With his three major contributions to cinema - The Producers, Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles - having received the special edition treatment, it is perhaps unsurprising that DVD producers should turn to some of Mel Brooks comparatively lesser output for a similar make-over. First up is Spaceballs, the 1987 effort which concluded his mid-period of relatively engaging, if hardly classic features. This was a period which had begun in 1976 with Silent Movie and which would see the hit-to-miss ratio of his output rapidly decline from the earlier classics, yet still appear vastly superior when compared to the later period which produced the likes of Life Stinks, Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula Dead and Loving It. Moreover, this time also saw Brooks firmly establish himself as a maker of spoofs, with each film taking on a separate genre or, as was the case the Hitchcock parody High Anxiety, director.
For Spaceballs the target is science fiction, primarily Star Wars, but also nods in the directions of Star Trek, Planet of the Apes and the like. The plotting is, of course, rudimentary, some nonsense to do with rival planets and air supply that is nothing more than a framework on which Brooks can hang his onslaught of gags. He’s fully aware of this, however, and so there’s a modicum of disguise in having all of the major characters take off Star Wars counterparts. Thus Bill Pullman is a combination of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, Daphne Zuniga occupies the Princess Leia role and Rick Moranis’ Dark Helmet is a less menacing version of Darth Vader.
Yet it’s worth noting that during this middle period Brooks’ approach to his comedies involved taking on a wider remit. Whereas, say, Young Frankenstein focussed solely on Universal Studios’ cycle of horror films, the likes of History of the World Part I and Silent Movie offer more of a mixed bag. It’s an approach that works well in the case of Spaceballs as the detail of the spoofing with regards to Star Wars never escapes the general. Indeed, anyone with only the most basic knowledge of George Lucas’ original trilogy is unlikely to find the film inaccessible. But then Spaceballs is also hugely generous towards its inspiration (the special features reveal that Lucas was offered a read of the script in case there was anything he found offensive or in poor taste; he declined) and in this respect the film has a similar flavour to Ernie P. Fosselius’ 1978 short Hardware Wars.
Brooks’ 92 minutes is understandably a different beast to Fosselius’ 13, however, and the style of humour can be demonstrated from the opening scene. The initial shot is firmly attached to Star Wars with a space ship travelling past the screen for a seemingly interminable length of time. But then any subtlety is cheapened by the revelation of a bumper sticker that reads “We brake for nobody”. It’s this balance that exists throughout: witty gags that draw little attention towards themselves accompanied by those of a cruder, more obvious variety. Indeed, Brooks may be able to parody Lucas’ portentous dialogue to wonderful effect, but he’s also not averse to the most childish of puns: Jabba the Hut becomes Pizza the Hut; Yoda becomes Yoghurt. As such what’s important is balance between those jokes which hit and those which miss, and it is this which makes an appreciation of Brooks’ work such a subjective thing. Personally speaking there’s a lot I find quite trying in Spaceballs yet I have a great appreciation for both the Jewish humour and use of post-modernism (the capture of the stunt doubles, the cameraman getting wounded, perhaps even killed, during a light sabre duel).
That said, even the film’s staunchest haters would be hard pressed to find fault with the casting. Certainly, what makes Spaceballs so inviting is the fact that it provides such agreeable performances from the likes of Pullman, Moranis and John Candy. Oddly, the trailers housed on the second disc proclaim the film with “Mel Brooks in Spaceballs”, yet it is his array of co-stars - much like in his earliest works - which have allowed this film, whatever the merits of its comedy, to find and maintain its audience.
Oddly for a special edition, especially one coming from a major studio, Spaceballs’ picture quality isn’t perhaps as high as could be expected. Though free of dirt and damage, the image is occasionally soft and at times comes across as more than a little grainy resulting in some highly visible instances of artefacting. Moreover, though anamorphically rendered, the original 1.85:1 ratio has been cropped slightly to 1.77:1 which ordinarily wouldn’t make much of a difference but here ruins the timing of at least one sight gag. The soundtrack may also disappoint some as the original stereo is nowhere to be heard and is instead replace by a DD5.1 remix. Admittedly, the quality is fine and upgrades are minimal with only some of the sound effects reaching the rear channels, but it would have been nice to experience the original offering alongside it.
More important to many, however, will be the special features, many of which adopt a typical Brooksian approach of missing as often as they hit. Disc one, for example, houses not only a commentary from the director, but also an easter egg which allows the film to be viewed at “ludicrous speed” and a “Dink” commentary that surprisingly lasts the duration even if most viewers won’t.
With regards to Brooks’ chat track, it’s identical to the one he recorded for laserdisc in 1996. He’s a likeable presence and generous towards his cast and crew, but there’s actually little to be learnt here as his attempts to be both funny and informative more often than not cancel each other out. For a better insight the featurette housed on the second disc, ‘In Conversation : Mel Brooks & Thomas Meehan’, proves more worthwhile as the two discuss the genesis and creation of Spaceballs whilst putting it in the context of their careers as a whole.
Sadly the other featurettes prove less fulfilling. ‘Spaceballs : The Documentary’ reunites many of the original cast and crew but never really moves beyond EPK standard despite covering most aspects of the film’s production. ‘John Candy : Comic Spirit’ is a tribute to the late actor featuring many of the same interviewees yet oddly focuses on Delirious and Once Upon a Crime, two of the Candy’s lesser efforts. And ‘Spaceballs : The Storyboards’ is largely self-explanatory.
All of the pieces mentioned thus far form the bulk of this special edition offering, the remainder being largely filler. Galleries and trailers abound, as does a lengthy quiz (which disappointingly offers no reward to anyone successful). The only other item that may provoke an interest is entitled ‘Space Balls Ups’ and presents six excerpts from the film whilst demonstrating their mistakes (actors react to early; a ring magically reappears, etc.). All in all, only a so-so package at best.
A number of subtitles (in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian) are available for the special features including the commentary.