Whether you choose to laugh heartily or roll your eyes in utter disgust, Spaceballs (1987) is a film that most movie geeks are at least familiar with. It may have arrived a few years too late---or a few years too early, depending on your point of view---but this low-brow satire is still one of the sci-fi genre's worst nightmares. Taking cheap shots at everything from Alien to Star Wars, it's a film that has been one of director Mel Brooks' best-loved efforts in his long, mostly successful career. Most followers of Brooks would consider Young Frankenstein or Blazing Saddles to be superior efforts---and they're both great films in their own right. However, a satire can only be as appealing as its original source material---and since I'd gladly choose sci-fi over a western or monster movie, Spaceballs has always been one of my favorite guilty pleasures.
For the three people who aren't familiar with the film, it follows the adventures of Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) and his dog-eared sidekick, Barfolomew (John Candy) as they cruise the stars looking for the next big payoff and/or gas station. Little do the know, the dastardly President Skroob (Mel Brooks), Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) and the rest of the Spaceball Empire are plotting to steal all the fresh air from peaceful planet Druidia. Druish Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) and her robotic assistant Dot Matrix (voiced by Joan Rivers) have recently fled the planet, just after running out on the Princess' wedding to the yawn-inducing Prince Valium (JM J. Bullock, for the block!). The Princess' small ship is quickly hijacked by Helmet and company, and it's up to Lone Starr and Barf to rescue Vespa and Dot---for the money they owe to Pizza the Hutt, of course. Weren't you paying attention?
Without getting too nostalgic, Spaceballs was one of the films I've watched most over the years. Despite
some most of the innuendo and vulgar jokes going way over my head as a young lad (all of which pushed the 80s-era PG rating to the absolute limit), it appealed to me then for the same reason it still does: the sci-fi genre is great, but it just begs to be ridiculed. Brooks has taken it one step further, making Spaceballs a true product of its time: right smack in the middle of the decade of excess, where else? There's not many films that successfully combine phallic light saber gags with cheap shots at shameless movie merchandising, but this is a shining example.
A great cast is another highlight, especially considering Bill Pullman had only one film credit to his name before Spaceballs. Pullman admits in a retrospective (along with most of the cast) that the role he played in the film is perhaps the most-referenced by fans of all ages. As the heroic Lone Starr, he hardly breaks any new ground in the action or satire genres, but he's capable enough as the good guy. Brooks pulls double duty as Skroob and the Yoda-like Yogurt, and the late John Candy is memorable as "Barf...Puke...whatever." Rick Moranis steals many a scene as Dark Helmet, pulling off the most consistently funny role (and the most memorable quotes) in the film. Sci-fi fans may also want to keep an eye out for Tim Russ (Star Trek: Voyager's Lieutenant Commander Tuvok) as one of the Spaceball troopers in the desert. Helpful hint: He ain't found shit.
There's not much that hasn't been said about Spaceballs. It's certainly a product of its time, although it's aged fairly well in the last 20 years (well, except for Joan Rivers...I never really liked her). Sure, there are several wince-inducing jokes and a generous dose of bad music, but this satire is still fun in its own right. The music, clothes and hairstyles may change, but Spaceballs certainly tells us one thing: sci-fi will always be ripe for parody. It's too bad the rumored sequel was apparently scrapped, because Star Wars really needs another good bashing.
While the original DVD offering of Spaceballs wasn't a terrible effort in its own time---OK, so maybe it was---fans of the film have much to look foward to in this new 2-Disc Collector's Edition. There are a few notable missteps along the way, but this is a solid release that improves the studio's original efforts in every regard. The technical presentation is about as good as can be expected, and the extras---while slightly disappointing in a few departments---are appropriately goofy and nostalgic. With that said, let's see how this one stacks up, shall we?
Spaceballs: The Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality:
Owners of the first DVD release can finally toss 'em aside, as MGM has done a terrific job with this new 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer! Overall clarity and color levels are quite good, and only a minor amount of softness and a bit of dirt keep this one from a higher rating. There were no major digital imperfections (edge enhancement, pixellation, etc.) to be found, especially since the majority of the special features have been given their own disc. This transfer may not up to par with, say, the Star Wars boxed set---but really, what is? Here's the bottom line: Spaceballs looks pretty darn good for a film almost 20 years old, and fans will certainly be thrilled.
The audio is another highlight---though slightly less so---presented in several different mixes for any style of setup. On the surround front, there's either Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS mixes---they're nearly identical, and don't sound as gimmicky as I feared. Although there were several points where a bit more low end or directional activity would have helped, these were pleasing mixes that get the job done. There's also a fine-sounding 2.0 Stereo mix for those who prefer two speakers. In all cases, dialogue was perfectly clear and the 80s-era music was also strong (whether you like it or not!). There's also three mono mixes: Spanish, Mawgese and Dinkese (the last two are worth a short look, but don't get too excited). English, Spanish and French subtitles have also been provided.
Menu Design, Packaging & Presentation:
It didn't occur to me at first, but the relatively simple menu designs spoof those found on the Star Wars DVDs. Navigation is easy on the first disc, but the second one is a bit too awkward for its own good---luckily, the sub-menus are simple enough to make sense of. This 96-minute film has been divided into 32 chapters, with no layer change detected during playback. This 2-disc release comes packaged in a slim double keepcase with a slipcover and no insert. Bonus features are haphazardly presented in a frustrating blend of anamorphic (and non-anamorphic) widescreen and fullscreen formats. The fullscreen I can understand, if it's the original aspect ratio---but why can't more studios realize that non-anamorphic special features are a problem for widescreen TV owners?
There's much more on this 2-disc Collector's Edition than the original release, but MGM still came up a bit short on the bonus features (more on that later). First up is a feature-length Audio Commentary with director Mel Brooks, though it's the same lackluster one from the first time around. The cast and crew seemed happy to participate in a few other bonus features, so why not record a new track just for fun? Brooks isn't the worst commentator around (William Friedkin, anyone?), but a second or third participant would have made the commentary go by a lot quicker. Closing out the first disc is the wonderful option to Watch the Film in Ludicrous Speed (20 seconds flat!).
Disc 2 is much stronger, starting off with Spaceballs: The Documentary (30 minutes). Much of the original cast is on hand to share a few good memories on the set and off, with the notable exceptions of John Candy (for obvious reasons, though vintage clips are shown) and fellow SCTV graduate Rick Moranis. Bill Pullman looks pretty much the same (except for the hair, of course), Daphne Zuniga looks great for her age...and Mel Brooks (above left) is looking more like Yogurt every day. In Conversation: Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan (20 minutes) features a sit-down with two of the film's writers; the third, Ronny Graham, passed away in 1999. It's an entertaining conversation, but a moderator would have helped to break up the repetition a bit. There's also a nice Tribue to John Candy (10 minutes), which could have been more detailed but is certainly worth watching.
A trio of galleries is next, including looks at Behind-the-Scenes Photos, Costume Designs and an Original Art Gallery. The last two are especially interesting, and the third even features a few "black light enhanced" images. The trailers are next, including an Exhibitor Trailer with a Mel Brooks intro, the Theatrical Trailer and a few other MGM plugs. A "Fun & Games" section is next---the first feature, Film Flubs, points out six mistakes in the film ranging from "I can't believe I missed that!" to "Who gives a crap?". The second feature, a selection of Spacequotes, probably looked better on paper---a confusing navigation system pretty much kills this one. There's also a Trivia Game that die-hard fans of the film should ace, though an incorrect answer will cost you dearly (above). Finally, there's an interesting Storyboard to Film Comparison (6 minutes) courtesy of art director Harold Michelson.
A few hits, a few misses. The only real disappointments, though? We get the same old commentary track, and there's a curious lack of deleted scenes (word has it that there's roughly an hours' worth of unused footage out there). Still, it's not a bad spread; even though a few of the smaller features could have been polished a bit more, there's some fun stuff on here that fans will enjoy. It may not be the most impressive 2-Disc release MGM's ever done, but it's good enough for a double dip.
Spaceballs: The Final Thoughts
There aren't many people out there who haven't seen Spaceballs---director Mel Brooks admits that it shares the highest video sales (along with Robin Hood: Men In Tights) of any of his films. It may not be his strongest effort, but it's an entertaining satire with tons of memorable scenes, a few groan-inducing ones and, most importantly, high replay value. MGM hasn't done a perfect job, but this 2-Disc Collector's Edition is solid enough to recommend an upgrade. Although the planned Spaceballs TV series may not stand up to the original, fans can rest easy knowing that the original has been preserved well on DVD. May the Scwartz be...eh, screw it. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an 1/8 Mawg art instructor hailing from Harrisburg, PA. To fund his DVD viewing habits, he also works on freelance graphic design and illustration projects. In his free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.