Imitation can interact just swell with flattery, thanks, as long as the imitator comes at the material with sincerity or at the very least a respect for what came before. But who are we kidding? In the horror world - especially the old times of the indie one - imitation is usually followed by lawsuits, and flattery is frequently nowhere to be found. This brings us to Star Odyssey (1979), an Italian space opera that attempts to flatter a very popular film of the time, and instead gives us a giddily goofy take that has everything but a decoder ring.
Star Odyssey was released in its homeland in time for Halloween, and that’s pretty appropriate - there are more than enough cheap and silly costumes present for a grade three monster party, and the game cast pretends in high style. Or low style as it were; this cinematic buffet offers a spread of decadent desserts and artery obliterating entrees at a rate so low you’ll be looking for rats under the seats. But there’s beauty in the second (and third) hand, of still holding onto the concept of derring-do without resorting to sleazy smarm. Star Odyssey is cheap, but it isn’t trash. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s part of a well balanced and depraved cinematic curiosity. The lack of sleaze is what sets it apart; this thing really shoots for wholesome, and in the inimitable Italian way arrives north of that but south of sleazy.
Even that’s hard to quantify, exactly; two robots rebooted after a failed double suicide pact complain for their entire screen time that it sucks to be alive - not exactly Saturday matinee fodder for the kiddies. Don’t forget this is still supposed to be modeled after that first space war movie, with its domination of popular culture and its domain focused squarely on the young. Between that and the planet auction (slaves sold separately!), Star Odyssey must believe 8 year olds like some existential angst mixed in with their starlight battles.
Manners me, check out the story: An unresponsive alien spaceship is heading towards Earth. Refusing to yield and impervious to destruction, a decision is made to bring in the rogue Professor Mauri (Ennio Balbo - The Night of the Assassin) to stop them. But first he’ll need to put the old crew back together, including Dirk Laramie (Gianni Garko - The Psychic), space cowboy and telepathic card sharp, who also shares a similar mind force with Mauri. Throw in an acrobatic boxer (who’s fighting a robot in the ring when we meet him), a swinging scientist couple, a bad guy with a pineapple complexion, his robotic minions that look like an army of Jackie Rogers Juniors, a hero called Hollywood who always puts his heroic hands on his heroic hips, the score from the YouTube How To Winterize Your RV clip, and the phrase ‘beautiful mess’ will forever associate one with Star Odyssey.
The ‘mess’ parts only occur however due to the film’s lack of funds; I don’t think anyone could argue that this story is any more ridiculous than the one it’s taking from, but the cheaper paint and gaudy optical work give it an automatic ‘lesser-than’ label. Unearned? Not entirely, just not because of the tale being told or financial restrictions.
No, one should measure Star Odyssey in terms of what it can somewhat control - for instance, direction. Alfonso Brescia (War of the Robots)’s style is quick and animated, with something always going on; if you don’t like it, wait a couple minutes and he’ll throw something different at you - and do it with a smile.
*Sort of Sidebar: While researching the film, I was looking through Brescia’s credits, and came across a title I hadn’t heard in over 40 years and never thought I would again: Super Stooges vs. The Wonder Women (1974), a movie I saw at a Saturday matinee as a kid but could never remember the title. It too is terrific, goofy fun.
Our performers seem to believe realism has no place in fantasy, so they shoot right past it and end up at that third grade party, having a blast in their knockoff Bob Mackie designs and giving their all. Especially Hollywood. (Thank you for your service, Hollywood.) Whether modeling the latest in leatherwear or tinfoil tuxedos, our cast rise below the occasion with nuance-deficient takes. And it works beautifully, intentional or not.
What is the right tone for a film set amongst the stars? That depends on the kind of story the filmmakers want to tell, I suppose. Kubrick takes you to space to question the mysteries of life; Alfonso Brescia likes good and bad guys, glowing sword fights, and cheesy robots. Both give their materials the gravitas they deserve, granting them an even and earnest outlet of expression. But in a time of self preservation over evaluation, Star Odyssey invites me to a world where the good guys wear spiderprint shirts and a whole lot of blue, and the bad guys wear black unless they’re wearing yellow. Now that’s a party I’m down for.
Star Odyssey is available on DVD from VCI.