The Ice Pirates (1984) **˝
Sometimes it’s nice to review something that isn’t the first of this or the most important of that or an early, unheralded antecedent of the other— something, in other words, that’s just a movie, to be taken or left on its own perhaps limited merits. The Ice Pirates is very much that sort of film. A mostly unexceptional sci-fi comedy from the mid-1980’s, it has few ambitions, little historical value, and only a handful of actual fans. Its reputation (to the extent that it has one) paints it as an utter failure, but one without sufficient character to make it compelling for its deficiencies. That reputation is mostly undeserved, however. True, it’s never as funny as writer/director Stewart Raffill wants it to be, but while there are no out-loud laughs to be had here, there is also nothing seriously groan-inducing. Bring along low expectations and a forgiving attitude, and The Ice Pirates goes down painlessly enough.
Some 10,000 years ago, the entire galaxy was wracked by a series of devastating wars. Such was the environmental damage caused by the pan-galactic conflict that nearly every planet inhabitable by humanoid life had its surface reduced to an arid or semi-arid wasteland, and water has become far and away the most precious commodity in the known universe. There is one planet, however, which escaped the holocaust essentially intact— Mithra, home of the Templars, who emerged from the Galactic Wars not just victorious, but in a position of incomparable wealth and power due to their world’s status as the galaxy’s last viable source of water. The only challenge to the Templar monopoly comes from a loose-knit confederacy of pirates from the lawless moon of Zagora, who make their living by raiding the Templar ice convoys.
Jason (Robert Urich, of Killdozer and Invitation to Hell) leads one such crew of deep-space buccaneers, and when we meet him and his followers in the midst of boarding a Templar cargo ship, they are under the impression that they are conducting just one more raid out of the hundreds in their careers. Actually, things are a bit more complicated than that. While Jason’s first officer, Roscoe (Michael D. Roberts, from Manhunter and Sleepstalker: The Sandman’s Last Rites), creates a diversion using his squad of rather temperamental robot soldiers, and his most effective fighter, Maida (Anjelica Huston, who I just bet you doesn’t list this movie on her resume anymore), leads the bulk of the pirate crew in stripping the ice hold, the captain himself makes an unexpected discovery. In one of the cabins, there is a young woman (Mary Crosby, of Child’s Play and Body Chemistry) in suspended animation. When the girl’s nanny (Natalie Core) identifies her as the Princess Karina, Jason gets it into his head to kidnap her, supplementing the already considerable haul from the raid with a royal ransom. But little do the pirates realize that one of the other passengers aboard the ship they’ve picked to attack is Zorn (Jeremy Wise, from Howling VI: The Freaks and Curse IV: The Ultimate Sacrifice), a very high-ranking Templar nobleman. Zorn sics the convoy’s military escort on Jason’s ship as it flees the scene of the crime, and only by separating their vessel into its three autonomous sections are the pirates able to escape. Even so, the central hull (manned by Jason and Roscoe, and carrying the now conscious and highly irate Karina) comes under heavy fire from the Templar warship, and the two pirates fall into enemy hands.
You might expect piracy in high space to carry a death sentence, but the Templars are far more insidious than that. As Jason and Roscoe learn from another pirate named Killjoy (John Matsuzak) while en route to Mithra for punishment, they’re all scheduled to be “redesigned”— castrated, lobotomized, and sold into slavery as nearly mindless eunuchs. The only prisoner in their portable cage to avoid this fate will be the monk over in the far corner; the Templars never redesign clergymen, “just in case there is a God.” The wily Killjoy manages to con the monk out of his cassock, taking advantage of the clergy loophole for himself, but Jason and Roscoe soon find themselves riding a conveyor belt in the eunuch factory on Mithra. Strangely enough, however, they are reprieved at literally the last second by none other than Princess Karina, who has evidently bribed some of the factory hands. She arranges for the pirates to make their way to the showroom with both brains and balls intact, and then shows up immediately to buy them. Clearly this girl is up to something.
So what’s Karina’s game? Well, it seems her father, Count Paisley, disappeared mysteriously while doing some exploring in company with a notorious pirate named Lanky Nibs. Karina suspects foul play, and she suspects that the Templar government itself is the main player. Thus she wants some pirates— Jason, Roscoe, and Killjoy (who has been posing as one of Karina’s robot bodyguards) will do nicely— to take her, her nanny, and her robot butler, Percy (Gary Brockette, who presumably didn’t have to wear a robot suit in Encounter with the Unknown or Mark of the Witch), to Zagora so that she can find Nibs and learn from him what became of her dad. Zorn, the tricky bastard, gets wise to her plot, though, and he attempts to stop her from leaving Mithra. Luck is on the pirates’ side this time, however, and they make it to Zagora with no complications more serious than a little infestation of space herpes onboard Karina’s ship.
The real complications begin when they reach Zagora. While Jason is reunited with Maida, Zeno (Alien Resurrection’s Ron Perlman, who recently made a pretty big name for himself in Hellboy), and the other survivors of his crew, it also comes to light that Lanky Nibs is now a recluse living in the remote ghost town of Sweetwater. In order to get there, Jason has to cozy up with the frog-woman (Marcia Lewis, of Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker) who owns the only car in town, and once he and Karina arrive in Sweetwater, they discover that Nibs (Robert Symonds, from C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D. and Mandroid) is now an old man, having lost decades out of his natural lifespan in an attempt to penetrate the time warp at the center of the galaxy. Why do such a foolhardy thing? Because he and Karina’s father were searching for the fabled Seventh World, a planet which was supposedly protected by the time warp from the ravages of the Galactic Wars, and which is said to possess enough water to smash the Templar monopoly once and for all. The Seventh World is generally considered to be nothing more than a legend, but Nibs swears that he and Count Paisley found it, and that it was for that reason that the Templars have forced the two of them into hiding. Just then, a gang of bounty hunters roll into Sweetwater in a “futuristic” monster truck that would turn the makers of Warriors of the Wasteland green with envy. Jason and Karina escape again, but Nibs and the Frog Lady are both killed in the bounty hunters’ attack. Nibs does, however, last long enough to tell them where Count Paisley was supposed to be hiding out.
So it’s off to yet another planet, this time with the full pirate crew, Nanny, and Percy the robot along for the ride (to say nothing of Lanky’s pet pigs and donkeys, which now have nobody else to take care of them). The reception our heroes receive is not quite what they expected, as they are captured by a bunch of unicorn-riding Amazons in the employ of a gay guy with a detachable head, who calls himself Wendon, Queen of Space (Bruce Vilanch— and if you’ve ever wanted to see the fucker who writes those god-awful jokes for the Hollywood awards shows, here’s your chance). Wendon claims to be harboring Count Paisley, but when Roscoe persuades him (well, maybe “persuades” isn’t quite the right word…) to allow Karina a meeting with her father, he turns out to be nothing but a cunningly modified Omega-series android (Alan Caillou, who had similarly tiny parts in The Sword and the Sorcerer and The Questor Tapes). All is not lost, though, because Wendon happens to have Paisley’s signet ring, on which he has recorded a message revealing the route to the Seventh World. What nobody realizes, however, is that the supreme commander of the Templars (John Carradine, from Shock Waves and Monster, who really was about as close to death as he looks here) has sent Zorn in discreet pursuit of Karina, hoping that she and the pirates will lead his minions to the water planet which none of his own explorers have been able to locate. You can guess what fate is supposed to befall the pirates after they have played their part in the commander’s scheme.
Okay, so it’s nothing to get excited about. Still, The Ice Pirates does a moderately decent job of being a post-Star Wars science-fantasy flick, while also doing a moderately decent job of poking gentle fun at those movies. The premise is interesting, if also extremely strained. The characters are colorful, if also slighter than a porn star’s bathing suit. The special effects, though obviously done on the cheap (look for the matte paintings recycled from Logan’s Run), generally make the most of what resources were available, and certain key elements of the production design (the robots especially) do have a distinctly individual personality. The humor, for the most part, is sophomoric without being outright moronic, and is good for a chuckle here and there— which is more than you can say for the vast majority of sci-fi comedies from the last twenty-odd years. If you don’t find the idea of a monster called a “space herpy” (which is patterned on the chest-bursting larva from Alien) or a kung fu-fighting robot meant to evoke the blaxploitation action heroes of the early 70’s amusing even in concept, or if you’re not a big enough fan of 80’s science fiction to appreciate the way this movie plays around with the genre’s cliches, then The Ice Pirates is absolutely not for you. Otherwise, it makes for a fairly serviceable 90 minutes’ worth of brain-in-neutral entertainment.