To say Star Wars changed the cultural zeitgeist understates the impact of the film! What began as a movie actually became a religion, not to mention a merchandising empire. How many other books-movies-films-works of art can boast such an accomplishment?
Since the original 1977 film planet-busted box office records, the rest of Hollywood and beyond have rushed to recreate the splendor and profits of the first science fantasy blockbuster. Of course, plenty of Star Wars films followed, making the field even more perilous for movies trying to emulate the original mother-of-them-all. But come the knockoffs did, and with varying degrees of success.
Listing every other movie inspired or influenced by Star Wars is an impossible task, or at least one I’m not willing to undertake here! Among the knock-off movies, however, these ten stand out from the others. Produced over a long period of time, they offer variations on the initial “myth in space” premise, not to mention wild variations in quality! In short, some of these movies are awful! That said, their questionable effectiveness says nothing of their redeeming entertainment value, or their fascinating testimony to a culture still in shock from Star Wars. In a pinch, they can even help temper anticipation for the next outing in a galaxy far, far away…
10. Battle Beyond The Stars
Roger Corman, early purveyor of sci-fi schlock, wasted no time in jumping on the Star Wars gravy train with this unapologetically goofy rip-off. Richard Thomas plays a farm boy adventurer traveling the galaxy in a ship that looks like a pair of breasts. The trite story should make this movie unwatchable, and yet…
And yet, there’s something engrossing about Battle Beyond the Stars. That may come from the pedigree of some of the artists involved: future Oscar-nominee John Sayles wrote the script, James Cameron headed the special effects team, and James Horner contributed his first score to the picture. It’s cheap, silly and fascinating.
9. Dungeons & Dragons
Normally this spot on the list would be reserved for Willow, George Lucas‘ own attempt to cash in on the success of Star Wars by resetting the story in a sword-and-sorcery tale. Lucas’ involvement, however, somewhat nullifies its inclusion here. Instead, consider this latter day knockoff which tried to emulate the look and feel of The Phantom Menace.
Predictably, the outcome is a mixed bag. Thora Birch does her best Natalie Portman impression, while Justin Whalin and Marlon Wayans mug their way through a story very loosely inspired by the popular role playing game. The movie does, however, have one brilliant element: Jeremy Irons at his most diabolical, having a great time with lines like “let their blood RAAAAAAAAAINNNN from the sky!” He alone makes the movie worth watching at least once.
8. Titan AE
With anticipation to the impending release of the Star Wars prequel trilogy hitting a fever pitch, Fox (who also distributed Star Wars) took a gamble on this animated sci-fi opus. They handed directing duties over to animation legend Don Bluth, who’s previous films The Land Before Time and The Secret of NIMH boasted sci-fi overtones. Joss Whedon contributed the script, and the cast reads like a hot sheet of 90s stars: Matt Damon, Bill Pullman, Nathan Lane, Drew Barrymore and Janeane Garofalo. It debuted in summer 2000 to a mixed reception. While it does tout spectacular visuals and a hard sci-fi story, the movie never quite engages on a visceral level. The dark themes alienated family audiences, while use of animation turned off action movie fans accustomed to stunt men and real explosions. It bombed on its initial release, though it still holds a strong cult audience.
As much a ripoff of Star Trek as Star Wars, Disney tried to get in on the sci-fi game in the late 1980s with this telefilm, which tried to tap the young audience flocking to Star Trek: The Next Generation. A group of genius teenagers are given command of a deep-space vessel with the mission of seeking out a new habitable world, as humanity has polluted Earth beyond hope of recovery. Along the way, the crew encounters a group of space gladiators, cyborg pirates, and a renegade military commander before…well, the movie doesn’t really have an ending, so much as just a stop point. Disney may have designed it as such, hoping for a TV series or at least other telefilms. A ratings loser, no follow ups ever saw release. Earth*Voyager still has a cult following who continue to circulate the film on bootlegged media.
6. Masters of the Universe
Canon films touted this picture, their attempt at breaking into the major studio leagues, as the “Star Wars of the 80s.” Based upon the popular toy line of the same name, the movie follows He-Man and Skeletor as the journey to Southern California (cough, cough) in search of a sonic key that can open dimensional doorways. Made on a shoestring budget of $17 million, the frugality of the production shows. That said, the Castle Greyskull sequences do have the kind of fantastic quality He-Man fans expected. The cast, apart from Dolph Lundgren who hated the film, is made up of reliable character actors and up-and-comers including Meg Foster, Jon Cypher, Courteney Cox, Robert Duncan McNeill and Billy Barty. The true star though is Frank Langella, who plays baddie Skeletor with total relish–and total seriousness. He could give Ian McDermid’s Emperor Palpatine a run for his money!
5. The Black Hole
Disney tried to cash in on the late-70s Star Wars phenomenon with this turgid curio of a movie, which stars Anthony Perkins and Maximilian Schell. Complete with sassy robots (hovering on visible piano strings), zombified space crewmen, heavy handed metaphors about Heaven and Hell and plenty of laser blasts, The Black Hole follows the crew of a small vessel which discovers a lost megaship captained by a mad scientist. Despite some impressive design and special effects, the movie never quite rises above its pulp sci-fi roots, or blatant rip-off of the Star Wars style. It does, however, offer a lot of campy fun for audiences wanting to imbibe over space visuals, or give the movie the MST3K treatment.
Disney tried yet again to lure the Star Wars audience which, much like Willow, transplants the familiar Star Wars tropes to a magical world of wizards, warriors and dragons. John Gielgud and Peter MacNicol star as a wizard and his apprentice determined to rid the land of a virgin-eating dragon. The real star though, is a giant animatronic dragon, created through ground-breaking hydraulic and stop-motion effects. MacNicol gives the movie his all, but even he can’t overcome a tired and poorly constructed story. Taken as inconsequential dreck, however, Dragonslayer does offer a great deal of fun, not to mention a shot of MacNicol’s penis…in case that’s your idea of a good time.
3. The Last Starfighter
The ambition of The Last Starfighter put it well ahead of its time. Director Nick Castle resolved to have all the special effects done via computer generated imagery…in 1984! The result is a mixed bag: at times the space battles feel like they’ll require the viewer to insert more quarters to continue. Still, the movie has its moments, and actor Robert Preston, in his final role, plum steals his scenes with a mix of charm and tongue-in-cheek humor. It continues to have a strong fan-following, mostly from former kids who saw it during its original run, and who thirst for early-80s nostalgia.
Forget the reboot. Forget the original TV series. Hell, even forget the sequel miniseries V: The Final Battle. For some great sci-fi generated by the Star Wars phenomenon which still manages to find a niche of its own, look no further than V. The seminal miniseries follows a group of Los Angeles residents as a mysterious alien race comes to Earth bringing peace and advanced technology. As the aliens begin to infiltrate all parts of daily life, however, inquisitive minds realize not all is what it seems. V boasts all the fun hallmarks of sci-fi–ruthless aliens, human collaborators, romance, laser blasts, and some impressive space ships–but the movie really serves as a metaphor for the rise of Nazism. Well acted and with a brilliant script, the movie remains one of the great triumphs of sci-fi TV.
Be warned! Of all the schlock on this list, of all the horrid, unwatchable production value, no movie is more vile to sit through than Dune. Based on the bestselling sci-fi novel, which in some ways foreshadowed Star Wars, Dune follows the saga of galactic commerce in the year 10,191. Infighting between family dynasties centers around the planet Arakkis–also called Dune–which is home to giant sand worms that crap out LSD-like spice that makes space travel possible. If that sounds complicated, it’s just the warm up compared to the elaborate intricacies of cultures, secret societies and prophecies. Directed by David Lynch, the movie boasts distinctive art direction and a stellar cast, but is utterly incomprehensible!
Even worse, rampant gross out scenes and homophobia–including one where an obese baron covered in festering sores murders an effeminate boy by performing fellatio on his heart–make the film a downright repulsive experience. Dune has its defenders, and it does have some Lynchian flourishes that make for interesting viewing, but otherwise, watch it at your own risk!