A film about frozen water, buccaneers, and space herpes.
The Ice Pirates has the potential for some great sci-fi parody. After all, with the explosion of space-action films over the past decade there was so much to choose from. Unfortunately their adventure melts under the intense glare of attention.
The trailer for this sci-fi comedy depicts a swashbuckling group of actual pirates in outer space, in an area where water is a valuable commodity. There are aliens, space battles, evil warlords, beautiful princesses, and kung-fu robots! A goofy amount of silliness appears to be in store as the film mocks several classic sci-fi tropes, as well as integrates the adventure of a high seas pirate film.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
An intertitle explains that after some interplanetary wars, water is now the only thing of value. A group called the Templars of Mithra control the water supply absolutely. However there are a few rebel pirates that steal ice from the Templar fleets. One such pirate vessel is run by Jason (Robert Urich), who boards a passing Templar freighter and steals 2 million pounds of ice. As they are wrapping up their haul, Jason discovers Princess Karina of Argon (Mary Crosby) in stasis. She is a beautiful woman and Jason decides to kidnap her for some extra money.
The Templars realize they’ve been boarded and pursue Jason’s ship as they attempt to escape. The pirate vessel splits into three components with Maida (Anjelica Huston) flying one portion, Zeno (Ron Perlman) flying the second and Jason and Roscoe (Michael D. Roberts) with the Princess in the third. Unfortunately, Jason’s ship is captured and the pair of pirates are taken to be turned into slaves, which involves lobotomization and castration. Fortunately Princess Karina, also seems taken with Jason and saves Roscoe and him from the industrial conveyor belt that was to castrate them.
For now they must pretend to be slaves in the tight, white spandex leotards, and white hair while the Princess attends a party. Zorn (Jeremy West), the General for the Supreme Commander (John Carradine), catches sight of Jason and Roscoe, so they flee with the Princess and also another prisoner they had met, Killjoy (John Matuszak). Karina wants to hire the pirates to help her find her missing father, and will pay them for passage to the pirate moon of Zagora.
En route with the stolen ship, Roscoe accidentally releases an alien organism from a dormant egg into the ship, which they identify as a space herpe. Arriving on the pirate moon, Jason finds that Maida and Zeno have both made it back safely. With a bounty out for their capture, Maida fights off a couple of mercenaries, while Jason suggests that Karina use her wiles to get info from the frog-like alien city official. Unfortunately the ‘he’, is a she, and Jason is caught in his own uncomfortable trap.
The pirates head for Sweetwater to find Jason’s old friend Lanky Nibs (Robert Symonds) who is now older than Jason from encountering a time warp. Apparently, the pathway to the Seventh World, a mystical place with plenty of water, is protected by a time warp which can age or trap people if they don’t enter properly. This was what Karina’s father was looking for. Nibs sends them to the Tri-System as bounty hunters show up, killing Nibs and attacking the pirates. In the Tri-System, Jason and his crew are captured by unicorn riding Amazons who work for Wendon (Bruce Vilanch), a human head grafted onto a robot body. He helps them, with some gentle persuading, to navigate the time warp.
As they get closer to the Seventh World, time speeds up, rapidly aging the crew. Karina gives birth, after having had sex with Jason moments before, and the pirates must fight off Zorn’s robot forces. Jason and Karina’s son (also played by Urich), now an adult himself, saves the aged group of pirates. When they emerge, time resets itself and the audience realizes that Earth is the Seventh World they’ve spoken of.
“I hope no one minds but I have no intention of facing this sober.” – Zeno
History in the Making
And with a quote like that, we get into this week’s look at the 1984 space comedy The Ice Pirates. I recall watching this film ad nauseum on HBO during the mid-80s where it seemed like a pretty silly spoof of sci-fi films. Unfortunately in the bright light of the 21st Century, the film stands as a superficial, and potentially troubling artifact from a decade of otherwise groundbreaking sci-fi films. The Ice Pirates seems less like a movie and more like an extended television episode of the time, and not just because it uses television actors of the day like Robert Urich. The comedy is broad and often dull, with occasional bouts of “did they really make the joke I think they did”. It’s as if a teenage boy realized that he could get attention by making sex jokes without saying any of the bad words or showing any of the good parts.
Reportedly, the reason The Ice Pirates is in the state it’s in comes from its budget being slashed by nearly 60%. The production studio, MGM, was having financial difficulties and slashed the budget making director and writer Stewart Raffill rework the film as a comedy. Unfortunately, the film becomes not much more than a one-joke effort, with a handful of sexual innuendo, bodily function, and racial jokes thrown in for flavor. Many of these jokes seem in bad taste today, and may actually work against its general premise to be funny.
It does feature a smorgasbord of actors that were popular at the time, in one fashion or another. Robert Urich was the biggest name in the cast, being known for his popular television series Vega$. Mary Crosby, the daughter of singer Bing Crosby, was also a popular television draw, having been the character who shot J.R. Ewing on Dallas. Michael D. Roberts might not have been as well known a name, but TV viewers of the late 70s and early 80s would have seen him on any number of television shows. The cast is rounded out with a group of famous actors to be, including Anjelica Huston (The Witches, The Addams Family, Captain EO) and Ron Perlman (Beauty and the Beast, Hellboy, Pacific Rim). There’s also the football player turned actor John Matuzak (The Goonies), the television writer, singer, and satirist Bruce Villanch (The Star Wars Holiday Special), and one fleeting scene with film legend John Carradine (House of Dracula). Unfortunately such a cast can’t drive the film to higher heights.
Sci-fi films, especially space adventure films, using elements from other genres was nothing new in 1984. Battle Beyond the Stars used the most common genre element, the western, as its backbone. The Ice Pirates went in another direction, which was completely appropriate warranted, by using the swashbuckling aesthetics of pirate films, such as the 1952 film The Crimson Pirate. Pirate movies were having a small resurgence in the early 80s with the 1982 The Pirate Movie and 1983s screen version of The Pirates of Penzance (with Kevin Kline), so it seemed like they might be on to something. Perhaps the costumes were already available, helping to dictate the look of the titular pirates. This definitely seems to be true of the Templars, who are either clad in medieval armor, or the robes of nobility as would have been seen in films like Knights of the Round Table or Lancelot and Guinevere.
These elements were combined with the ever popular space opera format, hoping to capture something unique. Surprisingly they didn’t seem to steal from Star Wars. Well, at least in as much that there was a rogue, and a princess, some comical robots, an evil empire, and spaceships. But then, Star Wars also borrowed heavily from other genres and adventure tales too. The Ice Pirates instead seemed to spoof specifically elements of Alien and Battlestar Galactica, with some Buck Rogers thrown in for good measure, and the comedy of a Mel Brooks film. Unfortunately these elements are not utilized in a strong enough way to make more of an impression. This becomes “that film where the space pirates dress like real pirates,” instead of a funny sci-fi spoof. In fact Mel Brooks would release just such a film closer to the end of the decade, Spaceballs, which has ten times the number of jokes as seen here, many of which were funny.
The jokes in the film seem to fall into three main categories: the general “hilarity” of pirates and knights in space, bodily humor which includes juvenile sex jokes, and racial humor which is all related to the character of Roscoe being black. The sex jokes are very much written with a 13 year old mindset. They include Jason trying to look down the blouse of the sleeping princess, the threat of male castration which utilizes comically large metal chompers, and the dreaded space herpes bit. This last element, which is an obvious spoof of the alien running loose on the ship from Alien, had the potential for more, but was underutilized in a too-long setup, for a not-so-funny punchline. The space herpe (singular) is a poor substitute for a joke. But if you ever need to cite the first example of a robot portraying diarrhea, by having oil shoot out his posterior, look no further!
The especially cringeworthy elements of the film relate to the jokes around Michael D. Roberts character Roscoe, who is the only black pirate. In an attempt to ape one of the truly funny moments from Mel Brooks’ 1974 western spoof Blazing Saddles, the older Nanny character refers to him by the ‘N-word’ before correcting herself, and calling him a black gentleman. This is something that comes off as truly shocking by today’s standards. Possibly more so since the film doesn’t have that character referring to himself in that way, and also since it was written by a white man. There are several other jokes, towards this end, one alluding to the size of Roscoe’s penis, and another made by Roscoe about why he made a particular robot black (to be perfect, he says), that utilize his race only for comedic purposes. With such a dearth of material in the sci-fi realm, the film takes the low road using racial stereotypes and potty humor for its backbone.
The Science in The Fiction
One of the few elements that may have been leftover from the original concept for the film is that water is a scarce commodity in this future world. The evil empire of Templars controls the planet that contains the water, carting it around in frozen ice blocks, like the East India Trading Company did cloth, spices and tea. As with many other sci-fi films, the rules of the universe are not closely examined. It just is more of the setup to allow the events of the film to unfold. The pirates soon change from robbing ships of their ice, to searching for the mystical Seventh World, which in true Battlestar Galactica fashion happens to be Earth itself. A suitably clever element if it was explored further, but it becomes the final joke for the film, and not a funny one. It seems like the a-ha moment when the audience is supposed to realize that we’re the lucky ones to live on a planet full of something that this universe craves. However, smarter audience members would realize that the Ice Pirates are coming to our home, and cower in fear.
The Final Frontier
The Ice Pirates doesn’t have any spectacular stunt moments, or brilliant space battles to recommend it. But its portrayal of the time warp is something that is potentially unique for the time. The conceit of the film is that the route to the Seventh World is a specific course through a time warp, much like a pirate ship navigating between dangerous rocks. Stray too far off course and you can be killed. As they get closer to the planet, time speeds up aging the crew years in a matter of minutes. To dramatize this, the filmmakers took parts of the sequence and actually sped up the film, so that it looked like a movie in fast forward. These sudden bursts of time help the audience understand what is going on and why the pirates start to exhibit long beards and white hair.
As a space action film, The Ice Pirates is mediocre at best not fully leaning in to the available material. As a comedy it is subpar with many other non sci-fi films being funnier. In fact there are sci-fi films that aren’t considered comedies that may be funnier than this one. It does, however, serve as a cautionary tale that too much of a good thing may be bad for business. Luckily the future of the genre didn’t hinge on The Ice Pirates coming to save them.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.