Starkiller ’75

So this week I’m going to engage in one of those inevitable nostalgia-fueled exercises in recidivism, the retrospective review. While dredging through the vaults it occurred to me that this presented a perfect opportunity to further illuminate a personal favorite, if perhaps somewhat less well known, film. This particular cult science-fiction piece was a poorly understood and largely unappreciated labor of love by a visionary director and in many ways an incubator for future industry talent. I am speaking of course about Legend of Starkiller.

Starkiller could probably best be described as a samurai film set in space. All the tropes are there (in fact it borrows more than a few beats more or less directly from Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress and Bodyguard), just the set dressing is altered. In that respect it has been debated endlessly whether or not Starkiller can properly be qualified as science fiction at all. It is true that the movie lacks the cynical, cerebral quality present in most other contemporary science fiction works, but I would argue that Starkiller prefers to harken back to an earlier brand of what might almost be called “science fantasy,” having more in common with Flash Gordon or John Carter of Mars. Moreover, if Starkiller is not science fiction, then The Magnificent Seven is not a western. The latter film has the same relationship with Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai that the former has with its own source material, and I highly doubt anyone will try to argue against Seven‘s genre chops.

The film’s debt to the pulpy movie serials of director George Lucas’ youth is apparent withing the first fifteen seconds. It’s receding crawl opening narration immediately imprints the celluloid with a distinctive and evocative style that it maintains for its duration. This same crawl asserts the film to be “Episode I – The Star Wars,” strongly implying the intent for a potential series of films. Part pulp serial part mythic saga. This makes it all the more unfortunate that Starkiller was the only film in this vein to have been produced.

The protagonists of the film are the brother’s Deak and Luke Starkiller. Which brother the film is supposed to be the “Legend” of is not made explicitly clear. Presumably another idea for the unproduced sequels to explore. Luke Starkiller is played with confident if somewhat stiff bravado by Robert Englund, probably more familiar to most movie goers as the sinister Fred Kruger from the Nightmare on Elm Street films of the following decade. Deak Starkiller by contrast feels much more comfortable in the hands of Mark Hamill, whose portrayal clearly foreruns his eventual success in the lead of Lucas’ more popular Flash Gordon adaptation seven years later. Continuing the who’s-who of eventual breakouts Chris Walken plays the part of Han Solo, an appropriately rakish space pirate who throws in with the Starkillers’ motley band.

On the other end of the spectrum Lucas also had success wrangling a pair of established stars, albeit ones who’s careers were already on the decline, to shepherd his cast of relative unknowns. Toshiro Mifune is right at home in the samurai drama surrounding him as the enigmatic Obi Wan Kenobi, while the inimitable Orson Welles gnaws the scenery with every line as the voice of the evil Darth Vader.

All that being said, while the casting is great, the chemistry is a bit… off. Englund and Walken play off eachother more naturally than the rest of the cast, but the two are on screen together for only a small percentage of the movie. The most memorable interactions by far are the much needed comic relief provided by Anthony Daniels and Stan Freburg as bumbling android bureaucrats. By the same token, the shared history between Kenobi and Vader doesn’t really come across in Mifune and Welles’ rather stilted interactions. What does work between them though is the spectacular lightsword battle at the end of the second act. The thrumming sound effect of the lightswords is not difficult to associate with Buddhist chanting given the surreal, Zen-like quality to the duel. The yin and yang of Jedi-Bendu versus Sith Warrior is perfectly captured by Lucas’ direction and the combined stage combat pedigree of Mifune and Vader stunt double Bob Anderson really sells it. By contrast, the climactic lightsword fight between Vader and Deak just doesn’t come off nearly as polished. Editing is part of the problem here. The action keeps cutting back and forth between this scene and Luke’s starfighter assault on Alderan, the Imperial stronghold. Both action sequences are highly detailed and serve as a good third act set piece, but the tension each builds is undermined by the rough, jerky transitions between them. Normally this sort of editing is among Lucas’ strengths, but with the project overbudget and out of time it is rumored Lucas suffered a nervous breakdown in the final weeks, leaving editing of the latter scenes to rookie collaborator Richard Chew with some uncredited assistance from Orson Welles, a favor for which Lucas helped lobby funding in later years for Welles’ unfinished opus The Other Side of the Wind, still tragically in limbo at the time of the actor’s death.

These aren’t the movie’s only problems certainly, but frankly almost all are forgivable in light of the film’s compelling visual narrative. Lucas was far from the first to attempt to transform the American southwest into an alien landscape, but I would argue he was the most successful at it, even if funding restrictions precluded his initially more ambitious Tunisian shooting set. From these sweeping desert pans on the desolate planet of Tatooine to the impressively rendered cloudscapes around the floating city of Alderan, Starkiller communicates a sense of place and a sense of wonder like few other movies before or since. It’s B-movie material executed with all the scope and grandeur of a golden age Selznick piece.

That combination of artistic panache, exotic sensibility, and good old feeling of adventure could have made science fiction ‘the’ genre of the emerging Hollywood blockbuster. However, it was not to be. In 1972 Lucas had a film deal with United Artists to produce Starkiller and another film entitled American Graffiti, a kind of drive-in paean to the youthful rebellion of the 50’s and another promising project which never saw the light of day. Initially Lucas was to direct the more modest Graffiti and then move on to the riskier genre film dependent upon the former’s success. Unexpectedly though, United Artists chose to option Starkiller first, despite the project still being in its nascence.  Lucas initially balked, but was persuaded to pursue this dream film after being convinced that this was a now-or-never opportunity being offered by Artists. So, Starkiller was run through a rapid gauntlet of screenplay drafts and then rushed into production. Trouble began almost from the outset when United Artists initially proposed filming Starkiller on the budget which had been greenlit for Graffiti, a scanty seven hundred thousand. Lucas balked again and after much negotiation a budget of two million was agreed upon, though still substantially less than what had been hoped for. Because of this, Starkiller accrued frequent cost overruns and at one point United Artists is rumored to have considered firing Lucas from his own movie. This acrimony between Lucas and the studio only intensified over time, and has been blamed by some in large part for why sequels were never produced, despite critical acclaim and a respectable if underwhelming box office take.

It wasn’t the end of the world, either for the cast or for Lucas. Most of the leads went on to prolific and popular careers, and Lucas’ auteur talent was not unrecognized by all. His aforementioned 1982 Flash Gordon picture for Paramount feels in many ways like a spiritual successor to Starkiller, and was better rewarded by general audiences. Starkiller remains however a stillborn pet project, consigned forever to well regarded cult status. The status is not undeserved, but it is difficult to escape the feeling that it was a missed opportunity, something which could have been so much more.

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