Monday, April 01, 2013

White Elephant Blogathon 2013: The Ice Pirates

I feel like I got off easy the first two years I did the White Elephant Blogathon. The way this works is that the participants throw a movie they want to see someone else review into a hat and are granted in turn someone else's movie to review. I'm not usually sadistic when it comes to the  movies I throw into the hat, but other participants are not so magnanimous. If you want to see the wreckage, the White Elephant round-up over at Silly Hats Only should be up in a day or two. In any case, the first year, I drew the delightfully weird Sion Sono film, Exte: Hair Extensions, and last year I got a terrific documentary/epistemological essay in Forbidden Lie$. This year, my luck has run out. This year's White Elephant mathom is The Ice Pirates (1984, directed by Stewart Raffill), a film I distantly remember hating when I saw it in theaters all those years ago. Even then, I knew that the parade had left this moldy and broken bauble far behind.

The story here, such as it is, finds the galaxy under the thumb of the nefarious Templars, who have secured all the water left remaining after a galactic conflict dried up all of the water planets. The only force that defies the Templars are pirates, who scavenge water from Templar ice shipments whenever they can. One such pirate is Jason, whose merry band of cutthroats stumble upon a princess being transported by an ice ship. Princess Karina doesn't take kindly to being abducted by pirates, but when she is liberated by the Templars, she prevents Jason and his mate, Roscoe, from being castrated and lobotomized. She has her reasons. She needs an independent pilot to take her in search of her father, who has been lost chasing after a legendary seventh world, a water planet that will restore humanity's fortunes and break the hegemony of the Templars. But first they need to find her father, a quest that takes them first to the pirate planet, and then into the clutches of a tribe of amazon warriors. They finally fly into a time warp, where deviation from the course the set by Karina's father will result in oblivion. The Templars, for their part, have used Jason and Karina as a stalking horse in their own quest for the seventh planet.

This film is just awful. There's no nice way to say it and not much to excuse it. It's conceived as a farce, but it's witless and flat and unfunny. There's nothing in cinema as bad as a bad comedy. The Ice Pirates is a special effects movie, too, but one whose effects are a decade out of date. Indeed, it re-uses footage from Logan's Run and Rollerball. What special effects it authors on its own look cheap--Roger Corman's contemporaneous sci-fi rip-offs had comparable and often better spaceship effects. Its production design is a combination of disco-era television sci-fi a la Buck Rogers (complete with "cute" robots) and a Mad Max rip-off interlude late in the movie. This is the kind of movie that's made by producers wanting to cash in on the science fiction wave without actually bothering to read any science fiction or stopping to take the pulse of the zeitgeist, the kind of producers whose ideas come from the covers of paperbacks rather than from their contents. How else to explain the left turn into romance novel near the end of the film? Or the tired cliches of sci fi amazons and evil empires and talking villains ("Death is too easy! I have other ideas for you! Muahahahahahahaha!" Seriously, that's the level of this screenplay; I'm quoting). This film isn't acquainted with actual science either. How does one corner the market on water galaxy-wide? Why not grab some of the icebergs that make up the rings of that Saturn-like planet you just flew by? And time? She doesn't work like the end of this movie. Ever. I won't even get into the fact that castration doesn't raise one's voice one semiquaver (believe me on this one; I know a bit about this). The Ice Pirates piles one stupidity onto another, while making limp (and occasionally racist or homophobic) jokes about space herpes and pimp bots.

Structurally, this is a mess. It rushes between set pieces and settings without any kind of visual or thematic connection between them. It's like the film has been improvised depending on what sets are available and what stock footage can be used to transport the characters between scenes. It has no real cinematic cohesion, which results in a film that isn't even interesting for its badness. It just lays there on screen, flacid and lifeless. And its ending, a farcical battle in the middle of a time warp in which the characters all age rapidly just kind of peters out in the end, with a deus ex machina solution to the corner into which the screenwriters have painted everyone and a weird sense of anti-climax when our heroes finally reach their destination. What's the point? I kept waiting for the hackneyed, "Third From the Sun"/Battlestar Galactica stinger at the end that the seventh world was Earth. They didn't have even that much wit. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear this was Italian. It has that same kind of improvisational incompetence one finds in, say, 2019: After the Fall of New York or Starcrash. But then, schlock has always been a kind of international lingua franca.

And this was made by MGM! Now, I realize that by this time, MGM was just a holding company for IP, but the brand still had cache` as a kind of movie version of Tiffany's. This film probably wouldn't have made the cut at Corman's New World Pictures, to say nothing of AIP or Full Moon. This film squanders its resources on bad production design and bad special effects. It has some talent in front of the camera: Anjelica Huston was a year away from winning an Oscar. Ron Perlman would soon become the preeminent character actor for special make-up parts. Hell, even Robert Urich isn't bad, even if he has a screen presence more suited to a wise guy television P.I. All wasted in roles that seem more like a glorified version of playing dress-up for a night at Studio 54 than actual characters.

It's worth stopping for a minute to assess the state of science fiction in 1984 in order to put The Ice Pirates in some sort of context. In 1984, the age of the director as technocrat was already aborning, with science fiction auteurs already in theaters. This film, by contrast, has a filmmaker who cut his teeth making movies for the likes of Sunn Classics International, and who would go on to make the ultimate sci-fi movie as fast food tie-in, Mac and Me. This is a purely mercenary hack job, unencumbered by art or even competence. 1984 was the year that Neuromancer was published, fixing cyberpunk in the public consciousness as an important literary movement right at the dawn of the information revolution. Cyberpunk was already creeping into cinematic science fiction. Blade Runner was two years old by this point. The Terminator came out the same year (and was made for three million dollars less than The Ice Pirates). Both Blade Runner and The Terminator trace their lineage back to Philip K. Dick. David Lynch's mad version of Dune came out in 1984, too, as did 2010, Star Trek III, The Last Starfighter, Starman, Night of the Comet, Dreamscape, and Buckaroo Bonzai. If THAT's the state of the art in science fiction--or even science fiction spoofs (Night of the Comet and Buckaroo Banzai are both knowing and witty spoofs of the genre)--and you're looking back, instead, to the Buck Rogers TV show for inspiration, then you're in a world of trouble, because you're forty years out of date and the years are not going to be kind to you. And they haven't been.


Stacia said...

I still kind of wish I had gotten this movie, because it is indeed bad -- Bruce Vilanch, amirite? -- but there is some fun to be had in it, mainly because as you accurately put it, everyone was dressed like they were going to Studio 54.

The first time I saw this, I fell asleep and woke up just as Urich showed up in the doorway for the romantic scene, wearing that big white blousy shirt, and... well, I couldn't hate the film THAT much after that. Still, Crosby is horrible. Completely irredeemable.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Yeah. I kept wanting a stray laser bolt to hit Crosby so Anjelica Huston could step into the forefront like the boss badass she obviously is. But no. Disappointing on every level.

Stacia said...

I know! Why was Huston's part so smaaaallll *argh*

Paul C. said...

I've long maintained that there's nothing more painful than a bad comedy. After all, when movies in other genres such, at least you can still laugh at them, but a bad comedy doesn't even give you that level of enjoyment.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Paul. I agree. Bad comedies are the worst kind of film. They're a grind. I think they amplify the time dilation effect of really bad movies more than other types of bad movies. I found that to be so in Ice Pirates, I should mention, even as it was playing games with fast forwarding through time.

Erich Kuersten said...

Oh man, how did I miss this blogathon!? is it too late.

I remember when the Ice Pirates came to theaters... we kids were like 'uh, absolutely not.' - it seemed designed by jaded adults to wring maximum returns off kids into Star Wars, Conan, and Raiders... without any of the chutzpah or momentum.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Erich. It's too late for this year. Next year's announcement should go out at the beginning of next February or thereabouts, assuming that Paul and Steve do it again. It's one of my favorite movie events.

And, yeah, The Ice Pirates is totally tone deaf to the genre it inhabits, even as a spoof.