Welcome to Adventures in B-Movie Land, the monthly column where I take a look at some of the strangest, cheapest and worst films ever made...and explore why you have to see them. Look for new entries on the second Tuesday of every month.

The Motion Picture:

'Starcrash' (1978), directed by Luigi Cozzi.

Also Known As...

'The Adventures of Stella Star' and 'Star Battle Encounters.'

Featuring the Talented...

Caroline Munro, David Hasselhoff, Christopher Plummer and Marjoe Gortner.

What Is It?

A not too subtle, not too well-made, not too intelligent but compulsively watchable and totally endearing Italian 'Star Wars' knock-off featuring a scantily clad heroine, a rightfully ashamed Christopher Plummer, the film debut of one Mr. David Hasselhoff and the greatest robot sidekick of all time.

The Plot

It's simple enough, really: the e-e-e-vil Count Zarth Arn wants to destroy the galaxy and the good Emperor puts together a crack team to investigate his fiendish plot and put an end to his tyranny. Our heroes include the wildly-underdressed-for-the-occasion smuggler Stella Star (who is like Han Solo if Han Solo was badly dubbed and had ample cleavage), her faithful navigator Akton, a southern gentlemen of a robot police officer named Elle and intergalactic police chief Thor, who will most certainly not turn out to be a traitor working for the Count, nope, uh-uh, no way. On their journey, they face vengeful Amazon warriors and their gargantuan living statue, discover betrayal (Thor? Never saw that coming!), survive icy temperatures and vicious cavemen, rescue the charming son of the Emperor and finally, defeat the Count himself by pulling a kamikaze with a city-sized space station. Somewhere along the way, Stella and the emperor's son inexplicably fall in love and the Emperor talks straight to the audience and informs us that the day has been won. Closure.

Shocking Acts of Violence!

A number of nameless baddies find themselves on the receiving end of a laser-gun. A clan of alien cavemen are unlucky enough to encounter David Hasselhoff when he's wearing his golden Creature From the Black Lagoon mask that shoots deadly rays from its eyes. Akton, although inexplicably revealed to be a secret Jedi (more of a Diet Jedi, to be fair), seems to have come from the Captain Kirk School of Hand-to-Hand combat. He is also later killed by stop-motion robot golems, but don't worry, he promises that if struck down, he will become more powerful than you can ever imagine before vanishing in a puff of plagiarism.

Sexual Deviancy and Mindless Perversity!

Stella Star, our heroine, spends at least half of 'Starcrash''s 92 minutes wearing the skimpiest sci-fi fetish gear you can possible imagine. It's ostensibly her prison uniform, but she takes her sweet time changing out of it after making her explosive escape from captivity at the 14-minute mark. Also, the film obviously wants us to think that Stella and Hasselhoff are going to live happily ever after, but you can cut the sexual tension between her and her robot buddy Elle with a knife. Or Diet Lightsaber, if you want to be thematically appropriate.

Is There a Robot?

Oh, yes. In fact, the robot cop Elle may be on the greatest robots ever burned onto celluloid. As a dual-pistol wielding 'bot with an over-the-top Texas accent and a heart of gold, Elle effortlessly steals the show from his more, er, wooden co-stars. When he's not saving everyone's life every other scene through acts of effortless badassery, he's being the consummate mechanical gentleman, even asking Stella to watch her step when they enter an escape pod. It's heartbreaking that Stella seems ready to elope with Hasselhoff at the end after Elle clearly earned her heart. Hmm, maybe this book of 'Starcrash' fan fiction will remedy this injustice...

Just How Cheap Does It Look?

With a budget of $25,000, give or take a few pennies, 'Starcrash' often looks like a handful of ambitious children worked hard for a few weekends and pumped out a movie. This is not only the kind of movie where you can see the strings on the spaceships, this is the kind of movie where you can easily see pieces of model packaging glued onto the models themselves in an attempt to add random detail to the production design. However, considering the state of the spaceships and the cardboard walls and the wonky stop-motion and the abysmal rear-projection, 'Starcrash' nearly makes up for all of that through the sheer number of different locations. Beaches and icy mountaintops and deserts and caves...for every bad set, 'Starcrash' has one well-used real-life location, giving the film a strangely epic scope despite its low budget.

Quotable Quotes:

"For the space of three minutes, every molecule on this planet will be immobilized. But after the third minute, the green ray loses it's power. Time will flow once more...and everything will explode."

"Now it's time to use your ancient system of prayer...and hope that it works for robots as well!"

Stella: "So you see into the future. All these years you never told me. Think of all the trouble I might have avoided."
Akton: "You would have tried to change the future, which is against the law. So therefore I can tell you nothing."

Scholarly Thoughts:

'Starcrash' is one of the best bad movies ever made.

For many, this may seem like a contradiction. After all, how can a bad movie be good? Didn't I just say it was bad? How does this work?

And when I talk about great bad movies, I'm not strictly talking about making fun of a movie or heckling it. Mystery Science Theater 3000 exists for that purpose.

When I talk about loving a bad movie, I talk about it in a totally honest, non-ironic way. I'm not blind to what's wrong with 'Starcrash.' I see the bad acting and the lousy sets and how it rips off 'Star Wars' at every possible opportunity. Some see this as an opportunity to tear a film down, but for me, it's a chance to cheer a film on, to watch something become fun in spite of itself.

'Starcrash' is not a good movie and director Luigi Cozzi (billed as Lewis Coates) is not a particularly good director, but while the film lacks the bare essentials of cohesive filmmaking, it has more than enough imagination and energy. Even the worst artists have an imagination. Even the worst films say something about their makers. That's why 'Starcrash' is such a unique beast. It exists at the intersection of the two basic B-movie types: the Crass Cash-In and the Noble Failure. This thing was obviously thrown together to hold on to George Lucas' coattails and make a few quick bucks, but Cozzi creates a universe that, while filled with stunning, hilarious, jaw-dropping stupidity, actually feels like viable, potentially interesting place. Big elements are obviously stolen from Star Wars, from the lightsabers to the opening shot of a ship flying right over the camera, but there is obviously a separate imagination at work here. After all, Akton may be plucked straight from 'Star Wars', but as a character, he somehow manages to be a composite of Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Chewbaca. If only other films ripped off 'Star Wars' in with such bizarre, head-scratching creativity.

A film like 'Starcrash' also invites us to truly think about the filmmaking process. Hollywood films are so slick that we are quickly eased into their reality and think of them as stories. Bad movies, on the other hand, never let us forget that we're watching a movie. We're aware of the bad camerawork, the wonky editing and the phony lighting. So we place ourselves in the shoes of the cast and crew. What were they thinking? Were they aware they were making a stinker? Who was just in it for the paycheck? When Caroline Munro and the guy in the Elle costume wander through the snow, how cold were they? Did they feel like they were suffering for their art?

And that slightly bemused, potentially stoned expression on Christopher Plummer's face throughout the entire film? There has never been more obvious thinly-veiled resentment captured on screen before. As he sleepwalks through his lines, you can just see him planning his next angry phone call to his agent.

Even the bad artists deserve a chance to say what they want to say. Even the most cynically made cheapie qualifies as art and as bad and as painful and as poorly made as it is, every film has something to say. Sometimes, it reflects the inner turmoil of its filmmaker. Sometimes, it's a strange testament to the failing career of the once-respected star coaxed into playing a key role. Films made on the fringe mean that they were made by people on the fringe, people that usually aren't working in the mainstream for a reason (and who aren't successful for a reason), people filled with ideas and sentiments often so insane, that only the worst films in the history of the medium can contain them.

And that's what Adventures In B-Movie Land will study. This series will not just point and laugh at the bad acting and the phony sets (but I assure you there will be plenty of that), it will give bad films the time of day. It will look beneath the surface of these films and pull out the details and the little touches that make these films so special, so weird and so watchable.

'Starcrash' may not be a good movie, but it's too weird to ignore and way too much fun to avoid. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp wrote R. Mutt on a toilet. In 1978, Luigi Cozzi took off most of Caroline Munro's clothing, put a robot next to her and yelled "Action!"
Star Crash
PG 1979
In Theaters on May 22nd, 2005

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categories Columns, Sci-Fi, Cinematical