The Ice Pirates (1984) — The Space Opera with a serious case of the Space Herpes

“I hope no one minds, but I have no intention of facing this sober.”

Chad’s rating: Two out of four ice cubes with a tall glass of tap water

Chad’s review: In the early 1980s, every Hollywood studio was chasing the massive success of the Star Wars franchise. It was the ultimate “carrot and stick” scenario, where filmmakers were chasing the space opera carrot — with George Lucas holding the stick. In 1984 MGM/UA threw their hat into the ring in what was supposed to be a splashy big-budget actioner called The Water Planet. Scripted by the screenwriter of Krull, the film would be a bold marriage of space opera with the Jason & The Argonauts myth and had a young Kevin Costner attached to star.

That original version sounded cool. That’s a movie a nine-year-old Chad would’ve badgered his parents endlessly to see in the theatre.

Sadly, we got The Ice Pirates instead. Reportedly, the once-great MGM/UA studio was in dire financial straits and slashed the budget to this project. And the execs brought on Stewart Raffill to refashion the script into a zany comic caper, replacing the Jason & The Argonauts elements with a classic pirate adventure.

Set in the distant future, we find out that water is so scarce that it is rationed and traded in large blocks of ice as an extremely valuable form of currency. The dastardly Templars of Mithra now control the flow of the H2O, destroying any planets with natural water sources and tightening their grip on the parched galaxy.

Fortunately, we have Jason and his merry band of Ice Pirates who raid the Templar’s cruisers of their cubed bounty. During one of their daring cruiser attacks, Jason discovers that Princess Karina is aboard and tries to kidnap her for a ransom but is promptly captured by the Templars. Jason and his first mate Roscoe are sold into slavery, only to be purchased by Princess Karina, who then hires the Pirate crew to help her find her father. Karina’s Dad has gone missing looking for the mythic “Seventh World,” a planet that’s supposed to have vast amounts of water.

Soon it’s a race to find the “Seventh” planet before the evil Templars. As Jason and Karina follow her father’s trail, they encounter all weird manner of creatures and obstacles including a chaotic time distortion field that surrounds the precious “Seventh World.”

I first discovered Ice Pirates a few years after its release when it aired on HBO. I was at a sleepover, and even then, my grade school discerning tastes could tell that this wasn’t a great movie. As I revisited this bizarre misfire, I tried to watch it in the context of 1984 and give it some slack. There are some fascinating ideas here, and the concept of water as a form of currency is kind of cool, as is the mythical “Seventh World,” which is revealed to be… 39-year-old spoiler alert… Earth.

The marriage of space opera with the classic swashbuckling pirate genre isn’t a bad idea. But the filmmakers also try to blend the wacky humor of Monty Python with the high adventure of the Indiana Jones films and a dash of the Robin Hoodmythology. There are wild swings between tones, going from a Mad Max-inspired chase sequence to the crew being captured by a gang of unicorn-riding Amazons. This is where the film’s low budget is readily apparent, as most of the action set pieces lack cohesion and thrills but abound in cheap-looking creature effects. There’s a flat pace to the scenes, and the movie never builds a sense of urgency as everyone races to find the “Seventh World.”

Kevin Costner probably saved his career by turning down the lead of Jason, with Robert Urich stepping in to play the dashing pirate captain. Urich was primarily a TV actor, mostly known for the early ’80s series Vegas. While he channels the boyish brogue of Harrison Ford, his unique charisma was better suited for the small screen. He’s nicely paired with another TV veteran Mary Crosby, who had just finished a lengthy run on Dallas (and who… 42-year-old, spoiler alert… shot JR). We also get appearances by a young Ron Perlman and John Matuszak, who would go on to play Sloth in the ’80s classic The Goonies. And it’s nice to see Angelica Huston here exuding attitude and strength as Maida, the pirate’s muscled warrior.

The Ice Pirates does contain many pleasures in revisiting, like the goofy retro visuals. If you’re a connoisseur of pre-CGI optical-based effects, this movie is a smorgasbord. It’s commendable that the film embraced a campy tone in favor of the hero’s journey tropes that defined many ’80s sci-fi adventures. And Urich and Crosby are imminently watchable as their scenes crackle with flirty energy.

Finally, there’s a space herpes subplot that goes nowhere. Yes, space herpes infects the Ice Pirates’ ship, and it’s gloriously silly fun.

The movie badly needed a more visionary director like Terry Gilliam, who had just made a splash with the wildly creative Time Bandits. Or John Carpenter, who nailed the cartoon camp of Big Trouble in Little China a few years later.

Ice Pirates is one of those properties primed for a remake. The ideas and concepts are promising and could be gold with the right filmmaker. One could see Guillermo Del Toro or Taika Waititi having a field day with this. Until then, we have the cheezeball delights of the original to enjoy.

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