There are some genres of cinema that have been lost to technological developments and rise of global interconnectivity. One of these genres is the “Italian knockoff of an successful American film.” One of the more impressive parts of this cinematic sub-genre is the science fiction film Starcrash, directed by Luigi Cozzi under an American pseudonym to conceal the film’s true nature.
The film follows a duo of smugglers, who stumble into a conflict between the Emperor of the Galaxy and an evil overlord who plans to kill the Emperor and take the galaxy over for himself.
Narratively, the film is incredibly weak. The film depends a lot, most likely for budgetary reasons, on telling instead of showing. Cozzi tries to get by with what visual effects he can fit in, using stop-motion animation, and some lower scale kit-bashed models for spaceships. However, the film’s narrative effectively only serves to string together a series of stand-alone encounters until our protagonists find the villain’s planet. This worked for something like Flash Gordon because that was 12 or more half-hour episodes shown in film screenings over the course of several weeks. Here, you have 90 minutes to two hours in one sitting, which means your plotting needs to be more deliberate, and you can’t have the GM just roll on the random encounter table until the PCs cover the space to their destination.
That said, the film is nothing if not ambitious. The effects shots we get show the limits of the budget, but how the filmmakers were definitely trying to push the bounds of those limitations in any way they could. As an example, the spaceships are, as with Star Wars, kitbashed models. However, with Star Wars, they were basically using more expensive models, and more bits of models shot at a greater distance to provide a sense of texture. With Starcrash, there isn’t the money or the time to pull off those shots, so the ships are cobbled together with less, and shot at a much closer distance, so it’s more clear that the models are there. There wasn’t either the time or budget for motion control, so the ships are old-fashioned models on strings (ala Flash Gordon). Starfields are Christmas lights in the far background. Sound effects from action scenes are re-used from martial arts films. Were it not for the ambition in the presentation, the plodding story would have dragged this film down tremendously.
Finally, there’s the matter of the film’s acting. The movie is a real mixed bag. As with many film projects like this, you had an English speaking cast with an Italian director who may or may not have been fluent in English enough to direct his cast, with actors ranging from actors who just want to go to Italy for a paid, working vacation (as with Christopher Plummer), or actors who are lower on the totem pole (such as a younger David Hasslehoff and Marjoe Gortner). Consequently, you get a real mixed bag in terms of the film’s acting, with the quality of a performance – from the same actor, changing from scene to scene. Some actors just ham up their lines constantly (like Plummer and Joe Spinelli – who plays the film’s antagonist). Some mug at the camera constantly, like Gortner, and some vary between a confident and well played performance to stranger acting choices, like Caroline Munroe.
All of these factors combine to make Starcrash an excellent film for a bad movie night, and one which I hope in the future will get the Rifftrax Live treatment. It’s clunky, uneven, and wears its poor budget on its sleeve, but it’s not boring.