Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Space 1979: The one where the Italians ripped off Star Wars before Star Wars technically came out

Title: Star Crash
What Year?: 1977 (pre production)/ 1978 (release)
Classification: Runnerup/ knockoff
Rating: Pretty Good!

This feature is back with another of the films it was made for. In the realm of ripoffs and independently conceived "runnerups", a certain proportion end up on a razor's edge between the two. These are the films that may technically have begun production before what they reputedly ripped off, but certainly owe their release if not their final form to more successful projects. These are projects like the hare of fable, rushing to catch up with the tortoise without quite succeeding, almost always due to executive neglect rather than any fault or failing of those directly involved in their creation. No example is more egregious than Star Crash.

Like its more famous counterpart, this movie opens with a ship under attack, except this time it's a warship of a galactic Empire that is destroyed by a mysterious weapon. A survivor is rescued by a female smuggler/ space pirate and her not-quite-human co pilot, who are shortly captured by a robot police officer. The outlaws are offered a pardon if they join a search for a renegade Count's secret base and a missing prince. The ensuing adventures see them pitted against amazons, cavemen, a pair of deadly stop motion robots, and finally the evil Count's giant headquarter's ship, all with maximum campiness.

As usual, the circumstances of Star Crash's production are at least as interesting as the movie ever was. This time around, there is no question that the project was around well before the release of Star Wars, but did not advance very far in production until as late as May 1977, the same time the first movie came out. Its real roots were in the Italian-American system that had previously produced the likes of the Steve Reeve "Hercules" movies and several of Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion effects films. This is reflected in heavy use of effects that were "old school" even for the 1970s. It is further evident that the production ended up under pressure to look more like Star Wars than it was. Fortunately, this mostly
came out in the advertising (complete with the ripoff Millennium Falcon in the featured poster), while certain sequences featuring a lawsuit-worthy laser sword manage to loop back around as reverent references to earlier movies (especially by Harryhausen).

As for overall quality, we finally have a ripoff/ runnerup that can stand on its own merits. The acting (and for that matter the script) is competently hammy, backed up by reasonable production values. The ships are what give the film personality, mostly art deco style with somewhat clunky hard-SF ships here and there. (The first to appear is named Murray Leinster after the influential Asounding/ Analog writer.) Most of the designs charm without standing out, except for the utterly bizarre flagship of the Count. This ship is built in the shape of a half-clenched clawed hand, with little or no further rationalization, and the outside is fully matched by the very retro interior and the gloating Count himself.

I have settled on trying to give a more detailed account of a scene in each review, and while good moments abound (especially when the police robot is on screen) there was never any question in my mind that it would be  battle between the Count's claw ship and a fleet sent by the Emperor. As the Imperial ships attack, they launch torpedoes filled not with nukes, or explosives, or bioweapons, or the battle bots we have already seen, but two troopers with ray guns. As torpedo after torpedo crash through the ship's main viewport without a hint of decompression, a battle breaks out between the troopers and the Count's loyal guards. It's impossible and willfully absurd, and utterly delightful.

This review might be coming up shorter than others, because this movie is good enough that there isn't a lot to say that it can't say for itself. Call it a ripoff, call it a runnerup, it's good fun.

See previous installments on Message From Space and Inseminoid, and an Introduction to this series.But Dear Logos, do NOT see Inseminoid.

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