Everything about The Ice Pirates is done in fun, of course; it's just that much of it is overdone.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

When I first watched 1984's "The Ice Pirates" on cable TV some years ago, I didn't give it a lot of thought. It was a way of passing the occasional dull late evening, and it didn't remind me of much at the time except the obvious subjects it was poking fun at, like "Flash Gordon," "Star Wars," and "Dune." This time on DVD, however, was a little different. Maybe I was paying more attention, but I couldn't help thinking of other such satires, "Army of Darkness," "Big Trouble in Little China," "Space Truckers," and "Spaceballs" in particular. Maybe I've just seen too many of these low-budget parodies anymore to be terribly impressed by them. Like the others in this category, "The Ice Pirates" is marginally good for a single go-round, but a repeat viewing would be, for me, bordering on the tiresome.

It isn't for lack of trying that writer-director Stewart Raffill's "The Ice Pirates" fails to keep my attention. It's that in trying too hard, the filmmaker is guilty of overkill. Before long, it all becomes one long, tedious, scatterbrained chase and punch-out fest. The idea for the parody is well intended; maybe it's simply too much of a good thing. In order for these things to work, they either have to be subtly tongue-in-cheek, like the Indiana Jones series, or outright zany, like "Spaceballs." Raffill's movie is merely giddy, going for cheap, obvious gags whenever possible, whether they're funny or not.

"Ice Pirates" is prefaced a manner reminiscent of old-time Saturday-morning serials (and, subsequently, "Star Wars") with the following statement: "Long after the great interplanetary wars, the Galaxy has gone dry. Water has become the only thing left of value. Evil Templars from the planet Mithra have gained control of this life-giving resource. Their power is now absolute, except for a few rebel pirates who survive by stealing ice from the great Templar fleets." Enter our pirates.

The late Robert Urich leads the pirate crew as Jason, a swashbuckling antihero and typically charming rogue. He's a good choice for the role, overplaying it, perhaps, as a poor man's Harrison Ford. But charming he is, and it's a shame he died so young (of cancer at age fifty-five in 2002). Among Jason's crew of lovable scalawags are Roscoe (Michael D. Roberts), his best buddy; Maida (Anjelica Huston), the ship's pilot; Zeno (Ron Perlman), whose hand keeps popping off; and Killjoy (John Matuszak), a thief who joins the group later in the story. "Tooz," the riotous, hard-living, hard-drinking former football star makes Perlman look tiny, no easy feat, and he also died young (presumably of steroid use at age thirty-eight in 1989). You think this cast was cursed or something?

Among the villains are Zorn (Jeremy West), the evil lackey of the Supreme Commander of the Galaxy, and the Supreme Commander himself (the late John Carradine). OK, Carradine died in his eighties of old age, so there's probably no curse working here. Additionally, since it is requisite that a beautiful young woman be involved in the story line somewhere and that it helps if she's a princess, we have Princess Karina (Mary Crosby), whose ship the pirates attack at the beginning of the movie, and who before long falls for the pirate captain. Yes, she has to. It's in the adventure-movie rule book, so it's got to be spoofed, too.

In any case, the pirates raid the cargo ships of Mithra and steal their ice and water for sale elsewhere in the galaxy. And they do it in true pirate fashion, wearing traditional seventeenth-century Earth pirate costumes and wielding swords as well as ray guns. Well, if "Star Wars" could have light sabers, I suppose steel swords make about as much sense. The villains are in chain mail. Go figure. All the while, Bruce Broughton's "Star Wars"-derived theme music intrudes on every scene of derring-do and becomes tiresome really fast.

The visual effects, sets, and costumes are intentionally campy, yet despite their modern execution (preceding CGI, I might add), they seem today as unsophisticated as those of the old serials they're parodying. There are even several flybys of cities that the studio, MGM, took directly from one of their previous sci-fi flicks, "Logan's Run."

The jokes are mostly corny or infantile, but some of them are admittedly cute. When the pirates first board the Princess's ship, they do so by blasting through a wall and finding themselves in a restroom, with a space alien on the can. Then, when Jason finds the Princess in hibernation in a glass case, much like Snow White, the first thing he does is try to peak down her dress. Naturally, Jason attempts to kidnap the Princess, ostensibly for ransom, but we know it's because she's beautiful, and he's read the pulp fiction where they have to fall in love.

Anyway, they're captured, and they have to escape, and there's a mythical planet full of water known as the "Seventh World" that everybody is trying to find, and it all gets pretty crazy pretty fast in an attempt to inject as many dumb antics as possible into as many minutes as the movie's budget can afford.

A few more parts that work in a mindless kind of way: Really dumb robots that keep malfunctioning; walls of blinking lights everywhere in the spaceships; a little, "Alien"-like, space-herpes critter; a decapitation by Maida, who proves herself as superior a warrior as she is a pilot; and some aging business at the end. Parts that don't work so well: Scenes that are claustrophobic; frames that are too busy; action that's too clunky; endless fights and chases that quickly become monotonous; and "Mad Max 2" imitations that were depressing the first time around.

When the pirates are captured, their alternative to escape is to be castrated and lobotomized. I'm not sure some of the script couldn't be described as having met the same fate.

The picture quality is probably not too much unlike what it was when it appeared in theaters. The screen dimensions measure an approximately 1.74:1 ratio across my standard-screen HD television, and with a healthy bit rate the colors are fairly deep and solid. However, the overall picture is dark and often a little rougher than one would like. The result, despite being enhanced for widescreen and transferred at an above-average bit rate, is mediocre at best. Colors are deep, it's true, but they are often too deep, to the point of looking oversaturated. Then there's a small degree of fuzziness sometimes present and a few moiré effects, jittery lines, to consider. There's nothing particularly distracting about any of this, but it isn't state-of-the-art, either.

The audio is reproduced via Dolby Digital 1.0 mono, about as average as you can get. It's a touch bright, which makes the dialogue stand out well, but it does nothing to help the musical score. Worse, though, is that many sequences seem hollow and nasal. Factor in that there isn't a lot of frequency or dynamic range involved, and let's just say you have to put up with the sound. If you're a fan of the movie, it won't hold you back.

It's not like there is nothing at all in the way of extras on the disc. It's just that most DVD buyers these days don't consider scene selections, a theatrical trailer, and a few language choices--English and French spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles--much in the way of "real" extras. Actually, they're not. But they are in keeping with maintaining a low cost for the disc.

Parting Shots:
Everything about "The Ice Pirates" is done in fun, of course; it's just that much of it is overdone. I mean, there's only so much a person can take of silly fights, silly chases, and silly jokes. The movie seems aimed at youngsters who will undoubtedly find its blatant and most-often juvenile humor funny; but once through it, the whole thing loses a lot of its charm. Especially with age


Film Value