Five Great Movies: Space Operas

Before you see John Carter, catch up on five great films that came out of the genre it invented.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


With this weekend comes John Carter, an adaptation of a series of novels by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs that, pretty much, created what we now call the “space opera.” These space operas are more than mere science fiction, and also considerably less: the space opera cares not for petty “science,” choosing instead to tell a broad melodrama told in a fantastical world in which futuristic science is incidental, but part of the fun. They’re not about how advances in science will change the world, or reveal something long forgotten about our natures. Space operas are about how science is fun, and will one day allow us to save the universe, win the girl, and become total badasses with lasers.

There ain’t nothing wrong with that, so this week on Five Great Movies we’re taking a look at five of the greatest space operas of all time. Not “the” greatest, since we’re intentionally leaving Star Wars off the list (you already know you should see Star Wars, right?), but just five movies that take place in space, tell a ripsnorter of a yarn and entertain like nobody’s business. Except today… it’s our business.


Starcrash (dir. Luigi Cozzi, 1978)

Shortly after the success of Star Wars in 1977, the rip-offs began pouring in by the truckload. For a long time these knockoffs seemed to miss the point entirely, ignoring the fact that Star Wars’ success was largely due to the fact that it took the space opera seriously. Films like Star Crash – and several others on our list – made use of new and innovative special effects while relying on campy sensibilities that don’t quite belong in the same conversation as George Lucas’s groundbreaking original trilogy. Don’t hold that against them though: a lot of them are fun as hell.

Case in point: Starcrash, a deliriously Eurotrash motion picture starring Caroline Munro of Hammer Horror fame as the intergalactic pirate Stella Star. She winds up in the middle of war between the outlandishly evil Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell of Maniac fame) and the kindly Emperor, played by recent Oscar-winner Christopher Plummer (who even then was slumming a bit). She and her androgynous hippy space wizard traveling companion Akton (Marjoe Gortner, a real-life ordained minister at age four) team up with a redneck robot to track down the Count’s secret weapon, which can make the entire of crew of a starship turn mad and destroy each other. Oh, and an impossibly young David Hasselhoff shows up as a roguish prince. That’s worth the price of admission alone.

The dialogue and plot are, well… awful, but that doesn’t detract from Starcrash’s hallucinogenic qualities. The production design, stylish special effects and Munro’s fetish outfits (she’s the only prisoner in a penal colony forced to wear a bikini, you’ll notice) create a hypnotic air of pop fantasy that can’t be denied, even if you’re laughing all the way through it. I’ve never dropped acid, but I assume it’s a lot like Starcrash.


Flash Gordon (dir. Mike Hodges, 1980)

More camp badassery came along with Flash Gordon, directed – surprisingly enough – by Mike Hodges, better known for gritty dramas like Get Carter, which we recently featured in Five Great Movies: Michael Caine. But he also directed Morons from Outer Space, so let’s not make a big thing about it. Hodges turned out to have a flare for dark character studies and high camp in this adaptation of Alex Raymond’s comic strip and a series of earlier movie serials.

Flash Gordon stars Sam J. Jones as a football star who gets rocketed across the galaxy, into the throne room of Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), who plans to destroy the planet Earth. Well, not if Flash Gordon has anything to say about it! Gordon befriends an army of hawk people, duels Timothy Dalton on a moving platform of spikes and gets in a whole bunch of other adventures so zany that I’m not sure if they’re actually in the film or part of a late night out of body experience brought on by too many Pixie Sticks. That’s intentional, of course. The film was written by Lorenzo Semple Jr., famous for the Adam West “Batman” TV series, and has its tongue so thoroughly immersed in its cheek that you’ll be amazed the dialogue is audible.

Flash Gordon lacks plot, character development and common sense, but that’s part of its charm. It’s a herculean superhero fantasy of the highest order. It just also happens to be wacky as sh*t.


The Ice Pirates (dir. Stewart Raffill, 1984)

Ice Pirates comes to you from the director of Mac and Me and Standing Ovation. That should give you some inclination of what you’re in for. If you ever wanted to see Angelica Huston in a black bikini decapitating a guy in a bar, and I assume you have, this is the film for you.

The film stars Robert Urich and Michael D. Roberts as space pirates on the hunt for water, which has replaced money as currency throughout the universe. They’re purchased by a princess played by Marcy Crosby – it’s a long story – who’s looking for a planet with enough water to restablilize the economy. More importantly, they’re joined by the severed head of Bruce Vilanch. Also their ship picks up a nasty case of Space Herpes. Also the end of the film takes place in a time warp so all the characters are a hundred years old. Also, we’re pretty confident that everyone involved was on a lot of drugs at the time.

We’re not going to lie to you. Ice Pirates is not a timeless classic, but it’s great anyway thanks to its freewheeling storyline, good-natured cast and a head-scratching sense of humor the likes of which you never see anymore… if indeed you ever did. If you think you’ve seen everything, there’s a good chance you haven’t seen Ice Pirates.


The Last Starfighter (dir. Nick Castle, 1984)

Enough with the camp: Nick Castle’s The Last Starfighter once again dared to take the Space Opera seriously, which is kind of ironic given its ridiculous setup. Lance Guest plays Alex Rogan, a video game enthusiast from a trailer park who discovers that his favorite arcade game, Starfighter, is actually a training program for interstellar fighter pilots. After he beats the game’s high score, he’s drafted by an alien shyster played by The Music Man’s Robert Preston, and sets out to save the universe.

As wish fulfillment goes, The Last Starfighter effectively realizes the daydream of thumb jockeys everywhere, but it’s also (and here’s the kicker) a damned good film. Guest has the wide-eyed wonder down pat, but also sells Alex’s reluctance to leave his world behind, even though leaving it was all he ever wanted. He also gets to play an android version of himself (created to prevent anyone on Earth from wondering where he’s off to) that defends his girlfriend, Night of the Comet’s Catherine Mary Stewart, from alien mercenaries. That’s just one of the clever plot elements that The Last Starfighter throws at you, where lesser films could have turned the concept into something painfully straightforward like Jumanji.

The Last Starfighter works as a space opera, it works as a 1980s teen flick, and it works as a comedy too, thanks to dialogue like, “They’re all dead?” “Death is a primitive concept. I prefer to think of them as battling evil in another dimension!” The special effects are a little dated, even though the CGI was actually pretty revolutionary for its time, but otherwise The Last Starfighter deserves its vaunted reputation as a nostalgia film that actually holds up over time.


The Fifth Element (dir. Luc Besson, 1997)

Here’s a fun one: a Space Opera with an actual opera in it! Luc Besson spent his childhood working out a futuristic space language and finally found a movie to put it in with The Fifth Element, which unlike most movies these days envisions the future as a colorful cornucopia of gaudy costume design and outlandish humor. Oh yes, and the action rules. It’s still Luc Besson, after all.

Bruce Willis stars as Korben Dallas, a former special forces agent-turned-taxi driver whose latest fare is actually an alien being called The Fifth Element. She’s a sexy orange-haired alien played by Milla Jovovich, and the only person capable of saving the universe from an evil planet making its way towards Earth. Gary Oldman plays corporate tycoon Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, who has the evil planet on speed dial and wants to help destroy the galaxy. Willis and Jovovich fall in love, save the galaxy, and Chris Tucker breaks glass with his shrieking – but still kinda funny – comic relief. It’s a very fun film.

A lot of people like to point out that Willis and Oldman never have a single scene together in The Fifth Element, and that’s true, but it’s just one aspect of the fascinating parallel storytelling advice Besson employs here. Throughout the film, many key scenes and sequences are happening simultaneously, with two characters setting up an action or joke and two other characters completing that thought somewhere else entirely. It establishes a whimsical tone for The Fifth Element that many other space operas employ, but adds a layer of complexity that makes the film hard to write off as mindless entertainment. While the story is simple, the storytelling actually requires the audience to make more connections than the typical film, leading to a more satisfying whole than a straightforward narrative ever would. And if that sounds too academic for you, there’s also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of Milla Jovovich’s nipples.

That’s it for Five Great Movies this week. Did we leave out your favorite space operas? List ‘em in the comments!