In the distant future, all water in the galaxy lies under the control of the Templars of Mithra. Their monopoly has led to the rise of ‘ice pirates’: swashbuckling thieves who break into the Templars’ transport ships and still their ice cargo from underneath them. After being captured during a raid, the ice pirate Jason (Robert Urich) is unexpectedly freed to help the Princess Karina (Mary Crosby) search for her father – who vanished on the trail of a new source of water.
Stewart Raffill’s The Ice Pirates is one of the great red-hot messes of 1980s American cinema. Conceived as a cash-in on Star Wars for MGM, it abruptly had its production budget halved and its screenplay rewritten to transform it from straight-faced space fantasy to self-aware comedic parody. The result is a colossal misfire: never funny enough to operate as a proper movie comedy, and not inventive or dramatic enough to work as a serious science fiction adventure.
Despite its numerous flaws, I am left with a soft spot for The Ice Pirates. A large part of my affection stems from seeing it on home video at the age of nine; that magical time in one’s life when half of the jokes will fly over one’s head, and all it takes for a science fiction film to be awesome is a few robots and a laser gun shoot-out. The smaller part of my love for this film is based around what occasional elements actually work. There are certainly a couple of – well, possibly not diamonds in the rough, but perhaps a couple of pretty bits of coloured glass.
When the jokes do land, they land well. There’s a generally broad and good humour about the whole film, and the cast play it up quite well. Robert Urich and Mary Crosby are perfectly solid as dashing pirate and earnest princess respectively. Michael D. Roberts showcases great comic timing as second-in-command Roscoe. Early career viewers will get a kick out of seeing Angelica Huston and Ron Perlman as members of Jason’s pirate crew. There’s even an appearance by Bruce Vilanch.
To an extent that’s almost enough to sustain the more indiscriminate viewer, like a science fiction mad nine year-old. The problem comes from just how haphazardly the film has been put together. That it is a serious adventure film jury-rigged to be a comedy is obvious throughout. The humour does not feel integral to the story, but rather bolted onto the top of it like a window dressing. It is obvious from the outset that this would have been a risible adventure film; there is little in the entire picture that cannot be categorised as either derivative or particularly stupid. Whatever MGM executive decided to transform the entire picture into a parody might have mitigated the damage, but it would have been a smarter move not to make the film at all.
I am always going to hold a certain affection for The Ice Pirates, despite a few jokes borne from a 1980s rape culture and despite its fairly dreadful production values. It is certainly despite its stereotype-riddled plot and paper-thin characters. I think it’s important to be able to openly love the things you love for whatever reason: personal quirks, childhood nostaliga, or even a perverse love of incompetence. I think it’s also important to admit that sometimes we love bad films.