The Ice Pirates (1984) starring Robert Urich and Mary Crosby
What’s it about?
In the distant future water is the most precious commodity in the galaxy, and is controlled by the Templars from planet Mithra. It is transported in the form of ice via fleets of space freighters, where it is a tempting target for groups of roving bandits known as Ice Pirates.
Robert Urich plays Jason, the leader of one such pirate group who conducts such a raid along with his right-hand man Roscoe (Michael D. Roberts) and the rest of his motley crew. Within the belly of the Templar ship, they find not only a huge haul of ice but also a princess named Karina who is in the throes of cryogenic sleep. So… Jason has the bright idea of nabbing her too for a potentially huge ransom. However, this results in the Templars pursuing and capturing them.
Jason and Roscoe are held as prisoners to be taken to Mithra and rendered as eunuchs via a castration machine. However, instead of receiving the dreaded snip they are coerced by the princess into undertaking a top secret mission.
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Why is it significant?
After the original Star Wars trilogy was rounded out in 1983 by Return Of The Jedi, the fat lady sang on the space opera the following year. Or rather: the fat lady crushed the sub-genre under her own weight via David Lynch’s near-unwatchable adaptation of Dune. However, a couple of minor hits managed to sneak their way out before this. One was The Last Starfighter, a sort of crossover inspired by the video game/computer graphics movie Tron (1982). The other was The Ice Pirates, a mildly raunchy comedy version with nods towards the swashbuckler.
It was apparently originally intended to be a more serious affair than it turned out to be. However, MGM decided to turn it into a comedy largely for financial reasons. The original version was budgeted at $20 million - but by playing it for laughs they perceived that they could get away with lower production values and deliver it for just $9 million. It received mostly negative reviews from contemporary critics but is nonetheless a fondly-remembered relic by a certain demographic who grew up during the 1980s.
How does it hold up?
While hardly a great film, The Ice Pirates is admittedly a lot of fun at times. After all, it features a castration machine, comic relief droids with martial arts skills, Anjelica Huston as a scantily-clad swordswoman, a slapstick decapitation, a space battle represented by what looks like a Space Invaders game being played on a computer console, a futuristic bike chase and a final battle where the flow of time speeds up - causing the participants to rapidly reach old age. There are some good chuckles and lively action scenes. The cast works enjoyably together - in particular, the interplay between Robert Urich and Michael D. Roberts.
The trouble is for every inspired moment there is another that’s plodding or downright lame. There are too many static expository scenes as well as a few inane ideas which drag out to too much screen time. One character who is introduced during the latter half is a talking severed head. The effects involved here are weak (no animatronics here - we get a rubber prop intercut with the actor either hidden from the neck down in a hollowed-out set or via a trick shot from the neck up) and there is only one moderate laugh generated from this whole idea.
The film arguably works best during the background gags which flash by, such as when one character is seen watching a futuristic sport which turns out to be a clip from the 1975 film Rollerball, or a mum and dad robot get knocked over during the bike chase, leaving an orphaned robot child. There are also some fun lines, a good example being the following:
Jason: [looking at the robot that Roscoe has built] Why’d you make him black?
Roscoe: [smiling] Because I wanted him to be perfect.
As you might expect considering the modest budget, there’s a general “thrown together with whatever they could find” feel to the production - for instance, many of the settings are clearly disused industrial facilities with a few embellishments. Occasionally it appears a little more money was spent in a few sequences: the spacecraft scenes look fairly good and there are some imaginative vehicles which pop up during the chases.
The overall feeling of The Ice Pirates is one of unevenness. It could have been great if the tone was more consistent, a bit more quality control was put into the scenes and a bit more time and money were spent on the whole endeavour.
Runtime: 91 mins
Dir: Stewart Raffill
Script: Stewart Raffill, Stanford Sherman
Starring: Robert Urich, Mary Crosby, Michael D. Roberts, Anjelica Huston, John Matuszak, Ron Perlman, John Carradine, Jeremy West