“The Ice Pirates” (1984)
by A.J. Hakari
Making a quality cinematic rip-off has become something of a lost art. You’re never going to lower all of the eyebrows raised whenever a prominent production spawns a succession of scrappy imitators, but when the latter take the time to try and creatively stand out from the pack, it goes a long way. If you’re, say, gunning for that sweet The Abyss coin, a little effort makes all the difference between ending up either a cult treasure like Leviathan or reviled crud a la Lords of the Deep. Having had to share the space opera genre with the Star Wars juggernaut around the time of its release, it was inevitable that 1984’s The Ice Pirates draw comparisons to and even inspiration from the mega-franchise, though strides towards being its own beast were assuredly taken. But while director/co-writer Stewart Raffill (The Philadelphia Experiment) employs intentionally low-rent production values and heightened comic overtones to inform the flick’s identity, the humor isn’t the result of finely-tuned jabs at sci-fi fantasy convention so much as it is of making an incessant ruckus, with which the audience is expected to keep pace.
In the future, war has ravaged the farthest reaches of the galaxy. Water is now the most precious resource of all, with what’s left falling under control of the evil Templar empire. The common folk’s only hope of a quenched thirst lies with the likes of Jason (Robert Urich), Roscoe (Michael D. Roberts), and other pirates who put their lives on the line to steal ice from the tightly-controlled Templar supplies. The crew’s latest raid unfortunately ends in failure and nearly costs them their lives, until salvation arrives from an unlikely source. The Princess Karina (Mary Crosby) is searching for her missing father, and with the last person who saw him hiding out on the pirate home world, she sees the roguish Jason as the guy who’ll get her what she needs. Our hero reluctantly accepts the gig, the promise of a frozen fortune fueling him as he proceeds to face killer robots, intergalactic Amazons, and waves of Templar troops. But personal gain isn’t the only thing on the line, for Karina’s dad may also hold the key to finding a lost planet made of water, a mythical paradise with the power to free the cosmos from tyranny’s clutches for good.
In keeping with the Star Wars motif of presenting rough-hewn, lived-in environments over traditionally slick sci-fi settings on screen, about 90% of The Ice Pirates appears to take place in a series of leaky boiler rooms. This is all by design, as the make-up, props, and set decoration reflect a style that, while not a spoof in the strictest sense, reflect a comedic spin on the typical dystopian fantasy trappings. Not only does Jason’s motley bunch contend with malfunctioning robot companions and fight with dingy scabbards as often as they do with laser guns, even the villains aren’t that much better off, what with the Templars appearing to hold gaudy shindigs in the same club patronized by the Space Mutiny cast. Raffill and company know full well the genre’s already close proximity to abject silliness, so where George Lucas headed east, they took a couple steps west, mounting a take on the material that’s light-hearted without getting itself too entrenched in Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker territory. But where we’d hope such a direction might entail some satirical observations or, at the very least, amusingly wiseass one-liners, The Ice Pirates‘ contributions are disappointingly shallow. Amidst what it considers to be its well of witticisms are pointing out how gross fat people are, giving eunuchs stereotypically high-pitched voices, and literally putting “space” in front of random words to sound more futuristic. The movie might have gotten away with this, were it intended to be a full-on parody, but for a vehicle that first started life as a legit Star Wars rival and still purports to take itself somewhat seriously, its muddled execution ensures that it fall short of achieving those goals.
Even flicks that are in it for the yuks have to be invested in world-building to some extent, but by and large, The Ice Pirates couldn’t be bothered. Though it needn’t lay out some elaborate mythology, something other than the way the filmmakers seem to be making things up as they go along would’ve been nice. As is, Raffill dumps out this heaping stew of cyborgs, Mad Max-style marauders, and assorted creatures before us, and because he neither inspires a sense of wonder or does anything especially funny with what he’s got, there’s no incentive for the viewer to take a bite. So often are we just left to watch the actors repeatedly yell and clang into each other until “cut” is called, leaving little leeway for some inventive magic to be woven. Fortunately, a handful of such opportunities do present themselves, as few and far between as they may be. While far better known for his TV work than his movie roles, Urich capably masters the script’s tongue-in-cheek tone, as does Crosby, whose Karina emerges as a touch feistier than the average space princess. Anjelica Huston and Ron Perlman are suitably game as Jason’s fellow pirates, and John Matuszak of The Goonies fame is having tons of obvious fun playing a hulking bruiser who joins the gang. Plus, for all of the action sequences that involve little more than our ensemble flailing their blades about and ducking from explosions in tiny hallways, the climactic clash — which sees Jason’s troupe and the Templars battling through the effects of rapid aging — is a clever concept mostly done justice in the final product.
There is a contingent for whom The Ice Pirates remains a formative film, the result of renting the tape as a kid, popping it into the VCR, and spending 90 minutes laughing at all the spandex and silly wigs countless times over afterwards. I’m not one to quash the idea that anyone could possibly derive joy from such a goofy and ultimately harmless endeavor such as this, though with other properties having married popcorn thrills and speculative science fiction to greater success, one wonders how much longer pure nostalgia will be able to prop up its usefulness. The Ice Pirates has its charms, but be it ironic or genuine, the impression it leaves isn’t likely to be a strong one.
(The Ice Pirates is available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection.)