1984: The Greatest Year II – THE ICE PIRATES

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Welcome to 1984: The Greatest Year Part II – Electric Boogaloo, the Geek League of America’s 30th anniversary tribute to the iconic geek culture films of 1984. This series of in-depth, analytical, fun, and nostalgic essays on the year that brought us instant classics like Ghostbusters, The Terminator, Gremlins, and others serves as a sequel to our 1982: The Greatest Year articles. Like 1982, 1984 was a game-changing year for genre cinema, loaded with popcorn blockbusters, cult hits, and genre-defining masterpieces. Join Jeff and other members of the Geek League of America for a fond, and sometimes funny, look back at this monumental year in nerd culture history.

As the head honcho around here, I could have chosen any movie from 1984 to write about. I could have penned a loving tribute to Ghostbusters, one of the funniest and most iconic comedies of all time. I could have done an analysis on the greatly misunderstood Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, a controversial adventure thriller that gave birth to the PG-13 rating. I could have dissected and discussed one of the most subversive comedy-horror masterpieces of our time, Joe Dante’s Gremlins. Yet…no, I let others extol the virtues of those icons of the ’80s silver screen. In my heart of hearts, I knew there was only one movie from that golden year I wanted to explore, a swashbuckling, “totally spaced adventure” – The Ice Pirates! 

By all accounts this movie shouldn’t even be mentioned alongside the legendary cinematic offerings of 1984—the only comparable element The Ice Pirates has in common with any of them is a  beautifully painted  poster (by Steve Chorney)—but it’s here because it’s so incredibly batshit insane, and because I love it dearly.

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Action-packed action!” “You have to be there to see it!” God, what great tag lines, huh? Well, that’s merely scratching the surface of the comedic treasures lurking within this gooey steaming plate of pure, unadulterated ’80s sci-fi cheese…

Directed by future Mac & Me helmer Stewart Raffill for a paltry $9 million (chump change, even by 1984 standards), The Ice Pirates has all the charming earmarks of the countless cheap-o Star Wars clones that popped up between 1977 and the mid-to-late 1980s: flimsy particle board sets dressed with 8-track players, old video game systems, hair dryers, and other household items; badly composited (and repetitive) spaceship effects with visible matte boxes floating around them; shoddy matte paintings; transitional exteriors borrowed from other films (in this case, a model city from 1976’s Logan’s Run); and I’m pretty sure over 50 percent of the flick was shot in the same industrial plant somewhere in Fresno.

In grand Flash Gordon serial tradition, the bad guys wear recycled medieval chain-mail headgear left over from some Robin Hood or King Arthur TV movie (the Templar name probably came as an afterthought), and our heroes sport standard 18th-century pirate gear adorned with some Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic accoutrements. The musical score by Bruce Broughton seems to have one 12-second “main” cue that gets endlessly repeated, while his disco-rock action accompaniment lends the entire affair a ’70s sci-fi TV show vibe (and no wonder, a quick scan of IMDb reveals he scored the Buck Rogers TV show).

You would think with all this stacked up against it, The Ice Pirates is ripe for a snarky, Mystery Science Theater 3000-style evisceration; on the contrary, it’s weirdly immersive, resulting in a movie you are laughing with, not at. The flick miraculously manages to achieve enough of George Lucas’ patented “used universe” aesthetic to make you feel that this a real place where the pirates live and struggle. I’ve always had a soft spot for low-budget, Roger Corman-esque sci-fi stuff; these chincy, cobbled-together worlds have more tangibility and grit than dozens of modern CGI/ greenscreened environments that usually end up feeling about as real and tangible as a Pegasus fart.

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So what is The Ice Pirates all about? Well, I’ll let the film’s handy Star Wars-esque opening text explain it:

Long after the great interplanetary wars, the galaxy has gone dry.

Water has become the only thing left of value.

Evil Templars from the planet Mithra have gained control of this life-giving resource. Their power is now absolute except for a few rebel pirates who survive by stealing ice from the great Templar fleets.

Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s standard, Reagan-era, trickle-down economics stuff – the rich assholes (The Templars) own everything, and the rag-tag good guys (The titular buccaneers) fight for the scraps. If you’re looking for metaphor or subtlety, you’ve come to wrong place – The Ice Pirates is pure, unadulterated goofiness. What’s interesting to note about the film is that it pre-dates Mel Brooks beloved Spaceballs by four years. While it’s not a full-blown parody of Star Wars and its space opera ilk like the Mel Brooks classic (the plot’s through line is played razor-straight), it’s still rife with sight gags, slapstick, meta-contextual observations, absurd situations, and satirical skewering of standard spacefaring tropes. Where the film truly shines for me, however, is the character work.

Our protagonist and leader of the merry band of ice block thieves is Jason, played by the great Robert Urich, who was looking to make the jump from TV work in shows like Vegas to movie stardom in an era where that was considered nigh impossible (in the 70s and 80s you had TV stars and movie stars, and never the twain shall meet). Jason is a riff on the standard “heroic scoundrel” archetype; a rakish rogue who’s only out for himself, but ultimately does the right thing in the end. Urich has a blast with the part, imbuing Jason with effortless charm and a healthy dose of late ‘70s/early ‘80s machismo. He also manages to create a character that’s a sort of proto-Jack Burton two years before Big Trouble In Little China existed — all sexual swagger and bumbling braggadocio (he spends a lot of fight scenes just shooting the breeze with the pirates and making robots do all the work). The guy’s like Han Solo, if Han Solo was wayyy more of a wiseass and a letch; Jason is constantly dropping sexual innuendos and It’s clear he doesn’t always think with the right head, because he nearly gets his entire crew killed and/or captured at the beginning of the movie by making a detour to kidnap a sleeping Mary Crosby.

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Crosby, appearing as the film’s obligatory space princess, Karina was also attempting to escape the confines of primetime network soap operas and TV movies. She was best known to audiences in 1983 as Kristen Shepard on Dallas, so she likely leapt at the opportunity to put on some sparkly pantyhose and shoot blasters at evil space knights. The kindest critique I can offer up about Crosby’s performance is that at least she wasn’t playing a helpless damsel in distress; otherwise she’s stilted and well, just kind of there. It’s obvious she’s not having as much fun as her fellow cast-mates. She does get to cut loose a bit towards the end of the film and join in on some of the wackier moments, so it’s not a total loss.

Faring far better is Jason’s partner in crime/robot programmer Roscoe,  played with easy-going comedic breeze by Michael D. Roberts. Prior to The Ice Pirates, Roberts also toiled away on the small screen, appearing in well, just about every hour-long action show in the late 70s and early 80s (he played a character named “Jackson” on both Knight Rider and The Fall Guy!). Roberts provides a great foil for Urich, reacting to Jason’s lust-fueled exploits with priceless facial expressions. The pair have palpable chemistry between them; you can see they are genuinely having a good time together, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn Roberts and Urich hung out at the local watering hole together after shooting every night.

The rest of the motley pirate crew, ironically, is filled out by future Oscar winners and/or actors who would go on to enjoy lengthy film careers. Anjelica Huston is the ship’s resident female badass, Maida; ex-football star John Matusak—who would go on to play Sloth in The Goonies a year later—plays the lunky, but silver-tongued and affable con artist Kiljoy; and a young, barely recognizable Ron Perlman makes only his second appearance in a film as the gang’s computer expert/wisecracker/turkey chef, Zeno.  The cast has a wonderful, loose repartee, and you can tell they knew perfectly well what kind of movie they were making because edits often occur milliseconds before telltale smirks turned into uproarious laughter.

For gravitas, The Ice Pirates somehow enlisted  84-year-old TV and movie icon John Carradine—father of David, Keith, and Robert—to play the dying ruler of the Templar Empire for an expository scene where the main baddie of flick, Zorn lets him know his evil plan is going swimmingly. Carradine wears a glittery space hospital gown, a silly cap,  has visibly gnarled, arthritic hands, and spouts some ultra-serious non-sequiturs before the scene cuts away awkwardly and he’s never seen again. It’s bizarre.

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But there’s more bizarre where that came from (better bizarre, anyway); not to mention inappropriate, and just plain laugh-out-loud funny stuff. Some highlights:

  • When the pirates cut their way into the Templar ice ship during the opening raid, they barge into a bathroom where a featherless chicken alien is on a commode “dropping the kids off at the pool.” He has his pants down around his ankles and farts when Roscoe busts through the wall. Classy.
  • One of the pirate robots walks around with a peg-leg, and later swings into a Templar control room, impaling a Templar guard through the back. Jason appropriately quips, “Guess he’s got you pegged!”
  • Jason and Roscoe are captured by the Templars and taken to the “water planet” of Mithra to be “redesigned” and sold into servitude. What’s “redesigned,” you ask? Well, castrated, of course! The whole thing happens assembly line style as the pair are strapped to a conveyor belt, stripped and shaved by union workers, and are about to have their naughty bits chomped off by a mean-looking set of mechanical teeth until….well, that would be a spoiler!
  • During the pirates’ escape from Mithra, a jive-talkin’, horrific black racial stereotype robot that would make even Michael Bay cringe—complete with a video screen in its chest showing porn footage—offers our heroes some prostitutes and transport. Yes, this movie pre-dated Conan O’ Brien’s “Pimpbot 5000 by over ten years.
  • During that same escape sequence, a “family” of three robots rolling down what appears to be a mall food court is nearly wiped out by Jason on his motorcycle. Only one robot is left intact and he spins around, screeching “Mommy! Baby! Mommy! Baby!” It’s kind of horrible.
  • In a rip-off of the Star Wars Cantina scene which takes place on a rip-off off Tatooine, Anjelica Huston’s character, Maida defends Karina’s honor when the Princess is being harassed by an eyepatch-wearing, hairless parrot-lovin, bounty hunter. The big brute calls over his bodyguard, who promptly cuts the table in pieces with a sword. After a brief clash and a swipe from Maida’s blade, the swordsman grins, nods his head back, and his head rolls right off his shoulders. That was pure awesomeness to a nine-year-old.
  • After the Cantina rip-off scene, Jason and Karina travel to the desert (probably the San Fernando valley, judging by the looks of it), and they are attacked by a bunch of bounty hunters on a mind-blowingly bizarre vehicle that defies description. Here, let me just show it to you:
What in the actual hell, right?

What in the actual hell, right?

  • At one point our travellers visit a moon in the “tri-system,” consisting of a fog machine filling a soundstage (with a visible curtain in the background). Once there, they are attacked by muscular Amazon women riding unicorns and taken to their leader Wendell, played by famous comedy writer and perennial Hollywood Squares guest Bruce Vilanch. Wendell is a decapitated head attached to a false body with an owl perched on its shoulder. You cannot make this shit up.
  • After Wendell produces Princess Karina’s father’s ring from his mouth, Jason asks him if he has anything else in there. Wendell quips, “Nothing, would you care to make a deposit?”
  • Roscoe shows a Jason a new robot he’s been working on. When Jason asks him why he painted him black, Roscoe says, “Because I wanted him to be perfect.”
  • The film’s climax—and overall high point—features an all-out battle between the Templars and the Pirates in the midst of a time warp. While locked in the warp, the passage of time rapidly increases (it starts off with a day passing every half hour, and by the end of the fight it’s a day every second). This results in the film speeding up in a jerky fashion every once in a while, and characters growing ridiculous facial hair or turning into skeletons. Within the span of this 8-minute sequence, everyone goes from 30-somethings to decrepit senior citizens. So much time passes in the warp sequence that Robert Urich ends up playing his own son! It’s quite innovate and an absolute blast to watch. My best friend’s Dad took us to see The Ice Pirates on a chilly March afternoon and we were hooting and giggling until our stomachs hurt during this entire sequence. We thought Roscoe’s enormous white afro was the single funniest things we had ever seen in our lives, and we talked about that and quoted his “I’m too old for this…” line endlessly. It was the height of comedy to our 9-year-old minds.

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I’ve talked about all of this madness and I haven’t even mentioned the one thing this film is famous—or infamous—for:

The SPACE HERPE.

Yep, this thing:

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Absolutely gross, right? Chances are, if you start talking to someone about Jason the star pirate, or Lanky Nibs slingshotting hard-headed space gophers (oh yeah, there are space gophers in this movie), or John Matusak tossing apples into cutesy garbage collector robots, you’ll likely get a hollow, thousand-yard stare; but mention the words “space herpes,” and light of recognition will flicker to life behind the eyes. The space herpe is one of the those things that oozed into the ’80s genre zeitgeist as easily as it slimed its way into Zeno’s turkey, and it remains lurking in the popular vernacular to this day.

If you’ve never seen the movie, I won’t ruin how this unctuous, diseased little biohazard plays into the narrative, but I will say that one of the most transcendent cinematic moments you will ever bear witness to is the sight of Robert Urich using every ounce of willpower in his soul to not break into hysterics after he tries to explain to Mary Crosby that the space herpe really isn’t dangerous, and she replies with great conviction, “That’s not what I’ve been told.” I can’t even fathom how many takes it took Urich to get through that line without doubling over in fits of laughter, and if what’s in the film is best he was able to muster, I’d love to see the dozens of outtakes. Sick as it is, that damn space herpe remains one of my lasting childhood memories.

Beyond the repulsive but unforgettable space herpe, The Ice Pirates doesn’t have any true lasting  legacy beyond killing the film careers of Mary Crosby and Robert Urich (both went back to TV series and made-for-TV movies for the remainder of their professional lives), but there’s something about it—something intangible—that helps it navigate through the endless field of floating space junk dotting the cinematic starfields of the era; forgotten films with names like Space Hunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone and Space Raiders. It’s a quotable, oddly compelling, eminently watchable romp through the stars — a film that I’ve never grown tired of revisiting throughout the years, and one that will undoubtedly come out of the time warp unscathed  to be enjoyed and discussed in another 30 years.

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Jeff Carter

Jeff is the defining voice of his generation. Sadly, that generation exists only in an alternate dimension where George Lucas became supreme overlord of the Earth in 1979 and replaced every television broadcast and theatrical film on the planet with Star Wars and Godzilla movies. In this dimension, he’s just a guy from New England who likes writing snarky things about superheroes, monsters, and robots.