3. Spaceballs (1987)

Director: Mel Brooks

Starring: Mel Brooks, John Candy, Rick Moranis, Bill Pullman, Daphne Zuniga, Dick Van Patten, George Wyner, Joan Rivers

Not to sound like Woody Allen’s character from “Annie Hall” but, generally speaking, I try not to jump into a movie after it has already started. Any number of things might need explaining just by missing the first few frames. Interestingly, this was not the case the first time I laid eyes on “Spaceballs,” Mel Brooks’ parody of “Star Wars” and other science-fiction films. That’s not an indictment against the quality of the movie (or, indeed, it would not make an appearance in the top 3 of my all-time favorites). Anyone carrying at least a passing familiarity with “Star Wars” should be able to figure out what’s going on here pretty quickly. I managed to miss the first few minutes when I found it on HBO one afternoon in 1988 (this must have been shortly after its cable TV premiere), but it’s the first image I saw that captured my attention instantaneously: a Winnebago… with wings… in space. SOLD! I believe this also marked my introduction to Bon Jovi, as their song “Raise Your Hands” is the soundtrack for that particular scene. This made it clear that “Spaceballs” was not going to be a typical science-fiction movie.

“Spaceballs” has several very funny characters. Two of them are played by Mel Brooks himself: Yogurt, an obvious parody of Yoda from the “Star Wars” films, and President Skroob (that’s “Brooks” spelled backwards) of planet Spaceball. Here is a character that seems to hit a little close to home in recent years as a result of the George W. Bush administration. Skroob’s policies, bewilderingly misguided as they are, have left the oxygen on planet Spaceball in such short supply that the President has to resort to sneaking cans of Perri-Air, of which the drawers of his desk are quite well stocked. His plan is to steal the air from neighboring planet Druidia, which has just seen Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) fly into space in her Mercedes, running away from an arranged marriage. President Skroob wants her kidnapped and held for ransom, and her father has hired the Han Solo-ish Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) and his trusty half-man/half-dog… or “mawg”… Barf (John Candy), to stop this from happening.

Easily the one getting the biggest laughs in “Spaceballs” is Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet. Just the very sight of this four-eyed wimp dressed as a quasi-Darth Vader is enough to send one into hysterics. The Spaceballs get into the most trouble when Dark Helmet lets his overconfidence get the best of him, as in the scene where he orders the ship to travel at “Ludicrous Speed.” In the parody of the infamous parentage reveal from “The Empire Strikes Back,” I admit to spending too much time analyzing what Dark Helmet’s line, “I am your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate” would actually mean.

“Spaceballs” is one of those movies I’ve seen so many times that I could probably recite the entire movie’s dialogue from beginning to end if prompted to do so. If I had to choose a favorite moment, I’d probably go with the “Instant Cassettes” scene. Dark Helmet’s growing level of confusion is what really helps to sell it. I could also pick the uproarious parody of the chestburster scene from “Alien.” I’m just trying to imagine going into a diner and seeing that scenario play itself out. I don’t think I’d know whether to laugh or run screaming.

Sadly, I feel that this represents the last really good movie in the career of Mel Brooks. Many will disagree with me, citing “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” as an example, but I see that movie as being the one where Brooks started to run out of ideas and simply rehashed old jokes. But “Spaceballs” is more than just a funny movie that I’ve enjoyed since I was six. In my high school drama course, I along with others did a power point presentation on his works, with particular emphasis on “Spaceballs.” This involved one classmate coming over to my house to watch it for the project. Thus began a friendship that thrives to this day. Thanks for that, Mel.

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