The next best things to Star Wars are movies that want to be Star Wars.
Whenever a trend comes along that takes society by storm, we tend to see it reflected in art and pop culture. Often, when a property becomes mega-successful, imitators aren’t far behind with their own variations of the formula as they try to score a piece of that pie before it goes out of fashion. Naturally, the success of Star Wars in 1977 inspired a legion of like-minded space operas almost immediately, and some didn’t even try to disguise the fact that they were milking George Lucas’ proverbial teat.
That said, there’s an art to a “good” copycat movie, and the 70s and 80s were a beautiful time for these films. Despite being obvious attempts to exploit the success of cinema’s most popular releases, these cheap oddities often still managed to pack in a few surprises by cranking up the outrageous elements. Maybe the films on this list aren’t the same caliber of Lucas’ grand-scale space adventures, but they make up for it with their own bizarre quirks, wacky ideas, and brazen attitudes.
If you don’t like cheap schlock then most of these won’t be for you. But, if you have an open mind and occasionally like your entertainment to be undemanding and quite silly, then please join me as I enter the weird and wacky world of Star Wars knock-offs.
Director Luigi Cozzi claimed that the idea for this movie was conceived before he even knew Star Wars was a thing. I don’t see why Cozzi — a man whose surname sounds like the sensation we feel from a warm hug or a snug blanket during those cold, dark, lonely nights — would lie about such a thing.
The story, on the other hand, is still somewhat derivative of Star Wars. Here, we follow a team of smugglers who are tasked with rescuing the son of the Emperor of the Galaxy from the clutches of the evil Count Zarth Arn. That’s ZARTH, folks — not DARTH. See? Totally nothing like Star Wars.
While there are similarities to Star Wars, the movie is also a love letter to the stop-motion fantasies brought to life by the great Ray Harryhausen, so what’s not to love here? Starcrash also stars Caroline Munro, Christopher Plummer, Joe Spinell and a young Hoff.
Message from Space (1978)
Kinji Fukasaku gave us classics like the Battles Without Honour and Humanity series and Battle Royale, so I’m sure we can overlook the fact that even he tried to cash in on the Star Wars buzz back in the day. Fortunately, it’s full of all the charm you’d expect from a good clone, and its distinct Japanese weirdness makes it so much more than your average copycat.
The movie is actually based on ancient Japanese mythology, but the story was modified to basically be Star Wars as well. There’s a planet-destroying space station, a groovy cantina scene, and a climax that’s essentially the Death Star assault. Moreover, the villain is like a Samurai Darth Vader, and the score is also eerily similar to a John Williams composition. George Lucas basically stole his ideas from Akira Kurosawa, of course, so it was only fair Japan returned the favor.
The Humanoid (1979)
When it comes to schlock and ripping off popular trends, Italian cinema during the 70s and 80s is unsurpassed. We already mentioned Starcrash, which tried to pretend it wasn’t a Star Wars clone despite the glaring similarities. In the case of this 1979 movie by Aldo Lado, however, no one even tried to hide its intentions.
For a start, Lado directed the movie under the moniker “George B. Lewis” — probably to dupe people into thinking he was Lucas, and that this was somehow connected to the Star Wars saga. The film opens with the standard paragraphs of type floating through space. Additionally, the villain, Lord Graal, is basically Darth Vader — only cooler.
With this being an Italian exploitation flick, we get some absurd subplots, including one with a crazy scientist who wants to help Graal create an army of invincible super soldiers so he can usher in an age of darkness. There’s also a score by Ennio Morricone, and it wasn’t even stolen. How about that?
Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)
Roger Corman has yet to encounter a trend he couldn’t capitalize on, so naturally, he latched onto the Star Wars epidemic. After acquiring the aforementioned Starcrash for New World Pictures to see how well it would do financially, he unleashed this gem two years later looking to be equally profitable.
Battle Beyond the Stars was released to cash in on the success of Lucas’ saga, but it is actually a remake of The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai set in space. The film’s alien race, the Akira, were even named in honor of the latter’s director. Both of those movies are classics in their own right, but Battle Beyond the Stars is a fine companion story that offers an alternative to the Old West and feudal Japan.
The Man Who Saved the World (1982)
Marketed as “Turkish Star Wars,” this is the very definition of a knock-off, and arguably the most infamous of the Star Wars clones. While other movies on this list shamelessly ape other works of art, this one goes to the next level by stealing actual scenes and music from them.
The film opens with space cadets crash landing on a strange planet via scenes from A New Hope spliced together. Later, we get some more scenes lifted from Star Wars, as well as Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and real-life newsreels.
That’s not all, either. The film’s music contains John Williams’ iconic Raiders of the Lost Ark score, along with medleys from Ben-Hur, Planet of the Apes, and more. However, just because The Man Who Saved the Planet is essentially a list of criminal offences, that shouldn’t detract from its story about an evil wizard who likes putting his captives in gladiatorial combat. Kung-fu, monsters, ninjas, and telekinesis are also thrown in for good measure.
Maybe it’s not the most coherent movie out there, but it’s an experience, and you have to admire its ballsiness.
The Last Starfighter (1984)
This entry negates the title of this article as I have problems calling this movie a “rip-off” for the simple reason that it isn’t one. Sure, it exists because of the popularity of Star Wars in the 1980s and is often lumped in with copycat fare, but it’s not. The story focuses on a teenager living in a rural area who is whisked away to fight in an interstellar battle, which is very similar to young Skywalker’s journey to becoming a hero. This, however, is a more grounded tale that feels much more human than Lucas’ saga.
In The Last Starfighter, our hero is an earthling who passes the time by playing arcade games and dreaming of greater things. At some point in our lives, most of us have looked at the stars and wondered what’s beyond them — as well as contemplated what’s beyond our own neighborhoods. Other movies are content to live in the shadow of Star Wars, but The Last Starfighter reaches for the stars in its own special way.