Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
Spaceballs was my introduction to Mel Brooks. I was 12 years old and visiting my grandmother for the summer (I think it was an excuse for my parents to have time to themselves). She was the type of grandparent that spoiled me. She took me to see three to four films a week for the month that I was with her. Matinees were incredibly cheap in the summer of 1987, so I got to see almost everything that came out (whether it was appropriate or not). She loved spending time with her grandson, and I loved that she indulged my love of movies. It was a magical time. Sorry if I’m boring you with my personal history, but it’s very hard for me to divest how I felt at the time with this film (really any films I saw with her), and the critical eye I gathered over the years.
I loved Star Wars, Star Trek, and Planet of the Apes (and this was a time when all of these franchises were regularly on broadcast TV), so it felt special that someone would put them all into one movie. As an adult I’ve gone through almost all of Mel Brooks’s films. Most work extremely well for their type of humor. In fact, I would say that after Spaceballs, his old-school type of humor started to feel a little forced. The ’80s hurt the Borscht Belt humor factory that was so prevalent in the ’60s and ’70s. A new era of comedy dawned in the ’80s that quickly surpassed their forerunners.
Whenever I re-watch Spaceballs, there’s an air of going for the easy joke. There’s no setup. There’s the joke, and then it’s time to move on to the next bit. This works well for kids. You don’t want to take time, you want the jokes to fly fast and furious. There was an extreme version of this that the Farrelly Brothers perfected with their films in the ’90s, but if you watch those again, they feel incredibly dated. Brooks’s films don’t feel quite as dated as that, but they still employ a bygone style of humor. Don’t get me wrong, I think Blazing Saddles is one of the funniest films of all time, and its themes are—unfortunately—still relevant, but comedy has evolved over the years.
I’m halfway into this column and I still haven’t talked about the film. There’s so much greatness here. John Candy as the half-man/half-dog Barf (short for Barfolemew) and Rick Moranis as the villainous Dark Helmet, to name my stand-out actors. There are sight gags with the opening crawl of a ship that never seems to end (in fact, on the audio commentary Brooks jokes that at first he wanted to just have 90 minutes of the camera panning across the ship), Princess Leia–style headphones, phallic interpretations of lightsabers, and combing the desert. The jokes whiz by so fast that if one doesn’t land, it’s okay; we’re already on to the next one.
There’s so many funny moments that when trying to pick out even a couple of them, I start thinking about others and I find myself smiling as I type this. It’s a parody of the highest caliber. While Brooks made the film because he wanted to have a parody space epic and didn’t care about the material as much as he did about the Western (Blazing Saddles), Hitchcock (High Anxiety), or even old-school Universal horror films (Young Frankenstein), his attention to detail stands out. In the audio commentary he even mentions that so many space films had desert planets, so he needed one too. He and his writers definitely did their research. It’s far and away the best science-fiction parody out there (save your comments on Galaxy Quest for next week’s space opera installment), and probably one of the better parodies overall. So while the jokes don’t always work, your dollar-to-joke ratio is still pretty high, and you should take time out to watch or re-watch Spaceballs. Heck, it might even make you nostalgic for those halcyon days of childhood like it did for me.
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.