Saturday, April 21, 2012

Trailer Park :: In Space No One Can Hear You Laugh -- Except Me :: Stewart Raffill's The Ice Pirates (1984)

Our film opens with a Lucas scroll and a redundant narrator, both cluing us in that even though the Galactic Wars have ended, most water bearing planets were obliterated by the same. Now, with only one source left in the entire known galaxy to produce this life-sustaining fluid, the evil Templars, who control the planet Mithra, and its water flow, hold the rest of the universe under a very wet thumb. But, this tyrannical monopoly is constantly under siege by roving bands of rebellious space pirates, who ambush Mithroid convoys and pillage their cargo of precious ice...

Speaking of such devils, with the opening plot dump safely tucked away, our movie proper begins with a small pirate ship clandestinely zigzagging its way through a line of ice-freighters until it finally latches onto one undetected. Led by the roguish Captain Jason (Urich), a boarding party, augmented by several cantankerous robots, punch their way through the hull. Now, even though Jason's chief mechanic, Roscoe (Roberts) swears these robots are top of the line, all visual evidence shows that Asimov's Laws of Robotics have been chucked out the airlock as these ever-malfunctioning automatons don't obey orders very well and appear to be constantly on the verge of falling apart. After a successful breach, if the trailer didn't make it obvious enough, the film shows its low-balling comedy hand early as the pirates have managed to tap their way into the enemies' toilet, complete with a rubbery E.T., pants around his geeblars, trying to pinch one off ... Moving on, then, while trying to avoid a sentry patrol, the pirates stumble into the quarters of Princess Karina (Crosby), subdue her nanny, and, over the protests of everyone else, Jason, thinking with that slight bulge in his pants, decides to kidnap her Beautifulness for ransom. But, they've tallied too long and the alarm has been raised. And so, with the stolen ice and pilfered princess in tow, with some of the best robot-carnage every committed to film, the pirates make it back to their ship and blast off just as the Templar gun-ships come into range.

Outgunned, Jason gives the order to break up his ship for a better chance of escape to rendezvous later on Zagora, the Pirate Moon. With that, the ship breaks into three component pods and scatter. And while the others escape, Jason and Roscoe aren't so lucky as they are shot down and captured by Lord Paisley (Caillou), who liberates Karina, and sentences our heroes to be slaves of the empire -- and did I mention that before becoming a Templar slave one must first be castrated and lobotomized? It's true. Luckily for Jason, Karina has other plans and *ahem* saves the Captain's log from this dire fate. But, there's a price. Seems Karina needs Jason and his crew to find her father, who, allegedly, finally found the legendary Seventh World, orbiting somewhere near the center of the galaxy, which, if you were paying attention to the opening scroll, is rumored to have an almost unlimited amount of water. Of course, whether it really exists or not, the Templars, obviously, would rather keep this discovery a secret at all costs, making our merry band of Ice Pirates the most wanted fugitives in all six systems, dead or alive -- preferably dead.

You wanna know something? I will never, ever understand the fathomous depths of hate for this movie among my niche of B-Movie Brethren. To even invoke its name brings swift sanction and censure. Feh. Heathens. Even outside my circle, The Ice Pirates takes way too much grief for being just another badly Xeroxed Star Wars -- in this case, coming out in 1984, a Return of the Jedi -- cash-in from 20th Century Fox's rival studio, MGM.

Produced by John Foreman, whose career arc went from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to this to Mannequin 2: On the Move, The Ice Pirates was a collaboration between writers Stanford Sherman and Stewart Raffill, who also directed. Sherman's credits date back to writing for the old Batman TV series, which would go a long way in explaining why the script's tongue is so firmly planted in its cheek -- and I freely admit this bawdy goof of a film nearly bites itself in half in a few spots. Sherman also penned the previous year's sci-fi fantasy epic, Krull, which also involved a lot of questing and meandering as it spurted along, with every known British character actor in tow. Raffill, meanwhile, was a double-threat. Before The Ice Pirates, he mostly wrote family films, like the back to nature Wilderness Family and the lion-fueled road movie, Napoleon and Samantha. After, he helmed the equally gonzo but highly entertaining The Philadelphia Experiment before crashing and burning with the mind-blowingly gawdawful E.T. knock-off, Mac & Me, before salting the ashes with the even more gawdawfuller follow up to animitronic-puppets gone bad, Tammy and the T-Rex (-- which I soooo hope is still on both Paul Walker and Denise Richards' resumes.) Which, I guess, if you added all of those elements into cocktail for audience consumption, maybe I can understand why some people tend to throw rocks at this, uh, unique comedic formula.

Still, it never slows down and keeps right on trucking -- warping? -- along, which tends to bowl over all the groan-inducing bits. But at the same stroke, it doesn't allow the good parts much time to shine either. [That's me shrugging right now.] But, eh, the cast of mostly TV vets is fine and appear to happily run with it. (In fact, the whole thing feels like an expanded TV pilot.) In the lull between Vegas and Spenser for Hire, Urich makes a fine scoundrel and Roberts, reprising his similar second-banana role in Manimal, and his robots, are fine as the comedy relief. Crosby, known forever as the girl who shot J.R. Ewing, has some bite as Karina, easily matching and countering Jason's every move. In supporting roles we find the always reliable Ron Perlman and Anjelica Huston, who you would think would be completely out of place but she kicks some major ass, here. Also adding some muscle is former NFL'r John Matuzak and the Pimpbot 3000, which helps our heroes get off Mithra and back to Zagora, where several leads await Karina that will, hopefully, reveal her father's location.

However, even if they do find him, and he confirms the Seventh World's existence, there are still no guarantees they'll reach it. You see, many other expeditions have tried to find the fabled water planet and everyone of them, until now, failed, catastrophically, because of a massive acceleration hiccup in the space-time continuum that surrounds the center of the galaxy, explaining why the crews who managed to make it back out in their crumbling ships were radically aged and decrepit or dead.

But, even though Jason and Roscoe accidentally infect their ship with a case of Space Herpes (Venereal Odiousus Comici Propsus -- and too long of a story to tell here), they manage to find Karina's father in the care of prissy Prince Wendon (Villanch) and his robot Glamazons. Alas, it was all a ruse as Karina's father was dead all along, killed by the Templars, but he left her the means to navigate safely through the time-warp. And so, with Lord Paisely in hot pursuit, we reach the inspired climactic battle, a work of sheer genius as the combatants are caught in the accelerated time loop, aging and graying and gestating (trust me) and creaking and shriveling with each passing second, that the written word just cannot give due justice to it. You'll just have to tune and see for yourselves how our heroes manage to eke out a victory with the help of some cavalry from a most unexpected source.

Most of the futuristic sets and props for The Ice Pirates were pilfered wholesale from Logan's Run. Aside from them, the special-effects are pretty standard for the time: stock sound-effect lasers and model spaceships -- that bank around rather oddly. But despite these sci-fi trappings the anachronistic film honestly owes more to the old pirate movies of the 1930's and '40s. Even Bruce Broughton's rousing musical score is more Errol Flynn than Darth Vader. Everything else is designed for a quick laugh: a nice booger-picking scene, a plucked alien parrot, but they're mostly there to clutter up the background -- except for that Space Herpe; another by-product of the '80s, where sexually transmitted diseases, along with casual drug use, were the epitome of high comedy. Overcompensating for this, and where The Ice Pirates positively excels, is in it's production design -- especially with all the wide variety of robots. And what makes the frenetic robots here so great is that they seem so plausibly real. These things aren't sleek and streamlined but are big and clunky and prone to breakdowns and malfunctions. Hats off to Michael Shane McCracken, Michael John McCracken and Ray Raymond for the designs and Gary Brockette for the choreography during the chaotic robot carnage. For the most part, these robots were played for laughs, too. And when one of the scared robots crapped his pants -- jettisoning a stream of oil, bolts, and washers -- before going into battle, and the next robot in line slipped and fell on the soiled oil-slick, I nearly crapped my pants from laughing too hard.

So, there ya go: booger-picking aliens, Space Herpes, and a robot that craps his pants. If that isn't enough of a ringing endorsement for The Ice Pirates, then I don't know what else can be said.

The Ice Pirates (1984) JF Productions :: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / P: John Foreman / AP: Dennis Lasker / D: Stewart Raffill / W: Stewart Raffill, Stanford Sherman / C: Matthew F. Leonetti / E: Tom Walls / M: Bruce Broughton / S: Robert Urich, Mary Crosby, Michael D. Roberts, Anjelica Huston, John Matuszak, Ron Perlman, Natalie Core, Alan Caillou, Bruce Vilanch


Stacia said...

Huh, so Lord Paisley wasn't a dream. I watched this a few months ago and slept through about 30 minutes of it, unfortunately missing the robot pooping on himself. Woke up just as Urich in a white blousy pirate shirt walks in on Crosby and they finally do it.

Villanch was the most irritating thing about the film, hands down.

W.B. Kelso said...

Villanch even tries my patience. And I have a sneaking suspicion that some of the films bawdier toilet elements have his ghost-written fingerprints all over them.

Still, I'm a sucker for clunky robots, that and the final fight in the time-warp is what sold me.

Anonymous said...

We watched this compulsively back when it was a cable/UHF tv station staple, but I've never seen it from start to finish. One of these days I'm going to rectify that. I do know that I adore the time warp battle.

Stacia said...

The end time warp battle is hilarious. I'm a sucker for young men acting like old men in big long beards.

W.B. Kelso said...

Oh, boy, have I got a story for you, then, about the time I played Lazar Wolf in a wonky high school production of Fiddler on the Roof...

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