This weekend, thousands of geeks and clueless schoolchildren will flock to theaters to catch a screening of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. They will most likely leave said theaters wishing they’d forked over 10 clams for a repeat screening of Dark Knight or even friggin’ Space Chimps instead.
The fact that Clone Wars looks monumentally crappy and uninspired really serves as a reminder of Lucas’ genius 30 years ago. In his attempt to recapture the wonder and excitement of the theatrical adventure serials of his youth—and give kids a cinematic option other than Disney’s live-action cycle of ho-hum Herbie/Don Knotts/Herbie flicks—he created an expansive universe and wealth of characters unlike anything that had been seen before. This of course opened the doors for an endless array of cash-in ripoffs that lasted well over a decade, from the dusting off of space-faring fossils (Star Trek, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon), to fondly remembered primetime TV endeavors (Battlestar Galactica, Space: 1999), to the worst the ’80s could possibly offer (Metalstorm, Spacehunter, something from 1988 called Prison Ship—YouTube it if you want to kill four minutes worth of brain cells).In honor of Lucas’ latest head-shaking ripoff of his own concept, here we look at 10 of the worst offenders—well, the semi-legitimate ones, anyways (so that Turkish Star Wars madness doesn't count)— who attempted to tailgate the Millennium Falcon all the way to the bank. Bring plenty of crackers to go along with this cheese.
10. Saturn 3 (1980)
Admittedly, Saturn 3 was more influenced by Ridley Scott’s Alien than Obi-Wan or R2. The crew of an isolated ship is terrorized by what appears to be an eye-plucking, rapist robot. Audiences were likewise terrorized by a brief nude scene of a then 64-year-old Kirk Douglas. But when watching the trailer, look for the looming spacecraft that slowly enters the frame around the 20-second mark, and proceeds to inch its way forward for a good 15 seconds after that. There’s no way the ad wizards who came up with this one weren’t going for a little of that New Hope opening-shot awe and wonder. Sadly, the film’s most appealing lifeform—Farrah Fawcett-Majors—doesn’t appear until well after a full minute’s passed in the trailer. (But get a load of that getup! Ooh ma-ma!) Harvey Keitel probably hoped this flick would make up for his involvement with Mother, Jugs and Speed—sadly, it would take 12 years to redeem himself for making THIS.
9. H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come (1979)
In 1933, celebrated sci-fi novelist H.G. Wells wrote an ambitious fictional chronicle that looked ahead all the way to the year 2016, using the notes of an eminent diplomat as a framing device. The book, which told of harrowing aerial bombardments and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, proved to be an all-too-accurate prediction of what was to happen during the Second World War. Forty-six years later, Canadian filmmakers decided to borrow Wells’ name, the book’s title and practically nothing else for a film adaptation. With a budget that seemed to be scraped together by selling compost created from shredded copies of War of the Worlds, this production roped in Jack “Sweet Jesus, only 13 more years ‘til my Oscar” Palance as an overlord named Omus who desires to be declared leader of the human race. (And this isn’t even Palance’s only appearance on this list!) Oh, and Shape of Things takes place after a little something called “the Robot Wars” has ravaged the earth. They were probably a lot cooler than what we’ll see this weekend.
8. Star Odyssey (1979)
The clip above isn’t a trailer, but it’s certainly indicative of how enterprising foreign filmmakers could toss anything on the screen if it included a robot and had “Star” in the title. Star Odyssey—or as it’s known in its country of origin, “Sette uomini d’oro nello spazio,” which translates roughly to “Spicy Meatball Shit Sandwich”—was an Italian film starring some guy named Gianni Garko as “Dirk Laramie,” a cad with some vague, Force-like powers who must defend the Earth (and apparently, get in a boxing match with a robot) in order to foil the nefarious plot of yet another intergalactic villain, who shockingly looks a lot like Pinhead from Hellraiser. But if this particular SW ripoff has a lasting legacy, it’s that it has quietly slipped into public domain status—meaning you can pick up a DVD copy on the cheap at pretty much any discount store. Even Target carries this atrocity around Christmastime in its one-dollar stocking-stuffer bins.
7. Message From Space (1978)
This blessedly short teaser tells you all you need to know in its 36 seconds—a peaceful planet’s inhabitants are being persecuted and need help (the titular message is apparently “We are fucking wusses, halp halp!”), there are some wacky robots involved, spaceships will blow up, and noted actors will be slumming. In this case, the late Vic Morrow—best known as the asshole rival coach from Bad News Bears, one of the tragic fatalities on the set of the Twilight Zone movie, and being Jennifer Jason Leigh’s dad—heads up “an international cast.” What the voiceover fails to tell you is that this was a film produced in Japan and features all-around badass Sonny Chiba (as a prince named “Hans,” which hardly seems coincidental). Watch closely how the trailer’s edited to not give any sort of indication that most of the principal actors are Japanese! The film’s tagline, “Where fantasies are real, and reality is fantastic!” sounds like something the Sphinx would have disdainfully spat out in a Mystery Men deleted scene.
6. The Black Hole (1979)
Two years after Star Wars fever had gripped the nation, Disney finally got off its collective ass and decided maybe this whole “futuristic” sci-fi genre was worth pursuing. (The Cat From Outer Space and Return to Witch Mountain could only carry them so far.) Rather than thaw out Uncle Walt’s head and ask for advice, execs had a screenplay cobbled together, assembled a who’s who of C-list talent (Ernest Borgnine! Anthony Perkins! Robert Forster!) and even made sure to get a couple of comic-relief droids in the mix for good measure (voiced by C-list luminaries Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens). In this INSANELY long trailer (seriously, did audiences 30 years ago really need to see an entire rescue sequence?), you really get a sense of how “dark” Disney was trying to go—and really, they succeeded, considering that Perkins’ characters gets eviscerated, mild profanity is used, humans get lobotomized, and there are some fairly heavy religious themes. But those blaster effects and the bearded bad guy played by Maximilian Schell are pure Velveeta.
5. Starchaser: The Legend of Orin (1985)
The most recent of this spate of Star Wars ripoffs, Starchaser was really a last-ditch effort for a major studio trying to recapture that Rebel magic. (At that point, Star Wars as a cartoon was still a novel concept; oddly enough, it was released in the dying 3-D format.) Two years removed from Return of the Jedi, and released when Kenner’s toys were gasping their last breaths like a certain strangled Hutt, Starchaser seemed to revel in its influences. What’s better than Skywalking? Starchasing, bitches. The trailer itself is a riot, from an old man getting laser-lashed around the fucking eyes at the beginning (not funny in real life, kids), to the seemingly endless monologuing of villain Zygon, to the glowing, Kenobi-meets-Christopher Lee father figure, to Zygon inexplicably calling the Swayze-fied hero “caca” around the 1:35 mark. But this is at least animated caca we can go gaga over.
4. Galaxina (1980)
Maybe it’s not all that fair to call Galaxina a ripoff; it was really a parody of Star Wars and the other films of its ilk. (Obvious jabs at Star Trek and Alien are, well, all too obvious in the clip below.) Its notoriety comes being the sole starring role for Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten, who was murdered shortly after its release. (Her last completed film was a smaller role in boyfriend Peter Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed.) Galaxina seems to have had a decent budget for alien costumes and special effects, if not for its screenplay (the freighter spaceship is called the Infinity, the buffoonish captain is named Cornelius Butt, suspended animation jokes abound). But hell, no one came to see a flick starring a Playmate for political intrigue or a character study. Teenagers still stricken with their first Princess Leia boners came for Stratten’s come-hither innuendo, gratuitous cleavage shots, and maybe, just maybe, a bit of side-boob. If this trailer’s any indication, most of the male cast thankfully spent the duration of the flick on ice.
3. Hawk the Slayer (1980)
Hawk the Slayer may fall into the “sword and sorcery” genre, but its gratuitous pilfering of Star Wars elements is definitely in the ROTFLMAO realm. First up, take Jack “Sweet Jesus, only 12 more years ‘til my Oscar” Palance (he’s back!); his helmet is clearly modeled on Vader’s, and his name is even Voltan. While he’s likely a good 30 years older than protagonist Hawk (Who the hell’s John Terry? Oh shit, he was on Lost!), they avoided the obvious father-son relationship and decided to make them brothers instead. Hawk has apparently raided the closet of Han Solo … or at least borrowed the vest while Han was stuck in carbonite. And there’s Voltan working an agent for a higher evil power (a thinly veiled Palpatine clone), the climactic final sword battle, strange Force-like magic powers, the litany of wacky characters who must aid the hero in his quest … basically all of the things Willow should have been. Palance finally gets one over on Lucas!
2. Starcrash (1979)
Another production from our friends the Italians, Starcrash at least has two things working in its favor: a very va-va-voom Caroline Munro (you may remember her from a handful of Hammer horror films and as “evil helicopter-flying chick in bikini” in The Spy Who Loved Me) as scantily clad smuggler Stella Star, and a pre-fame David Hasselhoff engaging in a lightsaber battle with some stop-motion droids. (You can catch a glimpse of him looking bored in the background around the 1:25 mark.) This trailer wisely keeps the dialogue to a minimum, save for Christopher Plummer’s rather long-winded “Here’s some shit you gotta do...” speech at the beginning. (Though it’s a shame we don’t get to hear Stella’s sidekick Akton, voiced by batshit-crazy, celebri-evangelical minister Marjoe Gortner.) And if robots, babes, spaceships and babes in spaceships weren’t enough, Starcrash one-upped its competition by incorporating Neanderthals, a world of Amazons and a friggin’ broadsword-tossing stone giant.
1. Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)
And here we are—the worst of the worst, or the best of the best, depending on your tolerance for Richard Thomas. The closest you can get to a poor man’s Mark Hamill (Ouch! The truth hurts, Richie baby), Thomas had ditched his gig as John-Boy on The Waltons in 1978 in hopes of hitting the Hollywood big-time. After headlining some forgettable TV flicks, he signed on to star in this Roger Corman-produced astrotrain wreck, notable for its insanely high budget—most of which apparently went to co-stars George Peppard and Robert Vaughn, who play space cowboys—and for special-effects shots directed by James Cameron. The title itself is a hilarious stick-in-the-eye to its predecessor; their war isn’t amongst the stars, but rather BEYOND them! These are like Supernova Wars!
The plot itself, much like Star Wars, shamelessly borrows from an Akira Kurosawa film—Star Wars had The Hidden Fortress, and BBTS has Seven Samurai. In fact, Vaughn’s role was essentially the same as his in The Magnificent Seven, an earlier Seven Samurai pastiche—and it’s fucking hysterical to watch him at the controls of a space cruiser in the trailer. We’re not sure who’s to blame for the breast-shaped starship, though. Corman was much too classy to intentionally throw in any kind of suggestive elements, right?
Playing the villain, Corman regular John Saxon seems to be channeling his inner Lucas—and his anger at such a blatant ripoff—when he utters, “They will burn...” He was half-right; this fim quickly faded from memory and had an über-brief run on DVD before being yanked out of print, but we’re pretty sure it holds up better than anything involving Viceroys.