During the decade or so following the 1977 release of “Star Wars” — er, excuse me, I mean “Star Wars IV: A New Hope” — imitators, wannabes, and shameless knock-offs “inspired” by George Lucas’ instant classic were even more ubiquitous than comic-book movies are right now. And so, as “The Last Jedi” blasts off, we decided to cast a backward glance at the multiplex fare of yesteryear, to reconsider “Ten Movies That Wished They Were ‘Star Wars.’” But be forewarned: A few of these films are better remembered than re-watched.
10. The Ice Pirates (1984)
A great big nothingburger of failed action-comedy, this lame misfire forced several slumming actors (including Robert Urich, Anjelica Huston, Ron Perlman, Mary Crosby, and, fleetingly, John Carradine) to thoroughly embarrass themselves by overacting their way through shenanigans that are neither funny enough to qualify as camp nor exciting enough to make the grade as B-movie adventure. (The plot? Hey, there are these space pirates, and in a drought-stricken universe, they steal valuable ice. Satisfied?) The sole bright spot: A mildly amusing sequence in which contentious characters continue to fight while aging rapidly as their spacecraft passes through a time warp.
9. Starcrash (1978)
Italian filmmaker Luigi Cozzi’s tacky, trashy “Star Wars” knock-off continues to claim a fervent cult following, doubtless due in large part to space captain Caroline Munro’s minimalist wardrobe. (For most of the movie, she wears only a skimpy bikini and thigh-high boots. No, really.) But viewers who haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid aren’t likely to be amused by the chintzy sets, the sloppy plotting, and the broad performances by Munro, co-star Marjoe Gortner, and other actors who deliver their lines in the overstated declamatory style one normally associates with a grade-school pageant. One novel touch: This time, the heroes search for a prince (David Hasselhoff), not a princess. One saving grace: Christopher Plummer (sporting what appears to be same eyeliner used by Hasselhoff) underplays nicely as the emperor seeking the return of his offspring.
8. Battlestar Galactica (1979)
Shortly after the expensive but under-watched 1978-79 TV series “Battlestar Galactica” was canceled by ABC, Universal Pictures attempted to recoup some of its sizeable investment by releasing to U.S. theaters an abbreviated and slightly revised version of the show’s original three-hour pilot, tricked out with the obnoxious Sensurround sound effects gimmick. (An earlier version of the pilot received overseas theatrical release one year earlier.) Trouble was, the movie, not unlike the TV series, came off as a hackneyed and curiously uninvolving melodrama about an ongoing battle between murderous robots and stalwart humans. (The decades-later TV reboot starring Edward James Olmos was, to put it mildly, a considerable improvement.) As commander of the eponymous spacecraft, Lorne Greene did his best to bring some gravitas to the juvenile space-operatics. But the script didn’t do him any favors. At one point, he has to say: “It smells like a trap, it feels like a trap — I believe it is a trap.” And what do you know? He’s right.
7. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979)
Unlike the aforementioned “Battlestar Galactica,” another offering from producer Glen A. Larson, the pilot for “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” actually was released in theaters a few months before the premiere of the TV series it spawned. Based on the long-running comic strip of the same name — and, of course, inspired by the success of “Star Wars” – it proved to be relatively painless, and occasionally amusing, while following the interplanetary adventures of a 20th-century NASA pilot (Gil Gerard) who’s revived and called to duty after more than 500 years of suspended animation. Movie audiences responded favorably; box-office returns were impressive. Television viewers, however, were at best lukewarm in their reaction to the short-lived (37 episodes) weekly series. And cartoon aficionados continued to prefer Daffy Duck as “Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½th Century.”
6. The Black Hole (1979)
Two years after George Lucas launched the “Star Wars” franchise, the folks at Walt Disney Productions joined the space race with this mediocre mashup of “Lost in Space” and “20,000 Leagues under the Sea.” While returning home from deep-space exploration, a ragtag crew of erratically engaged character actors (including Robert Foster, Ernest Borgnine and Anthony Perkins) happens upon the lost-long spacecraft of a Captain Nemo-like scientist (Maximilian Schell) who’s on the verge of venturing into, well, a black hole. Schell sporadically livens up the mostly pokey proceedings (he obviously enjoys addressing a humongous robot henchman named — wink-wink, nudge-nudge! — Maximilian) and there’s some funny business involving a pint-sized R2-D2 clone voiced by an unbilled Roddy McDowell. Unfortunately, everything builds to an absurd finale that aims for the profundity of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but misses by light years.
5. Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)
During the heyday of New World Pictures, Roger Corman hired up-and-comer John Sayles to write a space opera loosely based on “The Magnificent Seven” (and “Seven Samurai”), and encouraged another ambitious future director, James Cameron, to cut corners and pinch pennies while designing bargain-basement sets and special effects that nevertheless could pass muster with undiscerning audiences. The result: A modestly diverting action-adventure that was just good enough to make you wish it were a lot better. Richard Thomas stars as a naïve yet resourceful farm boy charged with rounding up seven heroes — including a rowdy cowboy zestfully overplayed by George Peppard — to save his besieged planet. Robert Vaughn cleverly underplays as Gelt, a fugitive assassin best described as the intergalactic version of the character Vaughn originally played in “Magnificent Seven.” And as the bold Valkyrie Saint-Exmin, Sybil Danning gets the funniest laugh in the whole movie when she responds to someone who questions her apparent death wish: “You’ve never seen a Valkyrie go down!”
4. Message from Space (1978)
Decades before he unleashed “Battle Royale” (2000) on an unsuspecting world, director Kinji Fukasaku gave us a wild and crazy opus that lays claim to being the weirdest of all “Star Wars” knock-offs, a borderline-surreal epic that features villains decked out in Edo period mufti, reckless space jockeys pursued by intergalactic traffic cops, a Princess Leia clone charged with wrangling warriors to protect her planet, Vic Morrow as a hard-drinking general who retires early after catching flak for giving his robot buddy an official military funeral, and Sonny Chiba as a vengeful prince who favors a samurai blade over a lightsaber. But wait, there’s more: The heroes’ favored mode of space travel is a rocket-propelled galleon ship complete with billowing sails. (Of course, considering the current real-world attempts to realize Carl Sagan’s dreams for a solar-powered LightSail spacecraft, this contraption doesn’t look nearly as outrageous as it did four decades ago.)
3. Space Raiders (1983)
Ever the cost-conscious indie producer, Roger Corman recycled music and special effects from Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) in a kid-friendly action-adventure that owes nearly as much to “Treasure Island” as it does to “Star Wars.” Ten-year-old Peter (David Mendenhall) is inadvertently taken along for the ride after space pirates led by notorious Capt. C.F. “Hawk” Hawkens (Vince Edwards) steal a cargo spaceship from the corporation that employs the boy’s father. Not surprisingly, the plucky youngster gradually is accepted as a comrade in arms by Hawkens and his crew. But the predictability of the plot never dampens the fun as writer-director Howard R. Cohen maintains a brisk pace and a storybook sense of excitement. Really, it’s a nifty trifle to share with any preteens in your household who may not be ready for the intensity of, say, “The Last Jedi.”
2. Flash Gordon (1980)
In what arguably was the oddest match of auteur and material since the dour Joseph Losey tackled the spy-spoofy “Modesty Blaise” (1966), director Mike Hodges, then and forever best known for the blunt-force “Get Carter” (1971), took an exuberantly campy approach to space-opera excess in this intergalactic adventure, a textbook example of a guilty pleasure. (It should be noted that the source material – a popular comic strip and two ‘30s movie serials — once attracted the interest of George Lucas; when he couldn’t land the adaptation rights, he concocted his own sci-fi mythos.) Sam J. Jones is the hunky hero of the piece, a New York Jets quarterback who’s improbably drawn into the game plan of an eccentric scientist (Chaim Topol) bent on preventing interplanetary tyrant Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow) from destroying Earth. The freewheeling screenplay is credited to Lorenzo Semple Jr., who established a similarly tongue-in-cheeky tone for the 1966-68 “Batman” TV series. And the musical score — “Flash! Aaah-haaa! Savior of the universe!” — is by Queen.
1. The Last Starfighter (1984)
Yes, Virginia: Some cult favorites really do deserve the cults that favor them. No less a luminary than the Gene Siskel once dubbed “The Last Starfighter” the best of all “Star Wars” imitators, and it’s difficult to dispute the late film critic’s appraisal. The simple yet ingenious plot pivots on Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), a restless teenager who spends much of his time helping his mom run a trailer park, but more of his time mastering Starfighter, a challenging arcade game that calls for players to pursue and destroy enemy extraterrestrial spacecraft. What Alex doesn’t know: The game is a device used by interplanetary con man Centauri (Robert Preston, reprising his “Music Man” gusto in his final film role) to identify and recruit fighter pilots for defense of a distant planet. Alex initially is an extremely reluctant recruit — deep down, he fears he doesn’t truly have the right stuff — but he ultimately rises to the task with a little help from a reptilian navigator named Grig (Dan O’Herlihy). The action is suitably fast and furious, but what makes the movie especially enjoyable are the quirky character touches given to Guest and his fellow players. At one point, Grig shows Alex a few photos of his wife back on his home planet; Alex responds by showing Grig a photo of his folks that he keeps in his wallet. It’s a beautiful bonding moment. And just think: If there’s ever a remake, Alex likely will whip out an iPhone to display his pictures.