The Archivist XXXVIII: Cheese-Filled Space Operas, Including ICE PIRATES

by Ryan Lewellen

The Archivist

Welcome to the Archive. Following the infamous “Format Wars” (R.I.P. VHS), a multitude of films found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their admittedly niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Disc On Demand & Streaming service devoted to some of the more idiosyncratic pieces of cinema ever made. Being big fans of the label, we here at Cinapse thought it prudent to establish a column devoted to these unusual gems. Thus “The Archivist” was born — a biweekly look at some of the best, boldest and most batshit motion pictures the Shield has to offer. Some of these will be recent additions to the collection, while others will be titles that have been available for awhile. With over 1,500 pictures procurable on Warner Archive (and more being added every month), there’s no possible way we’ll get to all of them. But trust me when we say we’re sure going to try.

I must say, I am so happy to have Frank Calvillo jumping into the Archivist mix. I have quite a pile of home video staring me down from my desk, and his presence at this column is the only reason I knocked it down a couple notches. Next week, you have another contributor to look forward to reading: Austin Vashaw, who will be covering a couple Alfred Hitchcock titles… I was too sluggish to grab first. No hard feelings, though! My focus was caught by another covetable Blu-ray release. The Ice Pirates has, only weeks ago, been released in HD by the fine folks at Warner Archives. Pairing it with another space adventure lead me to discover a Hammer sci-fi production, and although it was featured on MST3K… I am apparently dork enough to think it was kinda cool.

In a distant future, the extremely short supply of water has made it the most valuable substance in the universe. Those who control it make up a ruling class, The Templars Of Mithra, and a band of pirates lead by Jason (Robert Urich) is raiding one of their ships when they discover a sleeping princess. They attempt a kidnapping, but are captured themselves, and just before their castration sentence can be carried out, they are rescued by the princess who recruits them to help her find her father. The ensuing escapade takes them to exotic worlds, where they encounter Space Herpes, killer robots, and Bruce Vilanch’s disembodied head!

I had somehow forgotten seeing this movie more than once back when the “Syfy” channel was still spelling its name like it was abbreviated from English words. That was also a time when it played many a classic B-movie such as this. Often, it is described as a spoof of its genre, but one shouldn’t take on this movie expecting Mel Brooks. The Ice Pirates plays more like a straightforward space opera, but directed with a light and careless tone. No one working on this film takes it seriously for even an instant, and as long as the viewer knows what to expect, the viewer will have a lovely time watching it. It does seem to become more self-aware as it goes on, however. Once Vilanch’s character comes in, it’s almost like everyone found a new focus, and the jokes start coming fast. The funniest bit is by far the climactic battle scene, fought in a time tunnel, which causes the whole cast to age about 60 years (and grow preposterously huge beards) through the skirmish. It might only be for the real sci-fi nerds, but what other kind of sci-fi fan is there?

Speaking of nerds… I felt a little silly when I learned Moon Zero Two was the subject of an MST3K episode. Right from its pseudo-soulful opening theme song played over a School House Rock-style space race animation, I was thinking this movie was pretty cool. There is definitely a good movie somewhere in… the one I watched, but thanks to some rather poor effects and direction, the film just isn’t worth recommending.

It was a billed as a space western, which, almost ten years before STAR WARS, made it kind of a fresh idea. The elements are basically all there, too. James Olson plays a loner pilot who hungers for reaching the frontiers of Mercury and Jupiter’s moons, and discovers a wealthy land-owner (space land, that is) has killed a moon prospector in order to land a meteorite on the claim and make it his own. You know the rich guy is evil because he wears a monocle (space monocle, that is). Apparently, even after interplanetary travel has been perfected, and our moon has been colonized, we still haven’t popularized Lasik surgery. But hey, maybe he’s just old-fashioned?

The Western elements manifest in some rather bizarre ways, including a moon saloon with painfully goofy dancing girls. It’s for that kind of weirdness that the film becomes hard to accept, but the screenplay is full of slick dialogue and solid plotting, so it’s kind of a shame the thing just doesn’t play. It might be “the first moon western”, as the film’s poster suggests, but its many successors have western’d-up the moon, and beyond, with much more memorable results.

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