The First, Silliest, and Secretly Best Star Wars Knockoff Starred David Hasselhoff, Obviously

Hasselhoff and Christopher Plummer, together at last.

Written by Jon O'Brien
New World Pictures
Inverse Recommends

It’s the late 1970s, and just hitting the big screen is a space opera in which a lightsaber-wielding smuggler embarks on a royal rescue mission, a talking droid sidekick provides comic relief, and a classically trained British thespian slums it as a wizened old man. We are, of course, talking about Starcrash, the first and most enjoyably ridiculous Star Wars knockoff.

Released just a year after George Lucas changed Hollywood forever, Starcrash was the brainchild of Luigi Cozzi, a director whose resume included the ribald comedy La portiera nuda and the Lou Ferrigno starring Hercules. There are certainly traces of the former in Starcrash, as poor heroine Stella Star (former Bond girl Caroline Munro) is forced to spend most of the film in little more than a leather bikini, even when exploring an Arctic planet. But the only horrors here are of the unintentional kind.

As evident from the opening scene, where a spaceship in a galaxy far, far away is rudely attacked by what looks like a bunch of pimped-up milk cartons, the special effects appear to have been rustled up in someone’s garage. The dialog is often both badly dubbed and illogical (“By sunset, I’ll be the new emperor!” goes one zinger, Cozzi appearing to forget the laws of outer space), and the performances run the gamut from daytime soap opera to pure pantomime, with the super-permed former child preacher Marjoe Gortner the most wooden offender as Stella’s Jedi-like partner-in-crime, Akton.

Trying to make sense of the plot is a thankless task, one not helped by a structure resembling a handful of Saturday morning serials stitched together. But the gist is that after being captured, convicted, and sentenced to 220 years of hard labor, Akton and Stella are given a lifeline by The Emperor (Christopher Plummer). Track down both his missing son, Prince Simon (a bouffant-haired, baby-faced, and unusually restrained David Hasselhoff), and the powerful secret weapon owned by his evil nemesis, Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell), and they’ll regain their freedom.

Caroline Munro and a fresh-faced David Hasselhoff.

New World Pictures

Cue a series of increasingly perilous adventures in which they’re joined by Elle (Judd Hamilton), a C-3PO-esque figure who for some reason has a strong hillbilly accent, and Thor (Robert Tessier), an extraterrestrial whose green complexion, in another clear sign of financial constraints, disappears below his chin.

As the motley crew navigates planets populated by Amazonian women who could have escaped from a Russ Meyer sexploitation and rampaging cavemen who, in a scene that potentially scarred younger viewers for life, hack poor Elle into pieces, the viewer experience takes a turn. You’re still well aware that Starcrash is unadulterated B-movie nonsense, but you also start to appreciate its ludicrous, super-camp charms.

Sure, Spinell is about as subtle as a sledgehammer as the megalomaniacal overlord, practically twirling his mustache every time he strides into frame. At one point, he literally cackles while plotting his quest for world domination. But his obvious joy at living out his comic book baddie fantasy is infectious.

A typically scantily clad Stella Star.

New World Pictures

And you have to admire a film with such an obviously low budget at least attempting to pay homage to some of the greats, no matter how clunkily. No one’s going to mistake the stop-motion mechanical monster unleashed by Amazon Queen Corelia (Nadia Cassini) for the work of Ray Harryhausen, or Stella’s hilariously unconvincing spacewalk for the work of Stanley Kubrick. But as with the nods to Sam Peckinpah in the multiple slow-mo shootouts, they’re a sign that Cozzi’s references extend far beyond the Millennium Falcon.

Furthermore, Starcrash boasts a handful of genuinely impressive qualities that prevent it from falling into the realm of pure Ed Wood. Although he was essentially hoodwinked into the project, legendary composer John Barry serves up a sweeping orchestral score that wouldn’t sound out of place among his Oscar-winning works. And in an age where most cinematography requires night vision goggles, it’s refreshing to see a film so boldly committed to a primary color palette, with the starship scenes, in particular, awash with striking reds, yellows, and blues.

Christopher Plummer taking his role as Emperor very seriously.

New World Pictures

Props must go to Plummer, too, who treats hacky lines like “Imperial Battleship, halt the flow of time!” with the same reverence he would a Shakespeare production. Unlike Star Wars’ Alec Guinness, the Academy Award winner appears to have taken his unlikely foray into sci-fi in good spirits, later quipping that he got a free holiday to Rome. The naturally charismatic Munro also impresses in a role that could have reduced her to mere eye candy, imbuing Stella with a steely determination that was, contrary to her outfits, rather progressive for the time.

Cozzi has insisted Starcrash was conjured up long before Han Solo and Darth Vader became instant pop culture fixtures, although he did acknowledge that producers consistently fought with him to boost its likeness to Star Wars. The director, now running Dario Argento’s memorabilia store in Italy, obviously lost the battle. Still, he can take heart from the fact that out of all the imitations that emerged between the original and The Empire Strikes Back (see Messages from Space, The Humanoid, The Black Hole, etc.), his schlocky labor of love remains the most sincere.

Related Tags