Dir. by Mel Brooks
Starring Bill Pullman, John Candy and Rick Moranis
Down-on-his-luck space captain Lone Starr and his co-pilot Barf, in need of quick cash to pay off a debt to the gangster Pizza the Hutt, take a job to rescue Princess Vespa of Druidia from the ridiculous forces of the Spaceballs, who plan to steal all of the air from the planet to replenish their own depleted natural resources (Everybody got that?).
This was the first Mel Brooks movie I ever saw. I was obsessed with Star Wars from an early age, watching our VHS tape so much that it wore out and had to be replaced. So of course I’d watch any movie related to it, even a parody. It’s still the Brooks movie that I’ve seen the most times, even if I acknowledge that it’s “lesser” Brooks.
I find that appreciation for comedy, moreso than any other genre, is dependent on your age when you first see it. There’s a ton of comedies that I grew up watching and still have soft spots for to this day, that I freely recognize are terrible movies objectively. I still enjoy rewatching them anyway, even though I can easily see the flaws now as an adult.
Now, that doesn’t mean that I think Spaceballs is a terrible movie. In fact, I think it’s the best movie that Mel Brooks made post-1974. But I do think that the sweet spot for this movie is right around the early teens, which is probably around the time that I saw it for the first time. For several years in the early-mid 90s, I thought that the “Keep firing, assholes!” scene was the funniest thing I’d ever seen, and it remained an oft-quoted movie among my group of friends all the way through high school.
Brooks’s movies have a reputation for being crass and vulgar parodies, a reputation that largely stems from his earlier 70s output and the reactions that it prompted from audiences and critics. Spaceballs, while it still contains many similar sorts of jokes, benefits a bit from a decade or two of societal progression in terms of what was permissible to be shown onscreen. It’s also parodying a film series that was targeted at a family audience, so Brooks was shooting for a PG rating instead of his usual R. Granted, that door does swing both way, as there’s several jokes that wouldn’t fly in 2020, particularly some sexist ones and one particularly notable gag involving a pre-fame Dave Chappelle literally “combing” the desert with an afro pick.
Questionable jokes aside (and really, what Mel Brooks movie doesn’t have questionable jokes, going all the way back to “Springtime for Hitler”?), there are a couple really good, inventive comedy sequences here. Foremost among these is a sequence where the villains can’t locate Lone Starr, and decide to cheat by renting the video of Spaceballs and fast-forwarding to see the next scene. You end up with an incredibly confused Dark Helmut and Colonel Sandurz staring at a TV screen that is perfectly synced up to their own point in the movie, as the images on-screen exactly mirror their actions.
This movie breaks the fourth wall so hard it practically lives on the couch next to you. In addition to the aforementioned video tape gag, there’s also multiple references to the movie’s merchandising, from Dark Helmut’s action figures of the cast to Yogurt’s assurances that he’ll be back in the sequel, “The Search for More Money”. There’s also another wonderful gag in which, immediately following a big action stunt, the Spaceballs accidentally capture the cast’s stunt doubles instead of the real heroes. And in the final climactic “lightsaber” duel, Dark Helmut accidentally kills one of the sound technicians recording the audio, blaming it on Lone Starr (Mel Brooks must have loved this gag, as he reused it in Robin Hood: Men in Tights).
(Unfortunately, the stunt doubles in question feature a cigar-smoking, Hitler-mustache-wearing male stunt double wearing Princess Vespa’s dress. While I read the joke as more of a commentary on Hollywood’s use of stunt doubles that look nothing like the actor they’re doubling, the joke does come off as slightly transphobic these days.)
So yeah, while I can acknowledge that nothing in Spaceballs ever reaches the heights of Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein, I can’t really be super objective about the movie either. It was my first Mel Brooks movie, and it will always have a special place in my heart.
-Ironically, for a movie that was so focused on mining Star Wars’s ubiquitous marketing for jokes, Spaceballs had no actual merchandizing of its own. It was a condition that George Lucas stipulated in return for allowing Brooks to make a parody of the trilogy.
-I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this. Dozens, at least. But it wasn’t until recently, maybe 1-2 years ago, that I finally realized that the Spaceball officer that arrests the stunt doubles is ubiquitous “Hey, it’s that guy!” character actor Stephen Tobolowsky, of Groundhog Day fame, in one of his first screen roles.