About six minutes into Mel Brooks‘ Spaceballs, Colonel Sandurz explains in detail to Dark Helmet exactly how Planet Spaceball will steal Druidia’s supply of fresh air. Dark Helmet then looks directly into the camera and harshly asks, “Everybody got that?!”
Dark Helmet is a vengeful, pathetic figure who can’t seem to do anything right. Each time he tries to put someone (or something) down, they always seem to fight back and win. This moment is the exception, as Dark Helmet directs his rage at the one thing that can’t fight back: us.
As I rewatched Spaceballs before writing this essay, that line stuck with me. More than any other moment in the film, that line encapsulates the cynical critique of consumers — of us — that is the film’s satirical core. Beneath the 1987 Star Wars parody lies a mockery of the world we still live in, a world of mass consumption and belabored explanations of plot.
When Brooks asked George Lucas for his blessing to make the film, Lucas agreed on one condition: no Spaceballs merchandise could be sold. God forbid it draw people away from Star Wars merch, right? Of course, the idea of merchandising is mocked in the film when the heroes meet Yogurt, who offers to sell them a range of Spaceballs paraphernalia, including lunch boxes, action figures, and flamethrowers. “Merchandising! Merchandising! Where the real money from the movie is made!” Brooks exclaims, in the role as Yogurt.
It was this on-the-nose moment I had in mind when I set out to write this article. But, as I watched Spaceballs again, I became overwhelmed by the film’s endless jokes about mass consumption. The film begins with a crew member of the Spaceball One shouting, “Colonel Sandurz!” From there, it all just…snowballs.
We meet Pizza the Hut, Prince Valium, Princess Vespa, and Yogurt. A state of the art Mr. Coffee machine is mistaken for the ship’s radar, in place of the Millenium Falcon is a Winnebago, and the evil president of Planet Spaceball must breathe Perri-air to survive. Need I go on?
Spaceballs is not a great film. It is full of lazy jokes about body fluids, private parts, etc. And the Star Wars jokes are as banal as it gets. Even the consumerism jokes are a bit contrived. But, they serve a purpose; they barrage us in a way that makes us realize just how desensitized we have become to the power of the product. We want stuff! Merchandise for all!
Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film, “The strangest thing about Spaceballs is that it should have been made several years ago, before our appetite for Star Wars satires had been completely exhausted.” What Ebert failed to note is that the Star Wars plot parody exists as a structure to support the film’s larger critique of the hyper-commercialization of space and the willingness of the consumer to be complicit in it all.
Other Brooks parodies, namely Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and High Anxiety, deal with the Hollywood of the writer/director’s youth. When viewing those films, one feels the warmth and sense of nostalgia that is notably absent from Spaceballs. Unlike the marks of those other films — the Western genre, Frankenstein, and Alfred Hitchcock — Spaceballs deals more with the present, with the hyper-consumption that the original Star Wars trilogy left in its wake and continues to fuel. Spaceballs is actually prophetic in its critique of Star Wars and the other space franchises it references, including Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, and Alien. And Brooks takes it a step further still.
One of the film’s best scenes comes as Colonel Sandurz and Dark Helmet are searching for the heroes. Unsure of how to find them, Sandurz suggests they view a VHS copy of Spaceballs and learn what will happen next. Dark Helmet, understandably skeptical of Sandurz’s idea to watch the film they are currently making, asks how that could be possible. Sandurz informs him that, in fact, there has been a breakthrough in home video marketing: instant cassettes.
The camera follows a member of the ship’s crew as he goes to “Mr. Rental” to find a copy of Spaceballs. When he arrives, there are VHS tapes of the Friday the 13th and Rocky franchises, which each have 13 sequels on display. Like Perrier-air, movies have become commodities, franchises to be remade and redistributed again and again, and as quickly as possible. It is what consumers want. And thus, we understand the disdain Dark Helmet greeted us with at the beginning of the film: he views us an audience only able to comprehend simple, recycled plots.
Sitting beside the copy of Spaceballs at Mr. Rental are VHS copies of Brooks’ previous movies. In an interview at the time of the film’s release, the filmmaker said he decided to make a space movie because Star Wars had established the cliches necessary to create a successful parody. Does a cinephile like Brooks actually expect us to buy the idea that space movie cliches did not exist before Star Wars? Come on.
One might say that in the instant cassette scene, Brooks shows us the real reason he made the film: money, money, money! I mean, he actually jokes in Spaceballs, again while playing Yogurt, that the sequel would be called Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money. By displaying his own films at Mr. Rental, Brooks acknowledges that he too is not only a benefactor of mass consumption but, like his audience, complicit in its perpetuation. How tragically beautiful is it that we now live in a world that makes Spaceballs seem prophetic?
Planet Spaceball and the mess of a crew aboard Spaceball One are the byproducts of mass consumption. By the end of the film, the Spaceball leaders get blown up trying to steal Druidia’s supply of clean air, and Pizza the Hut eats himself to death after getting trapped in his car. The moral of the story: consumption will destroy us all.