Starcrash – Plumbing the Depths of Plummer

Christopher Plummer was a fine actor with a lengthy and respectable career. And yet, when I decided to trawl through his filmography in the wake of his recent death, I took a perverse glee in the realisation that I now had an excellent excuse to watch Starcrash [Scontri stellari oltre la terza dimensione] (1978). When asked about the film in a 2013 AV Club interview, Plummer was only willing to say two things. One was that Caroline Munro, the star of the film, was “something incredible to look at.” The other: “[G]ive me Rome any day. I’ll do porno in Rome, as long as I can get to Rome.” Although it’s now a little late for anybody to take him up on that offer, we still have Starcrash as proof of his dedication.

Entering production at Cinecittà studios five months after the cinematic debut of Star Wars (1977), director Luigi Cozzi (credited under the pseudonym Lewis Coates) insisted that it wasn’t a cheap cash-in but had already been written and designed before the more famous film was released. This is immediately thrown into doubt by the opening scene, in which we view a large spaceship from beneath as it gradually encroaches into the image from the top of the screen. The evil Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell) wears a body suit which is strikingly similar to Darth Vader’s, complete with cape (red velour in this instance) – although the Count is at least not wearing a helmet. What he lacks in menacing dignity, he more than makes up for in scene-chewing fervour, which might explain why the film eats through its sets so quickly.

After establishing the threat of the Count’s weaponised planet (did somebody say Death Star?) as a passing ship’s crew are attacked by red spotlights from a lava lamp space-disco, we are introduced to our heroes – expert smuggler and ace astro-pilot Stella Star (Caroline Munro) and her deus ex machina sidekick Akton (Marjoe Gortner), an over-tanned humanoid with tight blonde curls who can be relied on to possess whatever knowledge or unexplained mystical powers are deemed convenient to the plot. Escaping pursuit by the Imperial Space Police, they stumble across the sole survivor of the attacked ship, whose disoriented delight at being rescued by Stella Star is evident from the bulge in his tight silver jumpsuit. Unfortunately it turns out their escape wasn’t particularly effective as they are immediately caught by their implacable nemeses – the dour corpse-green-skinned Police Chief Thor (James Messier) and Sheriff Elle (Judd Hamilton), a jovial robot with a strong Texas accent provided by Hamilton Camp (better known to my younger self as Greedy Smurf from 1980s cartoon series The Smurfs).

A large green tentacled head sentences Stella and Akton to serve out their extensive sentences on separate prison planets. Despite her prison planet clearly having a uniform dress code for prisoners, Stella is instead allowed (or encouraged) to wear a black leather bikini ensemble with thigh boots, a look which clearly appeals to her as she changes into two other variants on this theme in the course of the movie. Immediately asking the first people who will speak to her about the possibilities of escape, she’s whacked with a tinfoil sword by a guard, which has little effect other than allowing her to grab his gun and start blazing away. Pausing only long enough for her actions to result in the deaths of the two prisoners she just spoke to (and most of the other people on set), we jump cut to a view of Stella running through long grass for a few seconds before being captured again by Thor. Fortunately, he was on his way to secure her legal release from her prison sentence in return for her agreement to undertake a mission (which must be a great comfort to all of those needlessly slaughtered people she just left behind).

Reunited with Akton – who inexplicably greets her with the line: “Would I lie to you?”, words which have no relation to anything anybody else has said or will say – Stella is given her mission by the Emperor of the Universe (Christopher Plummer), whose appearance via hologram provides a welcome oasis of acting talent. Delivering his speech as if phoning in from another movie entirely, with pauses reminiscent of his old understudy William Shatner, the Emperor asks her to rescue his son Prince Simon and destroy Count Zarth’s megaweapon. Akton shows off his skill at generating multi-coloured oscilloscope waves in the palm of his hand en route to their first stop, where Stella and Elle are captured by scantily clad Amazons on horseback. Upon reaching their base, Stella shows off what are presumably intended to be her formidable fighting skills, despatching six Amazons with karate chops before anybody thinks to point a gun at her. Amazon Queen Corelia (Nadia Cassini) swans around shamelessly, swirling her cape into dramatic poses, determined to make the most of her few minutes of screentime. Her speech can best be summarised as: “You’ll never find the Phantom Planet but let me just give you a couple of clues which will help you to identify it if you happen to escape and accidentally land on it.” It turns out that Amazons have terrible security and are unable to recognise whether they’ve destroyed a robot, as Stella is immediately rescued by Elle. They escape pursued by a shoddily sculpted giant statue in a blatant ripoff of the Talos scene from Jason and the Argonauts (1963), which at least serves as a reminder of just how good Ray Harryhausen was at his job.

After a space battle in which the protagonists display a shockingly poor comprehension of basic numeracy (counting down the number of remaining enemy ships from 1 to 3 to 6 to 5), they land on an ice planet (anticipating The Empire Strikes Back – maybe Cozzi was right and they were ahead of their time!). The thinly characterised elite space cop suddenly turns out to be working for Count Zarth for no readily apparent reason, killing Akton and abandoning the others to freeze to death. Except that Akton is suddenly not dead because he (read the script) knows the future but can’t tell anybody about it (wha–?!), displaying a previously unseen ability to absorb and redirect lasers and thus taking care of Thor. Setting his hand beams to defrost, he revives Stella and they journey to their final planet, where once again Stella and Elle are the only two to make planetfall (almost as if the filmmakers were reluctant to spend too much on location filming, cutting their travel costs by sending only the star and her husband to each new setting). There they are attacked by remarkably acrobatic Marty-Feldman-look-alike cavemen who destroy the robot to the strains of John Barry imitating Richard Strauss à la 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Stella is rescued by Prince Simon (David Hasselhoff) wearing a cut-price imitation of the Grand Vizier’s mask from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) which can shoot lasers from its eyes but has a low battery life. Akton shows up to rescue them in turn, wielding a light blue laser sword which is definitely not Luke Skywalker’s lightsabre. Concerned that the madcap pace of the plot isn’t moving along quickly enough, he lets them know that this is the planet with the secret weapon, which he totally worked out from the clues provided by Queen Corelia in a conversation he never heard, and not – say – from the fact that THEY WERE ATTACKED BY THE SUPERWEAPON WHEN THEY REACHED THE PLANET. Now that they’ve found the secret superweapon which the bad guys knew they had no hope of finding, Count Zarth turns up to reveal that this was actually a cunning trap to kill the Prince. I can only assume that Stella’s deep freeze experience destroyed a few brain cells, because despite having been sent on a mission by the Emperor to find his son Prince Simon – AND HAVING TOLD SIMON THAT THE EMPEROR HAD SENT HER TO FIND HIM – she somehow failed to realise that he was the Prince. (Let me just pick my head up from the desk.)

Freed by the filmmakers’ admission that consistency and logic are not high on their priorities, Akton decides to stick it to George Lucas, revealing that his lightsabre is now green (six years before Return of the Jedi) before sacrificing his life to save Stella and Simon. His body vanishes into a video effect (definitely nothing like Obiwan Kenobi’s death) and the Emperor arrives to rescue the survivors. Although there are only three minutes remaining until the planet explodes, Christopher Plummer channels his training as a Shakespearean actor into declaiming at the air, which as we all know allows him to “halt the flow of time” long enough for everybody to evacuate. All that’s left is the final battle, a surprise assault on Count Zarth’s secret base, which is shaped exactly like a clawed black glove with folding turrets in the place of fingers. Zarth appears to be suffering from a sugarcrash by this point, randomly pointing here and there during the battle while he states the word “kill” matter-of-factly over and over. He rallies briefly before the end but I suspect is more relieved than aggrieved by his ultimate defeat. Stella reveals that the porthole windows on her ship have no glass or other barrier as she dives through to make her escape before demonstrating that, in space, not only can people hear you scream – they can hear you from inside their spaceship as you casually call “Simon we’re over here” from some distance away.

One of the biggest surprises about this film is that everybody with a speaking role has English as their first language – because based on most of their performances, I would have sworn it was an alien tongue. To be fair, this is probably related to the filming process. As was standard for Italian film productions, Starcrash was filmed without sound and all of the voices were dubbed on afterwards. Post-synch dialogue performance is a skill in its own right, and not every actor has the talent to recreate a believable performance which matches what can be seen on the screen. The only actor who comes across at all well in their vocal performance is old pro Christopher Plummer, although Joe Spinell (who would work with Caroline Munro again in 1982’s The Last Horror Film) puts in a gleefully hammy performance, snarling his dialogue and elongating the sounds for maximum value. I was taken aback at first that Caroline Munro’s performance lacked any of the nuance she displayed in her minimally scripted role in At the Earth’s Core (1976) (reviewed here), but the reason became clearer when I discovered that it wasn’t her voice. Stella Star’s voice has been unofficially credited to Candy Clark (The Man Who Fell to Earth), who was married at the time to co-star Marjoe Gortner – but Candy has since claimed that it’s not her voice at all, which should tell you something about the quality of the work. David Hasselhoff is overly earnest but pretty much does what is required of his role as minor male love interest.

Despite the low budget and my disparaging comments on some of the effects, Aurelio Crugnola’s production design actually looks pretty good, especially when combined with the vibrant multi-coloured lighting, which makes the sets and the spaceship models more pleasurable to look at than the better-constructed but relentlessly grey equivalents in Star Wars. John Barry’s score goes some way to giving Starcrash the sound of a much better film, but in retrospect the best aspects of the score can be seen as a dry run for his superior score for the Bond film Moonraker (1979).

Despite being credited to three writers, this is very much Luigi Cozzi’s film. Producer Nat Wachsberger has only two writing credits on his CV, the screenplay for Starcrash and a story credit thirteen years earlier. R.A. Dillon provided “additional dialogue”, which I suspect means that he or she was brought in to liven up a lacklustre translation of Cozzi’s original Italian script. Judging by the finished film it’s no surprise that this was Dillon’s first and only screen credit, as the dialogue still bears only a passing resemblance to recognisable human conversation. Leaving aside the quality of the story, Luigi does manage to imbue the film with a manic energy as it careens from incident to incident in multiple settings without showing much concern for the connective tissue. It came as a shock to learn that when the film was purchased by New World Pictures (after being rejected by American International Pictures), company owner Roger Corman insisted on adding 5 minutes of footage to make it more coherent – I can only imagine what the less coherent version must have been like. I haven’t seen a lot of Cozzi’s work, but a glance through his filmography reveals his best films to be those where he worked under the direction of Dario Argento, making contributions to the script, special effects or second unit. He was a big fan of science fiction, but after following up with the SF-horror Contamination (1980) his attempt to make a sequel to StarcrashStar Riders, starring Klaus Kinski (!) – fell through. Instead we ended up with Escape from Galaxy 3 [Giochi erotici nella terza galassia] (1981), a lower budget not-a-sequel from an obscure Italian director who reused the effects scenes for Starcrash to tell the story of heroine Belle Star, complete with some outrageously 1980s space fashion and bonus (?) sexcapades.

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