By 1987, Star Wars had already conquered the world and was on the brink of falling into obscurity. The year marks the beginning of a period that some call the franchise’s “dark times.” Return of the Jedi had been out for four years, and the market was reaching a saturation point in terms of comics, books, and toys. The once-universal franchise became niche, limited to conventions and tabletop roleplaying games.
Who remembered Star Wars in 1987? Mel Brooks, who brought the movies back to the forefront of everyone’s minds with his wonderful parody Spaceballs.
The decision was puzzling to some, especially after years and years of Star Wars-related content. Roger Ebert noted in his review that the “strangest thing about Spaceballs is that it should have been made several years ago, before our appetite for Star Wars satires had been completely exhausted.”
By 1987, Brooks was well-established as a comedic icon thanks to Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and others. But the decade saw him out-of-place: his only other major work from the ‘80s was a remake of a 1940’s melodrama which got overshadowed by his performing a rap song as Hitler on the soundtrack.
Americans, especially younger ones who had been through the struggle of the Vietnam War, didn’t feel the same connection to World War II and the post-war era that Brooks had spun into comedic gold. So while never abandoning his anything-goes sense of humor, Brooks looked firmly into the pop culture zeitgeist of ‘80s science fiction and found a gigantic bubble ready to be popped.
It’s easy to remember Spaceballs as just a Star Wars parody and forget about its terrific cast. Brooks had scooped up a young Bill Pullman from a role in the theater in L.A, with one non-comedic film credit to his name.
When Pullman got the role, he recalled years later in an interview, Brooks told him, "I tried to get a Tom and I couldn't get him. I tried to get Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, and I couldn't get them, so I got a Bill!" And I said, "Is that a joke, Mel?" But it's true.”
As the straight man in a movie packed to the brim with puns (“The radar is jammed!” “Comb the desert!”), sight gags (Dom DeLuise as Pizza The Hut, the fake Perrier bottle that Mel Brooks uses to breathe), and just general goofiness (everything Rick Moranis does as Dark Helmet, Joan Rivers as C-3PO stand-in Dot Matrix), a lot rides on Pullman’s Lone Star to connect all the dots.
Luckily, his easy chemistry with the cast (ranging from pros like John Candy to other relative newcomers like his romantic co-lead, Daphne Zuniga playing a Leia stand-in Princess Vespa) carries the movie even when not every joke lands. Little moments like his special “gimme some paw” handshake with Candy’s Barf, which Pullman says was his idea that Candy fought to include, give Spaceballs a relaxed sense amidst all the obvious Star Wars jokes.
There are a lot of Star Wars jokes in Spaceballs. Some of them likely worked best in 1987, when the memory of Leia Organa’s buns were enough to earn a laugh. Adding bumper stickers onto the back of ships or turning the Millennium Falcon into a Winnebago are small strokes that could go a long way with fans. But perhaps more than any details of Star Wars itself, Brooks was fascinated by the way it had come to dominate the world: marketing.
George Wyner, a character actor who plays the movie’s Grand Moff Tarkin, offers Dark Helmet a suggestion when they’re trying to track down our heroes: why don’t they put on a VHS of Spaceballs? Helmet is perplexed, saying they’re still making the movie. But then Colonel Sandurz, as Wyner is credited, points him to a new technology: instant cassettes, where they can watch the movie as it is being made.
The technology allows for Moranis and Wyner to act in a back-and-forth that calls to mind Brooks’ older work with Carl Reiner, The 2,000 Year Old Man. “Go back to then.” “When?” “Now.” “Now?” “Now.” “I can’t.” “Why?” “We missed it.”
These bits all play out in a world where the Force (or the Schwartz) doesn’t run things, but Mel Brooks does. His turn as both Yogurt (Yoda) and President Skroob (Palpatine, played more as a sleaze than pure evil) are as funny as his roles in any of his classics.
As Yogurt, Mel Brooks walks his characters through merchandising, “where the real money of the movie is made.” We’ve already seen the VHS cassette of Spaceballs available for purchase, but now Yogurt introduces dolls, breakfasts cereals, and even a flamethrower (“the kids love this one,” Yogurt promises, and Elon Musk may have taken notes). He soon reveals plans for Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money.
Spaceballs is not a detail-oriented Star Wars parody. It looks at ‘80s culture in broad strokes, willing to throw in a Star Trek or Indiana Jones punchline and an unnecessary Aliens chestburster bit near the end. Brooks wanted to explore how a galaxy far, far, away had made a whole lot of money.
Unusual for a pop-culture parody, some time apart from its moment has been helpful for Spaceballs. Society has adjusted to continual Star Wars content, and the distance from 1983 to 1987 doesn’t feel so large in 2020.
And it’s worth noting that Spaceballs made more money than an actual big-budget sci-fi movie, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Intentional or not, Brooks had shown that there was still an eager audience for anything related to Star Wars, even a screwball parody. When the 25th anniversary Blu-ray came out in 2012, Brooks reflected on what he called his movie that "never stops selling."
"I’ve tried to figure it out: It’s not a better movie than Young Frankenstein and it isn’t as dangerous as Blazing Saddles. But I think the secret is, it gets sweet and emotional. It’s kind of a beautiful fairy tale."
Spaceballs is streaming on Hulu until October 31.