crimes, Stella feeds beach balls into an energy furnace. Apparently Stella was allowed to bring her own couture. While the other slaves wear rags, Stella labors in a space bikini and high heels. At the first chance for escape Stella overpowers a guard by using her keen judo skills and starts a revolt. The ensuing laser battle destroys the furnace and the prison complex.

Escaping on foot, Stella soon encounters a ship with Thor and Elle aboard. Elle explains that, "We've all been assigned to a top secret imperial mission; we must now leave and set Akton free."

After picking up their curly-headed pal, our heroic quartette receives a holographic email from the Emperor of the universe. Christopher Plummer (a long way from The Sound of Music, 1965) seems to be taking his role as the Emperor a little too seriously. The Emperor's son was commander of the Leinster. Since they found the first launch, their mission is to find any survivors and bring back information on Count Zarth Arn's secret weapon of mass destruction.

Stella and Elle pilot their Plexiglas shuttle to the surface of a strange planet, explore another shuttle crash site, and are captured by Amazons. With guns blazing, Elle saves the day. The Amazon Queen, a servant of the evil Count, sends her robot guardian after them. In a stiffly animated homage to Jason and the Argonauts (1963) the giant robot chases Stella and Elle down the shoreline. Watch carefully, the guardian's sword arm makes a shadow against the planetary backdrop. Just when all hope seems lost, Akton and Thor arrive in their spaceship and rescue their pals by blasting the not-so-special effect giant.

 

But they're not out of the woods yet. Next they must fend off a battalion of Amazon air fighters, deadly manta shaped ships that fly in formation. A space battle ensues, though the sequence is so choppily edited that it's difficult to tell who's winning and who's losing. An overly excited Akton blasts a few enemy ships resulting in victory, but Gortner's suddenly manic performance is more creepy than celebratory.

An ice planet is the next stop on their search. While Stella and Elle explore the wreckage of the Leinster on the planets surface, Akton stays onboard the ship and practices his powers, in this case, a few slight of hand tricks involving some squiggly oscilloscope waves. Unimpressed by parlor tricks, Thor whacks Akton over the back of the head. Thor, a double agent in league with Zarth Arn, leaves Stella and Elle outside to brave the elements.

Elle is nonplussed, "Thor a traitor? I cannot believe it. I cannot trust my own logic circuits anymore." To survive the frigid cold, they snuggle into the snow, "I can use my energy to keep your heart working. You'll be in a state of suspended animation."

In a strangely romantic moment, Stella shares her feelings for her robot friend, "You're the most faithful companion a woman ever had."

"And I too respect you Stella. You are the nicest human being I have known. Now maybe is a good time to use your ancient system of prayer…and hope it works for robots too." As the temperature drops they are slowly covered in ice.

Meanwhile, Akton wakes up and attempts to regain control of the ship in a goofily choreographed fistfight with Thor. The floor of the set is so slippery that it's nearly impossible for either of them to remain upright. Akton, using his inexplicable powers, suddenly gains super strength and starts judo chopping Thor, whose Smurf-like tint has worn off during the fight. Thor pulls out a laser gun and fires, "No one can survive these deadly rays!"

 

Deflecting the rays back at Thor, Akton snappily replies, "These deadly rays will be your death." Akton brings Stella aboard, places his frozen friend in an egg shaped incubator and uses his powers to thaw her out. They continue their search and are summarily attacked by the Count's red lava lamp "monsters". The assault is soon over (perhaps scared off by Munro's swell acting) and Akton declares that they've, "Just survived an attack by the most powerful weapon in the galaxy." 60's novelty décor as a powerful weapon? Hmmm…interesting.

On the next planet's rocky surface, Stella and Elle find the last launch. The planet is inhabited by troglodytes who smash Elle to pieces and carry Stella off to their cave. Just as they're about to sacrifice our beautiful heroine, a stranger comes to her rescue. Once out of harms way, he removes his energy shield mask to reveal the fluffy haired visage of Simon, the Emperor's son, played by a very young David Hasselhoff. Instead of thanking her savior, Stella scolds him, "We've been searching for you all through these damn haunted stars." The cave men attack again and Simon and Stella engage them in some rock 'em, sock 'em action. Akton, wielding a light saber (oops, make that a laser sword) saves the day.

Nobody likes a know-it-all, but that doesn't prevent Akton from spilling a ton of exposition in a holier-than-thou fashion. They are on the Count's phantom planet and the red "monsters" and cave men were guarding the Count's secret weapon. They must destroy it. After a quick stroll through some poorly composited special effect corridors, they find the Count's doomsday device in a control room filled with glowing orbs.

Before they can destroy the diabolical device, Count Zarth Arn makes his grand entrance. With sweeping gestures and hearty villainous laugh, Joe Spinell plays the Count as if he were a moustache twirling baddie about to tie Stella to a train track. In true Snidely Whiplash fashion, he plans to destroy the phantom planet and our heroes with it.

 

After Zarth Arn leaves, Akton uses his light sword to battle the Count's Golems, a pair of robots that look as if they were constructed with scrap pieces from an erector set. Simon proves to be quiet sufficient at swashbuckling when he is forced to finish the fight after Akton is injured. With only a flesh wound, Akton insists that his friends continue their mission without him.

"I can't leave you." Stella cries, "You're the only human-like friend I've ever had." In a death scene that makes as much sense as anything else in the movie, Akton dissolves into wobbly oscilloscope lines and disappears.

When the Emperor and his royal guard arrive, Stella warns that there are only, "Forty-eight seconds left till the explosion, we've got to get out of here."

"Its true father," confirms Simon, "The Count has mined the planet with nuclear charges. We're all about to die!"

Determined to make the most of his screen time, Plummer leisurely announces, "You know something my boy, I wouldn't be Emperor if I didn't have some powers at my command. Imperial battle ship," he shouts, "Halt the flow of time!" They escape and the planet blows up in a less than spectacular fashion.

Count Zarth Arn readies for combat on board his Space Claw, a giant space station that's shaped like … well, a claw. When attacked, it closes up into a fist. "By sunset I'll be the new Emperor!" (A sunset in outer space?) "I will be master of the whole universe!" he shouts as the finale space battle begins.

 

As part of the attack, the Emperor puts his soldiers inside torpedoes that are fired into space. Once they have locked onto target, the torpedoes crash through the Counts control room window, the soldiers jump out, and start blasting away. It's so ridiculously implausible that you have to wonder just what the filmmakers were thinking.

Even with these brilliant strategies, the good guys are losing and the Emperor has no choice, "There's one solution left, I'm afraid we're forced to use it … Starcrash." The gist of the plan is to ram the claw fortress with the Emperor's floating city. Stella is drafted into piloting the city with the help of a reassembled friend. "You can't keep a good robot down." Elle says cheerily.

The rainbow hued model of the floating city bears down on the Count's Space Claw. There are lots of sparkling explosions as the miniatures are ignited. Abandoned by his minions, Zarth Arn stands amid the destruction as his fortress is decimated. Stella and her friends have saved the universe.

Plummer ends the film with a monologue that makes about as much sense as Bela Lugosi's "pull the string" speech from Glen or Glenda (1953). From his space age throne, he delivers the following with all the seriousness of a Shakespearian sonnet, "So, it's done. It's happened. The stars are clear, the planets shine, we have won. Oh, some dark force no doubt will show its face once more. The wheel will always turn. But for now it's calm. And for a little time, at least, we can rest."

 

Though made at the outset of the 80's, Starcrash's colorfully mod/Barbarella-esque look is thanks in part to the film's small budget and it's reliance on set pieces and costumes from earlier Italian productions. The films special effects were produced by a first time technician who, because of the tight schedule, had to build all the film's models in two days. The results were hit and miss. While some sequences looked pretty decent under the circumstances, writer/director Luigi Cozzi had some scenes redone. A sequence where Stella Star battled a giant crab was shot twice, but the end results were so bad that the scene was removed. Cozzi was also unhappy with the giant Amazon robot sequence, but out of time and out of money, the scene was left in, as is.

The Starcrash website features lots of photos and trivia; including a 2004 interview with Cozzi where the director explains that he was (not too surprisingly) encouraged by producers to make the movie as much like Star Wars as possible. Knowing it was next to impossible to emulate Star Wars on such a small budget, Cozzi rewrote the script with more fantasy elements, downplaying the high tech aspects of the story. He drew inspiration from the pulps of the 1950's which explains the episodic nature of the story; Stella Star encounters a new insurmountable challenge about every ten minutes.

Though long out of print, Starcrash is still available to rent at most video stores. Used copies can also be found on auction websites as well as Amazon.com. A special edition DVD is available in Europe, but has yet to be released in the states.

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