Star Wars ushered in a new era of moviemaking in 1977. Suddenly all those studios that stayed far away from sci-fi were clamoring for outer space epics. It didn’t take long for the genre to be begging for a parody. Several years before Spaceballs, there came this odd little space spoof…1984’s The Ice Pirates.
Our story takes place in a galaxy where water is scarce, and thus is the most valuable thing in the universe. A band of pirates, led by the swashbuckling Jason (Robert Urich) leads a crew who raid ships hauling large shipments of ice. His crew includes his buddy Roscoe (Michael D. Roberts), the statuesque Maida (Anjelica Huston) and tough guy Zeno (Ron Perlman). During one raid, they end up finding the beautiful Princess Karina (Mary Crosby). Taken by her beauty, Jason decides to kidnap her but he and Roscoe end up captured by the evil Templars.
Jason and Roscoe are sent off to become slaves…but slaves must first be castrated. Lucky for them, the princess saves them and they all escape together, with a fellow prisoner named Killjoy (John Matuszak) in tow. Of course, Karina has her reasons for letting these pirates go. She informs them that they are to help her search for her father who went missing while searching for a planet covered with water.
After catching up with the rest of Jason’s crew, they learn that they are in for no easy journey. They end up battling with a bunch of maniacs on a desert planet, contending with a runaway “space herpe” on their ship, and dealing with a maniacal ruler with a detachable head (Bruce Vilanch). All this before having to battle the Templars as they pass through a time warp, causing rapid aging of the crew.
The Ice Pirates is mishmash of elements from many different films. The Star Wars series, of course, is the biggest influence. There’s also a lot taken from the swashbuckling tradition of stars like Errol Flynn. We even get a Mad Max style desert chase. Though, all of this is done on a pretty modest budget, so it looks nowhere near as slick as the films that inspired it. Still, there’s a certain charm to the film’s rough-around-the-edges nature.
There is some originality to the film, though. The climactic battle, which takes place as the ships pass through a time warp, is pretty clever. We see the characters rapidly aging, while robots and equipment around them gradually break down and show the effects of aging that would usually take years. It’s a goofy ending but it’s fun. On the other hand, we also have the really gross concept of a “space herpe,” which is this film’s attempt to parody Alien, I suppose. The film may have been rated PG, but add that nasty little bugger to the castration jokes and a decapitation performed by Ms Huston and you have further evidence of why the PG-13 rating came about later in the year. Note to Hollywood: Castration jokes…never funny.
While the cast is not exactly spectacular, they do a decent enough job. Urich is well suited for the role, especially when doing the whole swashbuckler routine. Michael D. Roberts is also quite funny as Roscoe and Mary Crosby…well…what self-respecting pirate wouldn’t want to kidnap her. On the other hand, Anjelica Huston and Ron Perlman, two of the biggest names in the cast by today’s standards, are severely underused. Deserving to be much more underused is Bruce Vilanch in a truly annoying performance. We should all be thankful he does most of his work behind the scenes these days. I should also mention that John Carradine makes very brief appearance as the sickly Supreme Commander in a scene that is completely unnecessary.
Ultimately, this is extremely goofy. I honestly don’t know that I can call it a good movie, but there is some degree of fun to be had with The Ice Pirates. Not all of the gags hit their mark, but the film still has its charms. The space herpe is not one of them.