The Ice Pirates

June 8, 2012

Somewhere within the 90 minutes of silliness that comprises The Ice Pirates is a halfway-decent science-fiction plot. But the movie plays so broadly you won’t find much time being spent developing anything like a storyline. It would get in the way of the goofy gags.

If you did search for the plot, it would sound like this: In the world of the future, water is almost nonexistent, and more precious than oil. A bunch of hooligan pirates trade in the stuff, but they are sidetracked from their standard dastardly deeds when they steal a princess (Mary Crosby) during one of their pickups.

Our heroes (Robert Urich and Michael D. Roberts) get caught, and are scheduled to be subject to a new painless operation whereby they will be turned into eunuchs, and thus slaves. At the end of the assembly line process, they look like Liberace groupies—white pompadours, tight silver lamé jumpsuits, high, squeaky voices.

Luckily, the princess has intervened, and halted the machine at crucial moments. They’re just pretending to be eunuchs (not an easy trick in a tight silver lamé jumpsuit). It seems the princess is searching for her missing father (has there ever been a princess without a missing father?), and can use the help of the ice pirates to journey to the much-fabled, but never discovered, seventh planet, where they say water covers most of the surface of the orb.

If you can predict from this that 1) the princess will be reunited with her father, 2) the fabled planet will turn out to be our own Earth, and most importantly, 3) that the princess and the pirate leader will start panting after each other pretty heavily, well, you can go to the head of the nebula. All will turn out well.

So what’s wrong with the movie? Most everything, really. The special effects are crude, the characters are cardboard, and the forward motion is haphazard. Of course, it’s supposed to be cartoonish, but good cartoons have a basis, if not always in reality, then in some kind of logic.

The worst thing is, The Ice Pirates wants to be funny, but it winds up falling flat on its tongue-in-cheek. The thing is being sold, via a series of teaser ads, as a kind of Airplane! for the Star Wars audience, but its humor is of a coarser kind. Airplane! got laughs by playing everything with a straight face; in The Ice Pirates, characters all but wink at the camera.

The tone is low camp, which encourages some of the actors—especially Ron Perlman, who was one of the apes in Quest for Fire—to go off on the occasional improvisation. There’s also a swishy planet lord who is decapitated but nevertheless continues to supply a stream of one-liners. (A number of things go unexplained in this film.) And then there is this thing that jumps out of an egg, scuttles across the floor a lot, and attaches itself to people. It’s called a space herpes, and we will not discuss it here.

First published in the Herald, March 20, 1984

I don’t remember this movie. Yes somehow I feel confident in standing by this review. I just want to point out that the cast also includes pre-Oscar Anjelica Huston, John Matuszak, John Carradine, and Bruce Vilanch.

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The Philadelphia Experiment

November 28, 2011

The Philadelphia Experiment is a low-budget bit of nonsense that explores a well-trod sector of that vast region known as the Twilight Zone: time travel.

In fact, this film conjures up visions of long-gone supernatural TV shows: not just “Twilight Zone” but also “The Outer Limits,” and a particular favorite of mine during Cub Scout years, “The Time Tunnel.”

Like the “Time Tunnel” shows, the heroes of The Philadelphia Experiment are flipped around in the time warp thanks to a government experiment that goes wrong. In this case, a couple of sailors (Michael Paré and Bobby Di Cicco) are serving aboard a destroyer in Philadelphia Bay in 1943. Some hotshot scientists claim to have a device that will cloak U.S. ships from enemy radar, and they test it out on the ship with a full crew.

Levers are pushed, and soon everybody on board is shaking and rattling and turning different shades of orange. The ship disappears from radar contact, all right—it also disappears from view. Yipes! The next thing we know, Paré and Di Cicco are tumbling through a tear in the space-time continuum (I don’t really know what that means, but it always sounds good when they say it in these movies—and they always do).

They end up in the Nevada desert in 1984, where they are deposited because the government is once again trying the same test—won’t they ever learn?—and Paré and Di Cicco drop through a hole in the sky. They spend the next couple of days trying to go back, with the help of a woman (Nancy Allen) who doesn’t mind a little adventure.

That hole in the sky is, of course, not the only hole in this plot. But, while this film is ragged and adolescent, it also has a sense of humor about itself. When Paré and Di Cicco wander about the desert, they pick up a bottle of beer: Lowenbrau. Good heavens—could the Germans have won the war? There are also humorous, if predictable, jokes about first encounters with television, punk rockers, and video games.

The director, Stewart Raffill, bumps things along quite adroitly—and at times, with some delicacy. For instance, there’s a prologue in which we’re introduced to Di Cicco’s 1943 wife. Later, Paré shows up at her door—in 1984. He hasn’t changed—people who travel through time never do, as everyone knows—but she’s much older. Interesting situation, and poignantly handled.

Raffill isn’t quite as sure with his actors. Paré, the chef-turned-star who was in Streets of Fire, still communicates almost nothing but lunkheadedness, but this is his best outing yet. Everyone else is logging time. Sometimes they look slightly embarrassed at the silly dialogue they have to mouth, but the tone is mostly earnest.

John Carpenter, the director Halloween and other stylish suspense flicks, is executive producer. It’s always hard to know what that title means, but Carpenter is well-known as a lover of B-movies, those modest entertainments that used to fill out the bottom halves of double bills and sometimes upstage the nominal A-movie.

With the decline of first-run double-billing, the B-movie has all but disappeared. Its value as a cheap breeding ground for new talent is missed. I find it comforting that Carpenter, Raffill, and cohorts have not yet given up the ship.

First published in the Herald, August 27, 1984

This should have been a better, pulpier movie. That cast list is certainly of the Eighties, people who were on the way up and apparently destined to be stars, but yeah, never mind. Stewart Raffill had also done The Ice Pirates in ’84, a spoofy thing, and would turn to Mac and Me, which I do not forgive. Will find both reviews as soon as possible.