Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Iceberg Arena: Rip-Off Wars

In the history of science fiction films there have been three epoch-marking movies that changed the landscape of film and altered pop culture history: “Metropolis” (1927), “2001” (1968) and “Star Wars” (1977). Star Wars in particular became the most lucrative film franchise of all time, earning more than $4 billion on toy-and-tie-in rights that George Lucas got for a mere $15,000 as part of the original studio deal. For better or worse (Peter Biskind’s book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” makes an excellent argument for ‘worse’), Star Wars changed the face of cinema forever, leading producers down the path of special effects, huge budgets and franchise tie-ins. This article is not about any of that.

Despite the inexhaustible cultural fallout from the Star Wars phenomenon, the Film Walrus is concerned today with only one particular aspect: foreign knock-offs. In the wake of the blockbuster film, studios around the world leapt at the chance to skim money off the success vat and most didn’t have things like copyright laws, ethics or talent to get in the way.

Japan and Brazil both released films called “Planet Wars” in 1977 capitalizing on the craze and correctly noting that planets are more likely to go to war than stars (which, incidentally, don’t support life). The Brazilian film had the advantage (?) of starring the Trapalhoes, a Brazilian equivalent of the three stooges.

Italy, always willing to take American ideas to maximum extremes (see giallos, spaghetti westerns and any Italian movie about zombies, sharks or cannibals), weighed in with “Cosmo: War of the Planets” and “Star Crash.” Meanwhile Turkey made one of the most notorious disasters ever committed to film: “The Man Who Saved the Earth” better known as “Turkish Star Wars.”

This Iceberg Arena will pit the two most famous rip-offs, “Star Crash” (1978) and “Turkish Star Wars” (1982) against each other in the ultimate battle of poorly understood science, terrible camerawork and shameless bootlegging.

“Star Crash” was directed by Italian schlock specialist Luigi Cozzi, hoping to parasitically feed off the fraction of filmgoers that don’t read theater marquises very carefully. The universe is under threat from a giant spacefaring lava-lamp and initially this is of little concern to intergalactic smugglers Akton (who sports a frizzy man-perm) and Stella Star (one-time bond girl and popular C-list actress Caroline Munro). Captured by Galactic Police Chief Thor and his Texan robot Elle, the duo is put in charge of finding jedi prince Simon (played by a pre-“Night Rider” David Hasselhoff), and stopping the evil Count Zarth Arn.

“Star Crash” has just about everything bad a B-movie junky could want: stop-motion robo-skeletons, a mountainous robot warrior, sexy Amazonian aliens, cardboard backdrops with Styrofoam props, an evil spaceship shaped like a taloned fist, sloppy laser fights and Hasselhoff. Caroline Munro changes in and out of various impractical space bikinis even when imprisoned (while undergoing hard labor her uniform also stipulates high-heels) and when floating through the raw vacuum of space. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something very wrong about Munro’s half-naked character jumping through an open window on her ship and gliding through a gaping portal on the enemy’s main deck to engage in a laser battle. Oh, I know what it is: wouldn’t all the captured robo-skeletons escape?

Some of the best lines:

“And you must be extremely careful when the sun sets; the temperature drops thousands of degrees!” This really makes me wonder what temperature scale they were using. Unless, of course, absolute zero has gone down in the distant future.

“You are the nicest human being I have known. Now maybe is a good time to use your ancient system of prayer…and hope it works for robots too.” Maybe if you’re praying specifically to the robot god, but he only understands binary.

“Hurry, time will only stay halted for three minutes!” So if time is frozen… how do you know when three minutes have past?

But for all the bad in “Star Crash,” it still makes a hell of a lot more sense (and has a comparatively astronomical budget) than “Turkish Star Wars.” Turkey had recently experienced a political coup and in the period of the early 1980’s Yesilcam, Turkey’s Hollywood, was forbidden from making films that could in anyway be considered oppositional to the regime. This left only one solution: make utter nonsense.

An incomprehensible introduction informs us that humanity in the “galaxy age” is faced with the ultimate deadly threat. An evil wizard from a powerful empire is trying to destroy all planets. But don’t worry, “a coating which was formed from compressed human brain molecules was protecting the Earth.” The masked wizard could penetrate the shield if he had a human brain, but he is brainless (so we are informed). This introduction is accompanied by clips stolen directly from “Star Wars” but re-edited, with some shots repeating four or five times.

Soon we meet Murat and Ali, two pilots trying to destroy the death star. As they fly through space, Ali shouts that he is “dropping altitude” (relative to what?) and promptly proceeds to explode along with his friend. Except that they wake up under a pile of rocks and begin roaming an alien world (actually a popular Turkish tourist site). Ali lets loose his irresistible sex whistle, but it only attracts skeleton marauders. About an hour of insanely bad fight choreography ensues that involves trolls, ninjas, mummies and robots (obviously). Murat makes extensive use of an off-screen springboard to jump a whole lot and Ali trains by karate-chopping solid rocks.

Near the end of the film, Murat finds a giant cardboard sword with jagged lighting bolt spikes in an Islamic temple that landed on the planet as a meteorite milleniums earlier (what?). You might think he’d use the sword to kill the wizard but you’d be wrong; instead he melts it into a seething bucket and then plunges his hands into it to create cumbersome golden gauntlets. About twenty decapitations later, the evil wizard is defeated.

In the meantime you’ll get to see footage from NASA newsreels, a documentary on Egypt, a mute hippy romantic interest, hundreds of rocks that explode when kicked, a monster stabbed to death with its own severed limbs and an unexplained animated yellow spiral that appears about a dozen times. Rarely will any of it be explained by the hilariously awful subtitles.

You’ll also be treated to a gratuitously illegal soundtrack borrowing from “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Moonraker,” “Battlestar Galactica” and “The Black Hole.”

Some of the best lines:

“However in some cases Earth had been disintegrated into parts.” This piece of background info from the introduction only confuses me. How many cases could there be? Isn’t it important to know which case is 'reality'?

“We must cross over the space speed.” I guess that must be pretty fast. Incidently, “the speed of space” became a popular Turkish slang catchphrase for technobabble following the movie’s release.

“I am tired like a dead.” Sometime I know exactly how they feel.

“My power is invisible.” I’m pretty sure he meant “invincible” but this saves on special effects.

“I am powerful! I am invincible! In order to save the world the man from Earth should destroy me.” I’m not sure he meant that last line to slip out. Of course, if he really is invincible I guess it doesn’t matter.

Both films deserve their cult-classic status and are likely to remain at the vanguard of awful for decades to come. Though the battle between the two films is close, I have to name “Turkish Star Wars” as the marginally more comically pathetic travesty… and thus the winner of this Iceberg Arena. Watch the full film (whose copyrights lapsed in 2002) for free here.

Winner: Turkish Star Wars


Mad Dog said...

I've heard you talk about Star Crash before, I believe. But god DAMN, those quotes are hilarious.

Unknown said...

I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen all the space bikinis and head smashing with my own eyes.

Elaine said...

You made me laugh out loud. When one is in a room by oneself laughing uncontrollably, it's not a good reflection on one's sanity.

Patti said...

Woah yes. Thanks for the link - I am totally going to watch the movie.

Patti said...

YES. I watched the film with my friends Keagan and Niza here, and we all loved it. Keagan pointed out that there are scenes in which you can literally see the cut and tape on the reel. Quality material. Thanks.