How much time has to pass before a rip-off becomes an homage? Consider the following pitch: An embittered war veteran leads a rag-tag band of space pirates on a never-ending quest for the cash they need to keep their ship flying. Sound familiar? No, I’m not talking about Firefly. I’m talking about the 1983 low-budget Roger Corman cash grab, Space Raiders. One is a beloved though short-lived sci-fi series which borrows elements from Star Wars while injecting enough original elements to find its own identity. The other… is fondly remembered by some while being largely forgotten by most. But is Space Raiders a rip-off or does it have enough of a unique identity to stand on its own? Does the question even matter? When you boil it down, is it actually any good? Let’s have a look.
The late 70s and early 80s saw a glut of outer-space films designed to cash in on the success of Star Wars. Most of them focused on the superficial – space fighters in dogfights, strange aliens in droves, larger-than-life heroes and villains, and an emphasis on fun and adventure. Few if any of them touched on the mythic aspects at the core of Star Wars which was the key to its enduring success. Most of them, such as Star Crash and Message From Space survive today largely as curiosities. But others, including Space Raiders, have managed to garner their own cult followings. What makes the difference? In developing Firefly, Joss Whedon readily admits to drawing his inspiration from Star Wars, but he had the luxury of introducing his space opera over twenty years after the fact. And even though the Star Wars prequels were in the process of being released at the time, the cultural impact of the former saga had already soaked in. Star Wars is just part of the DNA of storytelling now. You can draw from it as readily as you might draw from Robin Hood or King Arthur. But when Star Wars was fresh, people were still trying to figure out what it was. A lot of producers didn’t even care. They just saw a space movie making lots of money and assumed that spaceships would be a draw. But others were still interested in trying to tell a good story. They saw the success in the space opera format, but they also knew that you still had to follow the rules of good storytelling. So into which category does Space Raiders fall? Well, a little of both.
The first thing a viewer will notice is the overall cheapness. The opening sequence, which takes place in a warehouse, is hardly futuristic. The exteriors are pretty obviously southern California, and one sequence takes place at a very present-day looking factory. What’s more, the special effects, sets, and music are all lifted from Corman’s earlier and far superior space film, Battle Beyond the Stars (which was also a Star Wars clone). When you know this, it becomes painfully obvious that Space Raiders was written around the existing effects rather than the effects being tailored to the script. To be fair, though, it was a smart business move. By comparison, Battle was lavishly-produced, featuring A-list talent like Richard Thomas, Robert Vaughn, and George Peppard. The sets looked great and the music was fantastic. All that doesn’t come cheap, so it’s understandable that Corman would want to get his money’s worth. The effects were originally created by James Cameron, and while not quite up to the standards set by Star Wars, they’re nevertheless impressive, especially considering the budgetary limitations. The stirring score was composed by James Horner, and it’s not surprising that both he and Cameron would go on to bigger and better things. Taken on their own, both elements integrate pretty well into Space Raiders, and it’s only when you know about the previous film that they contribute to the sense of cheapness. But such technical aspects aren’t necessarily everything. If the story and performances are strong enough, a film can rise above such shortcomings. So how does this film fare in that respect?
Space Raiders centers on Colonel C.F. Hawkins, or “Hawk,” played convincingly by veteran actor Vince Edwards. Once proud of his military career, he now laments his status, talking about the old days when “being in the space service really meant something.” Now he is affiliated with a criminal organization run by a reptilian creature called Zariatin. When a young boy named Peter (David Mendenhall) accidentally stows away on a ship Hawk’s crew is trying to steal, Hawk feels responsible and vows to get Peter home. The corporation that employs Peter’s father sends a robot ship (why does a robot ship have windows?) ostensibly on a rescue mission, but really in hopes of destroying Zariatin’s operation. Hoping to ransom Peter, Zariatin turns on Hawk, picking off the crew one-by-one. Finally Hawk bests Zariatin in a shootout but is wounded in the process. Fortunately, Peter paid really close attention when he watched the crew give first aid to a wounded comrade, and he manages to resuscitate Hawk, who then finally gets Peter home. It’s a pretty simple narrative, and it’s executed simply: setup, complication, payoff. As a cash-grab, that’s smart, and at 84 minutes, it’s definitely well-paced. That said, there’s such a thing as being too simple, and there are areas where Space Raiders probably should have been allowed to breathe. For one thing, aspects of the worldbuilding are implied rather than explicitly established. It certainly seems as if the galaxy is run by a single corporation but the movie doesn’t tell us that. We’re left to infer it. And that’s a bit sloppy.
But the most critical of these areas is in the relationship between Hawk and Peter. The entire film hinges on the bond between these two, and by extension, between Peter and Hawk’s crew. When the crew first discovers that Peter is aboard, he’s in the way and everyone is bemused and annoyed by his presence. Hawk even jokes about chucking him out the airlock. But when they come under fire by hostile space fighters, a critical ship component is damaged and they can’t get to it. Peter is just small enough that he can worm his way down into the engine to fix the problem, and presto! Peter has now earned his stripes and is treated as a full-fledged member of the crew. Just like that. It works… sort of. In reality that might earn him some token respect, but it’s hardly the sort of thing that makes people ready to sacrifice their lives for you. From this time on, they all act like Peter is a member of their family who has been traveling with them for years, or at least months. Contrast this with Simon and River, who occupy a similar role in Firefly. It’s the end of the two-hour pilot before Mal even invites them to stay aboard, and even that only if Simon earns his keep by acting as ship’s medic. And their position aboard ship is only ever tenuous. Indeed, in the big-screen film, which takes place eight months after Simon and River first come aboard, Mal actually loses his temper and kicks them off the ship. It’s only after Mal’s moral compass is triggered by the nefarious actions of the Alliance that he reverses and is ready to die for them if need be. Firefly earns that level of devotion only after fourteen TV episodes and half a feature film. Of course, Space Raiders doesn’t have that kind of time. But there are ways to accomplish that efficiently. The big-screen Firefly film, Serenity, is designed to still function even if you haven’t seen the show, and it manages to tell what in many ways is the same story much more effectively.
Part of the reason the dynamic doesn’t work is Peter himself. He’s frankly kind of annoying. Outside of that one instance when he saves the ship, and later when he briefly helps out by acting as gunner, he mostly just gets into trouble. After he comes aboard Hawk’s ship, the first stop is Zariatin Station, a hotbed of criminal activity not unlike the Mos Eisley Spaceport in Star Wars (complete with a cantina filled with aliens). Hawk puts Peter in a room and tells him to stay put. Naturally, Peter sneaks out and gets into trouble with a couple of thugs who look like the burglars from Home Alone. After chasing Peter through the bowels of the station, they finally catch him, forcing Hawk and company to go rescue him. But the company robot ship finds the thugs first and blasts them to smithereens. Peter gets away in an escape pod, sees Hawk’s ship in the distance, and actually yells, as if Hawk can hear him. When I was 10, I already knew that sound doesn’t travel in space, and I don’t live in a society where space travel is commonplace. What’s this kid’s excuse? Peter is not exactly a genius, and he’s certainly no Luke Skywalker. Even little kid Anakin had more charm. At least Anakin wanted to help out and save the day. Peter’s great ambition seems to be to get a job in an office and have an average, boring existence. Not quite the stuff that legends are made of.
But the biggest way in which the dynamic fails is in the fact that the movie wants us to think Peter sees Hawk as some kind of Big Damn Hero, but there’s never any point in the film that really shows us that. Peter never displays any kind of respect or admiration for Hawk. He just wants to go home. Yet Hawk even says out loud to a shipmate that Peter sees him as a hero. Where does that come from? Search me. Midway through the film, there’s a mislead where they think Peter has gone home and they’re all moping that he’s gone. But not enough has happened to really make us feel it. If anything, they should be relieved to be free of the responsibility so they can get on with their lives.
If any character in the film has a relationship with Peter that actually makes sense, it’s Amanda, who is played quite effectively by Patsy Pease. She spends almost all of her screen time annoyed by his presence. Really, she’s had enough of the space pirate life and is ready to bail. Hawk understands, and charges her with one last task: see Peter home. She agrees and it is when Peter is under her charge that they fall under attack and Peter has to act as gunner. He’s initially reluctant to take a life, but it finally sinks in that it’s kill or be killed and he manages to do what he needs to do. Amanda is suitably impressed, and it’s at this point that they finally bond. They crash on a planet, the bad guys close in, and she goes down fighting. One of the reasons this works is that it’s not just Peter who’s in danger. The bad guys are after both of them, so Amanda has no choice but to fight. We don’t need to bother with her having any ambiguity over whether she thinks Peter is worth her life. They’re just in it together and that’s it. The element of choice is taken away. Yes, it might have been more interesting to have an arc where she actually is ready to sacrifice herself, but given the tight running time it unavoidably would have felt forced, as it does with the other characters. At least Amanda is believable.
Rounding out the cast are Ace (Luca Bercovici), who is basically a non-character; Aldebaran (Drew Snyder) who has kind of a B.J. Hunnicutt vibe but otherwise doesn’t have much going on; and the alien Flightplan (Thom Christopher). Flightplan is probably the most interesting of the supporting cast, even if he’s something of a cliché. Thom Christopher seems to have been typecast as the aloof, mysterious alien, having played a similar character on Buck Rogers. This time he has psychic powers, which makes it a little different, but such characters are a dime a dozen in sci-fi, so it’s really nothing special. I’m also pretty convinced that Alan Rickman’s make-up in Galaxy Quest was based on this character.
Another aspect of Space Raiders that doesn’t quite work is Zariatin. He has the potential to be a great villain, and he almost succeeds. Played with gusto by Ray Stewart, Zariatin oozes pure evil in every scene. As an interstellar kingpin, it would be easy to dismiss Zariatin as an imitation Jabba the Hutt. He certainly functions in much the same capacity. The degree to which his character was influenced by Star Wars is up for debate. Space Raiders was already in production when Return of the Jedi premiered, so it’s unlikely that film had any real impact. But Jabba had already been mentioned in previous films. We didn’t necessarily know that Jabba was an alien, but we knew that Han Solo owed money to an interstellar kingpin named Jabba. So it would seem that the basic concept was definitely lifted straight from Star Wars. But is it executed well? For the most part, yes. Zariatin mostly works as a villain, even if he doesn’t have a lot of depth. And that’s sort of the problem. Hawk says that he and Zariatin have been friends for a long time, but there’s no indication of that friendship in their on-screen dynamic. Zariatan does nothing but yell and threaten and menace Hawk and everyone with him. When Peter gets kidnapped, Zariatin has what might be the best line of dialogue in the film: “This is why I never liked you, Hawk. You bring out the good in me. Go and get your kid.” At this point, it seems like Zariatin may actually have some depth, but the movie undoes that when Zariatin immediately double-crosses Hawk, not only deciding to take Peter himself to hold for ransom, but also to kill Hawk and his crew. If there had been some explanation for this, it might have made sense. Maybe if Zariatin had made Hawk promise to bring Peter back so they could ransom him and then word gets back to Zariatin that Hawk has reneged on the deal, that might have worked. But there’s nothing. Zariatin just flips and decides to murder everybody. Just cause evil or whatever.
With so many elements not working, it would seem like Space Raiders is an utter disaster. And, well, it kind of is. And yet there’s just something kind of charming about it. For everything it does wrong, it does something else right. Many of the film’s jokes fall flat, but many of them work. In particular, Roger Corman fans will enjoy a cameo by Dick Miller as a fast-talking salesman in a holographic commercial. The aliens in the cantina are a bundle of clichés and played for laughs. At one point, Ace flirts with what he thinks is a hot human blonde, but when she turns around she’s a hideous alien – which Flightplan finds attractive even though they’re not the same species. I guess all aliens are attracted to each other? I dunno. And the sci-fi cantina concept itself is shamelessly lifted from Star Wars. However, the Space Raiders cantina sequence has a food fight. Star Wars can’t boast that. The punchline is a bit much, with the proprietor trying to restore order only to get covered in food, but the scene itself is so over the top that it’s fun in spite of itself. For the most part, the alien masks are pretty bad, ranging from barely acceptable to the sort of thing you’d find in any given discount Halloween store. On the other hand, the make-up for Flightplan is pretty decent and Zariatin looks fantastic – truly alien and frightening. But above all, Space Raiders is fun. Maybe not as fun or immersive as Star Wars, but as fun as a knock-off drive-in version could have possibly been. It may not be Shakespeare, and there may be some gaps in the narrative, but screenwriter Howard R. Cohen certainly understands story structure. He keeps things moving, and even though key character moments are sometimes forced, at least they’re there. Other movies of this sort don’t even bother.
In the end, Space Raiders is unquestionably a knock-off of Star Wars. But given when it was released, that’s pretty obvious. When you go to the dollar store and buy a Transmorphers action figure, you know it’s a Transformers knock-off and you know what that means. You don’t expect Wal-Mart freezer pizza to taste like gourmet pizza from a pizzaria. When you know what you’re signing up for, you adjust your expectations. And sometimes the off-brand product surpasses those expectations. Such is the case with Space Raiders. It’s not Star Wars and it doesn’t have to be. And in a way, Space Raiders finds its niche. While films like Star Crash just recycled what the producers thought audiences liked about Star Wars – space battles and robots – Space Raiders takes a specific element from Star Wars and expands on it. Jabba the Hutt was just a sub-plot, a bit of character development for Han Solo. But it hints at a whole backstory with its own range of possibilities. Space Raiders seeks to deliver on that promise and despite its shortcomings, it mostly delivers.
And that brings us back to our initial comparison between Firefly and Space Raiders. Without a doubt, Firefly is superior. The characters in Firefly are more fully realized, the wit is sharper, the drama is deeper. But Firefly is very much its own thing. It’s not Star Wars, nor was it meant to be. In 1983, we all thought Return of the Jedi was the end of the road for Star Wars. Ten years would pass before the first expanded universe novel. The adventures of Han Solo before he met Luke were left to our imaginations. At the time, Space Raiders was as close as we were going to get, and it certainly scratched that itch. But if it has endured in the era of Star Wars as an institution, it’s because the people who made it cared. Its genesis was to quickly write a story around existing special effects culled from a previous Star Wars rip-off. That should have been a death sentence. But it wasn’t. Space Raiders rises above the pack thanks to the dedication of the people involved. Against all odds, they did the impossible: the took a project that should have been a disaster and turned it into something memorable. So does it matter whether something is a rip-off or an homage? I would say that depends on the quality of the work. Firefly is both an homage and an original work and it’s amazing. Space Raiders is absolutely a rip-off, a technically sub-par low-budget cash-in. But it’s got heart. And that’s enough.