Vintage Cable Box: “The Ice Pirates, 1984”

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“Whatever happened to ‘we rape, we pillage’?”

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The Ice Pirates, 1984 (Robert Urich). MGM/UA

“Long after the great interplanetary wars, the Galaxy has gone dry. Water has become the only thing left of value.” So sayeth the introduction accompanied by Bruce Broughton’s uplifting adventure score for a movie I loved when I was a kid. I think I loved The Ice Pirates because it had all the tropes of other science fiction movies without directly identifying itself as a spoof. It has a little Star Wars in it (a lot actually – the writers really like robots and robot-related humor) and a little Alien action (in the form of giant space herpes that infest a ship), and a little environmentally-conscious Soylent Green preachyness.

Robert Urich, in a role turned down by Kevin Costner (who would go on to make the similarly-themed Waterworld), leads a rag-tag group of pirates whose main booty appears to be – you guessed it, ice. Surprise! That’s where the title of the movie came from. His crew consists of Anjelica Huston (bad-ass swordmaster), Ron Perlman (a rather “flamboyant” Perlman), and Michael D. Roberts (programming genius). During a routine sweep-and-clear, they are captured by a beautiful Princess, who spares the men a painful castration, and forces them to take her on a mission to find her father, who disappeared searching for a fabled water-covered planet.

Urich’s old buddy, Lanky Nibs (aged prematurely due to a time-warp distortion) tells the Princess her father was searching for the fabled “seventh planet” that spun out of it’s regular orbit and into a new galaxy, but to reach that galaxy, the ship must evade further time distortions. One of my favorite scenes has Urich and Crosby getting friendly in a simulated holographic thunderstorm. As they travel through pockets of accelerated time, Crosby becomes pregnant and gives birth to their child. The child grows into manhood and saves the rapidly-aging crew from certain destruction at the hands of the Supreme Commander (played by John Carradine) all in the space of five minutes.

The Ice Pirates is a lot of fun, even watching it now. I’ve complained before about movies I loved as a kid that didn’t hold up well, and while I recognize the stupidity of this movie, at least I felt the filmmakers were having fun making it. The movie is a mosaic of unusual set design borrowing elements of space opera, bargain-basement Shakespeare, and of course, pirate movies. The pre-CGI visual effects and matte-work are still impressive. Most of the one-liners are cringeworthy, and while Urich and Crosby make an interesting Leia-and-Han-type couple, their chemistry is hindered by Crosby. While undeniably beautiful, her performance lacks energy.

Utilizing the old axiom about “stealing from the best”, the movie takes certain visual cues from other science fiction movies. It’s good cheesy fun. Some jokes seem way too racy (and racist) to have made it into a PG-rated action yarn. There’s a great bit where Urich is introduced to his child, who proceeds to piss right in his face. Spoiler for those who haven’t seen the movie: it was Earth all along!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

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Vintage Cable Box: “Endangered Species, 1982”

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“A little paranoia never hurt anybody.”

Endangered Species, 1982 (Robert Urich), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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Too often, we forget the joys of R-rated films. Staying up late on a weekend to watch horror and science fiction movies from the late 70s to the early 80s on cable television was more fun than any 11-year-old deserved. HBO has a long-standing policy to prohibit viewing of R-rated films before 8:00 pm, Eastern time. The Movie Channel showed R-rated movies all day; they didn’t care. They figured if you were paying for the service, you should get to see movies for adults. Back in those days, there was no PG-13 rating (the uncomfortable middle ground of excessive violence in films made for kids). Which leads us to this week’s movie, Endangered Species, which, if it were released these days, would most definitely have received a PG-13 rating.

Robert Urich is a chain-smoking, alcoholic New York cop, tough-as-nails. He’s a Mets fan in 1982, so he has to be disillusioned as well. He takes his reform school, tom-boy daughter off on a vacation to beautiful Wyoming, but they get sidetracked along the way. JoBeth Williams is a hot small-town sheriff named Harry (short for Harriet) investigating a series of grisly cattle mutilations. Organs seem to be removed surgically. Soon, suspicion points to satanic cults, devil worship, and little green men and unidentified flying objects. The script takes great pains to show that JoBeth is hard-as-nails, though the locals do tend to marginalize her for being a woman, otherwise this a strong female character. It doesn’t take long for Urich and Williams to lock eyes.

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Robert Altman protégé Alan Rudolph seems an odd choice to direct a science fiction potboiler like this, if you don’t consider his first films were the trippy cult genre pieces, Premonition and Nightmare Circus. If you removed the cattle mutilation plot and conspiratorial tones involving germ warfare, there are some very quirky, very charming character beats, which is probably what appealed to Rudolph in fleshing out the story by Judson Klinger and Richard Clayton Woods. There is a nice visual analogy at the beginning of the film comparing cattle out in a field to New Yorkers bustling about in the streets.

Endangered Species follows a typical B-movie trajectory, where you have the insurmountable problem or epidemic, the no-nonsense law enforcement, the concerned scientist, the nosy journalist (played by Paul Dooley), and the corrupt politician (Hoyt “Joy To The World” Axton!), which makes for economical storytelling. This is an ambitious movie made on a small scale, with an interesting message about politics in Urich’s desperate harangue: “If what’s going on around here is organized, you don’t wanna go up against it! The government. The right wing. The left wing. Mercenaries. The mob. It doesn’t make much difference if you get in their way!”

Alan Rudolph went on to direct several high-profile movies, but basically served to propel conversations between cineastes who liked to throw his name into the mix to show they understand modern cinema. Films like Mortal Thoughts and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, while interesting, are not terribly entertaining. JoBeth Williams is rightly considered the mother and wife of the burgeoning horror movement of the eighties due to her presence in movies like Poltergeist. Robert Urich, appeared in Soap, Vega$, and Spenser: For Hire. He died, tragically, at 55, from synovial cell sarcoma.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.