SPACEBALLS - DVD review

It's not as clever as some of Brooks' more successful films, but the gags will still tickle your Star Wars and Star Trek-loving funnybone.

James Plath's picture
James
Plath

"Planet Moron"!? Sounds like the title to one of those full-length Three Stooges' films, but we learn on an interview with Mel Brooks and co-writer Thomas Meehan that "Spaceballs" originally went by that title. And on "Spaceballs: The Documentary" we hear how the actor who played Pizza the Hut was really covered with cheese pizza, wired so that the pizza would bubble. At some point, wouldn't you know it, the wiring shorted out and the poor guy started smoking!

Those are just a few of the juicy tidbits that Brooks and "Spaceballs" fans will relish on the new two-disc Collector's Edition of the 1987 film. Brooks remarks that he would have expected his biggest selling films to be "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein," but it turns out that the top consumer favorites are "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" and "Spaceballs." I can certainly understand the latter. "Spaceballs" is pure silliness—not the clever writing we saw from Brooks in "The Producers," "Blazing Saddles," or "Young Frankenstein," and it doesn't have nearly as strong of a plot. In fact, it can get kind of muddled at times, if you think too much about it instead of just rolling with the gags. But because the "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" mythologies are such potent forces in our pop culture, Brooks' scattershot spoof has endeared itself to a whole generation of appreciative space-saga junkies.

May the Schwartz be with you!
The real force in the film is, of course, the volatile Brooks himself, a Jewish genius who seems always on the verge of erupting. In the interview with Meehan, a writing partner for many years, Brooks thoroughly dominates, and you get the sense that each of his films, though collaborative, has more of Brooks in it than anyone else. In his commentary (duplicated from the first release) he tells how the movie was the result of a collaboration between "two gentiles and a Jew," and, of course, there are plenty of playful Jewish references in the film, just as there have been in Brooks' previous outings.

A Druish princess?
Few will remember, but "Spaceballs" came out at a time when Jewish American Princess jokes were all the rage, and Brooks had plenty of fun with it himself. The film begins on the day of Princess Vespa's wedding to the last prince left in the galaxy, Prince Valium, a yawner who has the Prince Valiant haircut but nothing else. Naturally, the princess (Daphne Zuniga) hops in her spacecraft and gets the heck out of there, dragging along her robot attendant, Dot Matrix (voiced by Joan Rivers). Unbeknownst to them ("but knownst to us," as the "Star Wars"-style scrolling text explains), she is being hunted by Lord Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis), who has been ordered by President Skroob (Brooks) to seize the princess so that Planet Spaceball, which has squandered its atmospheric resources, can hold her hostage until her father, King Roland (Dick Van Patten), gives them the code to penetrate the Druidia air shield and siphon their atmosphere. Got that?

If not, it doesn't matter, because the gags are the thing, and Brooks and Co. nail enough of them that the parody succeeds—whether it's the Princess Leia squash-blossom hair that, on Vespa, are really headphones, or Lord Helmet using his ring to zap the genitals of underlings who would cross him. But there are plenty of people who can't tell a joke, and Brooks' least successful films are those where the actors couldn't hold their own against the material. That doesn't happen here. Even the bland Bill Pullman, who plays Brooks' version of Han Solo, manages some funny bits as Lone Star, pilot of the fastest Winnebago in the universe, the Eagle 5. And though the "barf" jokes are about as "retched" as they get, Candy, as a Mawg (half man, half dog) is still memorable. It's when Brooks veers off into cheap-pun land that the gags don't work—as when the Spaceballs, told to "comb the desert" for the missing princess and her saviors, grab a gigantic comb and draw it across the sand. But even that terrible joke is rescued by a lone black Spaceball with an Afro-pick, shouting back, "I ain't seen shit!"

Shall I have Snotty beam you up?
"Star Trek" also takes a shellacking, with President Skroob being beamed so that he arrives at the next level with his head on backwards. The Skroob routines aren't nearly as funny because we've seen those shenanigans before when Brooks played the Governor in "Blazing Saddles" and cut up with the cuties he surrounded himself with. And the giant vacuum cleaner that the Spaceballs use to suck up the air ("Suck, suck, suck, suck!"), aside from the recognizable allusion to "Planet of the Apes," isn't all that hilarious. In other words, the gags are pretty much hit and miss, but most of the big laughs belong to Rick Moranis, the man inside that gigantic oversized Darth Vader helmet, and to Brooks as Yogurt, the wizened little Yoda-like creature that gives Brooks a chance to play with "Wizard of Oz" allusions as well. In fact, it's the Dark Helmet and Yogurt gags that most people will remember—not the ending, and not the plot.

Video: I compared the new version to the previously released DVD, and I don't notice an appreciable difference in quality. The initial widescreen version looked to be 1.85:1 aspect ratio. A previous DVD Town reviewer got out the calipers and lists it at 1.78:something, but he was also a bit hard on the picture quality, I thought. He's talking about sharpness and graininess at the same time, and that's just not how I see it. To my eyes, the picture is fairly sharp (ever-so-slight grain), and the colors that the other reviewer complained about as being "washed out" seemed to me faithful to the original "Star Wars" palatte.

The big difference is that the Collector's Edition is "enhanced" for 16x9 televisions. Now it fills up the entire screen, with no black bars on the top and bottom. Unfortunately (and I wish Yogurt would explain this to me), some detail is lost in the process. I compared the scene where Barf is aboard the Eagle 5 eating while he rocks out to loud music, and his head is almost completely cut out of the picture in the new edition, whereas in the old one you could see his chin and cheekbone. The quality is decent, as you might expect with a Brooks' film. There's a gag option to watch the film at "Ludicrous speed," which, of course, speeds by in a matter of seconds.

Audio: Fans who have a thing for sound will definitely want to upgrade, because the Collector's Edition features a DTS 5.1 track in addition to the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, the French 2.0 Stereo, and Spanish Mono (with English, French, and Spanish subtitles). There are also gag options to hear the film in Mawgese and Dinkese Mono. The DTS is sharp, but the sound travels mostly across the main speakers, with not as much ambient rear-speaker action as I would have imagined.

Extras: The added bonus features on the 2-disc set are nice, but not spectacular. Nobody went out of the way to produce them or dig up incredibly great archival stuff. Nobody knocked themselves out, which is surprising. The audio commentary by Brooks (with a few comments by the late Graham, who sits in) is identical to the first DVD release. That commentary and the option to watch the film at "Ludicrous speed" are the Disc One extras.

Disc Two features that interview with Brooks and Meehan, with Meehan apparently given the unenviable (and unnecessary!) task of trying to prod Brooks for a mutual walk down memory lane. But there are no really wonderful insights here, and not much depth. If anything, you feel Meehan's awkwardness and start to feel sorry for him. There's also a brief "John Candy: Comic Spirit" tribute that provides an overview of Candy's career and includes clips and people on camera talking about the late comedian, a "Spaceballs" 25-question trivia game to test your knowledge (and there are a few tougher questions), six film flubs (not a gag reel, mind you, but mistakes that Brooks made that obviously bug the hell out of him), and a section of quotes that capitalize on the film's quotable popularity (seven for Dark Helmet, and two each for Yogurt, Barf, Lone Star, Princess Vespa, Dot Matrix, and President Skroob. What's funny about the quote feature is that there were very few of them that I found memorable, while lines that I recall (Wrong, Lone Star!) didn't make the cut.

There's also a storyboard-to-film comparison for one scene ("Take Only What You Need to Survive"), and three galleries that show behind-the-scenes photos, a costume gallery, and an art gallery. What I found most interesting, thought, was the original exhibitor trailer with an introduction by Brooks, and a "Spaceballs: the Documentary" making-of feature that seems to be a cleaned up and expanded version of the "special behind-the-scenes footage" from the first release.

To upgrade, or not to upgrade: if that is your question, I can't answer it for you, except to summarize that the new version has improved sound (DTS), the same video transfer, and a disc of good but not great extras. The first release had better (but more confusing) animated menu boards and also included a full-color bi-fold insert with facts about the film culled from the original publicity releases. There is no insert in the Collector's Edition.

Bottom Line: For all its unevenness, "Spaceballs" succeeds in having fun with its subject. George Wyner, who plays Colonel Sanders, the commander of Dark Helmet's ship, says that "we laughed more making that film than people laughed watching it." That joie de vivre, along with the enormous popularity of the space sagas being spoofed, gives "Spaceballs" an energy that sustains it, even years later. In fact, "Spaceballs" is one of those films that seems to get better with age. It's not as clever as some of Brooks' more successful films, but the gags will still tickle your "Star Wars" and "Star Trek"-loving funnybone.

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
8
Extras
6
Film Value
7