Star Wars – specifically A New Hope – is one of the most important movies ever made. But is a parody version actually superior?
Spaceballs is a 1987 science fiction parody created by Mel Brooks. It stars Brooks, Rick Moranis, John Candy, and Bill Pullman and is a satirical look at science fiction movies, specifically Star Wars.
It’s probably been around 10 years since I last watched Spaceballs. But not long after this movie came out I probably watched it at least once a week for 5 years after. Spaceballs is another one of those movies that hit a kid like me at the perfect time in the 80s.
It totally appealed to my sensibilities and sense of humor and the work of Rick Moranis made a real impact on me. I once had to do a class presentation on a book report and recreated his action figure scene to act out the plot of the book.
And as much as a fan I am of Star Wars, I have to say that Spaceballs possibly surpasses it. Keep in mind I’m referring to episode IV A New Hope and not The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Those are obviously untouchable movies.
But when it comes to the prequels, and some of the latest offerings we’ve got, Spaceballs blows them all away – and here’s why.
The Plot Of Spaceballs
Ok, in case it’s been a while since you’ve seen the movie, or you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, here’s a quick recap:
On the planet of Spaceball, they are starting to run short of breathable air. We meet the evil President Skroob who is a moron but will do what he can to get oxygen back to his planet. This involves him conniving the king of a nearby planet – Planet Druidia – to take their air after he kidnaps his daughter – Princess Vespa.
The plan is to be carried out by Dark Helmet and his co-captain, Colonel Sandurz. Before they are able to get to Drudia and kidnap the Princess, she has already made a break for it with her robot companion – Dot Matrix.
The King of Druidia contacts Lone Starr to help get her back. Lone Starr accepts because he needs the money to pay off the evil gangster, Pizza the Hutt. Lone Starr and his dog-like companion Barf, are able to get Vespa but crashland on the desert moon of the planet Vega.
They try to make their way across the desert but eventually pass out due to the hot sun only to be rescued by the band of tiny Dinks. They are taken to a cave where they meet the mystical Yogurt. Yogurt introduces them to the mythical power of the “Schwartz ” and also the importance of merchandising movie tie-ins.
Helmet and Sandurz are able to track down their assailants by watching a VHS copy of their own movie. The Spaceballs capture everyone and the giant ship is turned into Mega Maid who will vacuum the air out of Drudia. Lone Starr is able to use the Schwartz to reverse the vacuum, He battles Dark Helmet, and the entire structure explodes. We eventually find out that Lone Starr is an actual prince and he and Vespa get married
Let’ take a look at the truly iconic cast that appeared in this amazing movie:
Mel Brooks – the classic comedian plays President Skroob and also Yogurt. Brooks didn’t specifically want to do double duty and playing Yogurt would cause him a lot of problems. The first big one was the gold paint that he had to wear that caused him to break out in rashes. The other was that he had to spend a ton of time on his knees to portray Yogurt’s short stature.
Bill Pullman played Lone Starr the Han Solo-type character – Brooks was looking for an actor like Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks. He went with Pullman after seeing him in a play and also for the fact that Pullman had never seen a Star Wars movie so he would provide his own take on the character.
Barf was their version of Chewbacca and played by the great John Candy. Candy had to go through a lot of his own discomfort during the shoot due to the hindrance of the Barf costume he had to wear. Barf is a “Mog ”(half man, half dog) and he was supposed to originally wear a bulldog type of mask. Brooks wanted to make sure the audience saw that it was Candy but the costume would require three people to operate it. Candy also had to wear a 3o pound battery strapped to his back for the controls.
Fun fact: The scene in the dinner with the waitress and Barf’s tail was done by Candy controlling the tail with a remote control that he kept in his hand.
Daphne Zuniga played Princess Leia rip off, Princess Vespa – Zuniga had hesitation at first to play the part as she actually wasn’t a fan of Mel Brooks’ movies. She didn’t particularly like his style of humor but then became more fond of him as the shooting went on.
Rick Moranis played Darth Vader type character Dark Helmet. Moranis was the one who came up with the idea that Dark Helmet should talk with a deeper voice when his helmet was down and then his high pitched wine when it was up.
Joan Rivers provides the voice of C3-P0 counterpoint – Dot Matrix.
Some Spaceballs Fun Facts:
- The movie did ok in theatres bringing in $38.1 million and opened at #2 behind Dragnet
- John Hurt would reprise his role of Gilbert Kane from Alien but thought he was just doing a quick appearance and not recreating the death scene
- Spaceballs was shot on the same set as The Wizard of Oz and in an article in the LA Times from 1986, the crew would often find pieces of the Yellow Brick Road when wandering around.
- Pizza The Hut was voiced by Dom Delouise but the guy who wore the suit refused to come back when reshoots were needed
- The movie found a massive audience on home video which is where I would first discover it
OK, so we’re up to speed with the movie, now let’s look at why Spaceballs is better than Star Wars.
The Special Effects Are Quite A Bit Better Than A New Hope
This is due to a few different reasons. The first one is that the technology had advanced quite a bit since the end of the original trilogy. Spaceballs had a pretty large budget for a comedy film at $22.7 million. It, in fact, was the most expensive movie made in all of 1986. This was because Brooks wanted to make this a true parody of space films but keeping the integrity of the special effects that made them so great.
Brooks always said that you “have to love what you spoof” and that means staying as true to the original as possible. He accomplished this with movies like Blazing Saddles of the Western-style tropes, and also Young Frankenstein. To do Spaceballs the right way, it needed to look the part, and that meant getting the special effects up to snuff.
You probably didn’t know this, but Spaceballs looks so good because they actually used Industrial Light & Magic to create the special effects shots. And as a kid, I always thought that the ships in Spaceballs looked like they were right out of Star Wars – that’s because they were. The models used to create the Spaceballs ships were created by another Star Wars alum, Grant McCune. McCune made the spaceship models for all the Star Wars movies and even some of the Star Trek ones.
He also helped to design Bruce from Jaws.
Star Wars Is Just As Cartoony As Spaceballs
Let’s make this clear: I love A New Hope. We don’t have time to get into how important it is as a film, but you already know all the reasons why. The big thing to remember is that Lucas made the original Star Wars with a younger audience in mind – and it’s very apparent when you watch it.
I’m not sure when the last time it was that you watched A New Hope, but when you look back at it as an adult, there’s a bit of a different experience with it. The main thing that draws you in ins the nostalgia factor and the memories it gives you of being a kid and being blown away by this “space opera.”
But it doesn’t always hold up as well today. There are points when you feel like you’re watching a student film. The acting is not exactly epic in it and a lot of the dialogue comes across as extremely corny and often eye-rolling. Lucas is noted as wanting his actors to rush through the dialogue and not as concerned with their performances as his attention was more on the action, sets, and special effects.
Lucas is noted as always using the direction “faster and more intense” with the line readings during A New Hope. This gives it that cartoon-likeness to it and with Spaceballs, there is nothing that’s hiding the fact that it itself is basically a live-action cartoon.
The thing that makes Star Wars as a franchise grow is the movement away from the original into The Empire Strikes Back. They didn’t try to do a rehash with the second film and it took a darker and more mature tone, and it’s what really helps cement the trilogy. If they had made three movies that all had the same tone and structure of the first one, it’s hard to tell if they would have had the impact they did.
George Lucas Was Just As Involved With Spaceballs as He Was With Star Wars
When Brooks was first getting Spaceballs off the ground, he actually had to get permission from George Lucas. Spaceballs is a parody of all space movies, but primarily Star Wars so they had to get Lucas to sign off on the idea.
Lucas was ok with it but had a few qualms. The big thing is that he didn’t want any merchandise from Spaceballs released to the public. We’ll get to some of that specific plot that was based in the move in a bit, but for Star Wars, merchandise was really their bread and butter. For every dollar that a Star Wars movie has made over the last forty years, they have made $2 in merchandise.
So with that out of the way, LucasFilm would not only help create the special effects via Industrial Light & Magic, but they also helped with the post-production of the film. Lucas might have been more involved in the movie but he was working on his own little “funny” movie at the time called Howard The Duck. This would end up being an absolute trainwreck and you need to read all about that in my blog here.
But If you ever wondered what Lucas had thought of the movie that was essentially mocking his creation – he apparently loved it. He might not if they were to make a parody of all the other movies today…
The Amazing Intertextuality Of Spaceballs
Spaceballs is another early example of a movie doing things like being self-referential and breaking the fourth wall. The idea with it is they are a part of the movie but observing it all the same way the audience is. One of the best examples is when Helmet and Sandurz are watching the tape trying to track down the princess.
Another great part reflecting the self-awareness is the Yogurt merchandising scene. Knowing that they weren’t allowed to put out any products – as they would appear too similar to Star Wars – the scene reflects this with the Spaceballs brand being put onto everything.
It’s mocking the approach taken by all big movie studios and their shameless attempt to slap a logo on something as mundane as toilet paper. Mainly, however, it’s making reference to the real-life situation that involved Brooks having to avoid any merchandizing to make George Lucas happy.
The thing is, Lucas should have allowed them and taken a big cut of the profits as Spaceballs merchandise would have been a sure winner.
Also originally connecting the movie to its own self-awareness was the original title. Brooks wanted to go with “Planet Moron” for the film knowing that everything about it was a parody and farce. He couldn’t lock down this title however as a movie called “Morons from OuterSpace” had just been released. Brooks did realize it was important to put the word ’Space’ in the title so audiences knew what they were getting.
Spaceballs, of course, brings awareness to the fact that most movies are made with the intention of a sequel. Their version of this they mention would be called “Spaceballs 2: The Search For More Money.” This is a brilliant title as it refers to the desires of the characters in the movie – specifically Lone Starr – but also the true intent of every Hollywood movie studio in the pursuit for more profits.
But a sequel to the original had bounced around quite a bit. Rick Moranis would be the one that showed some interest in getting a possible sequel up and running. In an interview with Heeb Magazine, Moranis said that his idea was to call it “Spaceballs III: The Search For Spaceballs II.”
Mel Brooks wasn’t totally on board with it for some reason even though he and Moranis met to try and structure the movie. His passing on it may be due to the fact he hadn’t done a sequel before. In the case of Spaceballs, the massive audience it found after its release would have lent itself well to another go around.
When The Force Awakens came out in 2015, Brooks thought that the renewed interest in all things Star Wars might indicate a Spaceballs sequel could now work. This time he wanted to go with his original title; Spaceballs 2: The Search For More Money. Obviously nothing came of this and it might have been due to the fact that Rick Moranis all but retired from acting.
(if you want to read about another Rick Moranis classic, check out my article all about Honey, I Shrunk The Kids)
There was the animated series that came out in 2008. I knew of this, but I’ve never seen any of it. It lasted just one season with 13 episodes even though Brooks, Zuniga, and Joan Rivers lent their voices to it. So I guess we can’t complain as a follow-up – of sorts – does exist.
There’s even the Spaceballs book written by the author of Goosebumps if you’re indeed dying for more Spaceballs content.
Wrapping It Up
It’s probably clear that I love Spaceballs. I had a taped copy off of TV that had a lot of censored parts that I didn’t even know were censored until getting a VHS copy. As I said, I probably watched this movie at least once a week for years. I know every line and could probably recite the movie backwards.
I feel that – age-wise – I was right in the wheelhouse for a movie of this sort. I’m obviously not alone as it resonated with so many people too. To me, I think it’s the work of the great Rick Moranis that makes this movie connect with me and others so well. He and I are both Canadian so that may have something to do with it…
May the Schwartz be with all of us.
Even though Spaceballs didn’t release merch you can head over to my resource page to check out some 80s toys and products you can still buy.
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