It’s so familiar it's almost like a member of the family - a black, star-spangled sky, and then the music comes in, followed by the scroll of text informing the viewer of the adventure we’re about to embark on. And then it appears, a long pan of one of the most elaborate space ships you’ve ever seen. It seems to go on and on forever until finally the blue glow of the ship’s thrusters reveal themselves and a humorous bumper sticker that reads “We Brake for Nobody”. Yes, it can only be one movie - ‘Spaceballs’!
It’s been 30 years since Mel Brooks, the godfather of cinematic satire, wrecked his havoc on the ‘Star Wars’ universe. By the time ‘Spaceballs’ rolled around, it had been 10 years since ‘A New Hope’ was released and four years since ‘Return of the Jedi’, leaving a litany of material to sink his comedic teeth into. Until 1987 during Brook’s illustrious career, he’d parodied westerns, horror, silent movies, and even Broadway - but never the space epic. Brooks obtained full and enthusiastic permission from George Lucas himself for ‘Spaceballs’ after Lucas read the script, even going so far as to “loan” Brooks his Industrial Light & Magic team to help with a sneaky easter egg or two.
And if you’ve ever wondered where the plethora of ‘Spaceballs’ merchandise is that features so heavily in the film, it’s because part of Brooks’ deal with George Lucas was that Brooks was not allowed to produce any merch from the film. Seems a little selfish if you ask me. I mean, how much money can one man really want. God damn it, I want my Spaceballs flame thrower!
After offering the role of Captain Lone Starr to mega-weights Tom Cruise, James Caan and Tom Hanks, the role eventually founds it way to unknown 33-year-old Bill Pullman. It wasn’t until after comedic juggernauts John Candy and Rick Moranis signed on that more of Hollywood came a-knocking, but by that stage Brooks relished the idea of handing the lead over to someone more deserving. ‘Alien’ star John Hurt also had to be convinced to parody his own character after being told it would only take a day. It wasn’t until after he’d arrived on set and saw the complicated nature of his role that he realised Mel was pushing the definition of “favour” and should have asked for a salary. Eh, c’est la vie. Hurt became a part of cinematic history with ‘Alien’ so it was only fitting that he should accept the responsibility that comes with it - like people making fun of you almost a decade later. Of course ‘Alien’ wasn’t the only film or persons to be parodied or paid homage to, along with ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, Franz Kafka, Scotland (yes, the country), KFC (yes, the chicken franchise), ‘Star Trek’, Paramount Studios, Looney Tunes, Jewish people (which Brooks himself has admitted to being a source of pride and regret), ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’, Ford Galaxie cars and ‘Starship Troopers’ (the novel) just to name a few.
Even as recently as 2015 there was talk, by Mel himself, of a sequel with Bill Pullman and Daphne Zuniga keen to come back.
‘Spaceballs’ may not have been Mel Brooks’ best-received film, but thanks to the popularity of VHS at the time, it found second life (as did many films of the era) in the living rooms of families adding it to their home library or watching it at friends houses, turning it into a cult classic and favourite among fans - this writer included.
Unfortunately at (just shy of) 91 years old, the genius that is Mel Brooks isn’t seen so much these days, although he still lends his voice to films and TV shows from time to time. But his works will live on long after he has left this world. ‘The Producers’ continues to find life on the stage, ‘Get Smart’ is preparing for a big screen sequel, ‘Spaceballs’ had a short-lived animated series in the late 2000s, and even as recently as 2015 there was talk - by Mel himself - of a sequel with Bill Pullman and Daphne Zuniga keen to come back, although three of their co-stars John Candy, Dick van Patten and Joan Rivers have passed away in the subsequent years and it just wouldn’t be the same without them.
So if ‘Spaceballs’ taught us anything, besides that fact that there’s nothing Mel Brooks can’t parody, it’s that, as big as ‘Star Wars’ was and is, you’re never too big to be made fun of. Just look at Donald Trump.
If you can read this you don’t need glasses.