The Starfighters: A Lesson

by Tom Ingram

A while ago, I was watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 (experiment 612, The Starfighters). Everybody likes to joke, saying that such-and-such is the “worst movie of all time”, but this was the real deal. The Starfighters has fewer events than a Samuel Beckett play, and a lot more talking. It’s a film about rookie Air Force pilots being trained in the operation of a new fighter. You’d think this would lead to edge-of-your-seat dogfights, if nothing else. After all, the Vietnam war was on at the time.

You’d be wrong. The Starfighters is contentless, not like Michael Bay’s “ooh, look, something shiny” movies, but in the more literal sense. When I call this movie “contentless”, I mean nothing happens at any point in it. We don’t learn anything about the characters beyond name, rank, and marital status. There’s no antagonist. There’s no conflict. Every time it looks like something could go wrong, it turns out to be no big deal. The movie’s climax is a routine test flight plagued by bad weather, which is resolved without major incident by the pilots doing exactly what common sense dictates. The only time any two people even disagree with each other is when a colonel and a congressman argue the merits of fighters versus bombers.

The Starfighters is just a loose connection of things that happen to the cardboard cutouts it calls characters without even a bullshit tacked on ending. It simply stops after an hour or so. There’s no reason why they chose that point to end it over any other–it would have made about as much sense.

It’s a movie that defies classification, almost a kind of achievement in its own way. Nothing alike has ever been accomplished before or since. More importantly, it also made for an uncharacteristically dull MST.

For those unfortunate enough never to have seen Mystery Science Theater 3000, it was a low-budget TV show produced in Minnesota in the 90s. A man named Joel (later replaced by Mike) is marooned on a space station with his two robot friends while a mad scientist sends them bad movies and measures their reactions as part of some kind of sick experiment. Joel and the bots give the movies humorous commentary in order to retain their sanity.

You’d be surprised to learn that the classic episodes of MST3K aren’t the ones that feature completely unwatchable movies like The Starfighters. The similarly boring Manos the Hands of Fate and Monster A-Go-Go are fairly well-known, but they’re really hard to watch. It turns out that an hour and a half of nothing happening doesn’t provide good comedic fodder.

Some of the best episodes are Space Mutiny, Samson vs the Vampire Women, and Pumaman (this is a painfully short list; I could go on). These all have one thing in common, besides being awful: they’re a lot of fun to watch. The way they’re made might be charmingly inept, but they all tell a semicoherent story where things actually happen. At the end of these movies, you don’t feel ripped off. You feel better than you did going in.

This man is rolling in his grave.

When I see The Starfighters, it fills me with a kind of rabid ire. The creators haven’t even made an effort to fail properly. How dare they churn out this tripe and then have the immortal rind to call it a movie! It’s an insult to the memory of Orson Welles. All I’m able to conjure up in response is vitriol. It can be cathartic to release the anger in the form of a review, but the only laughter you’ll get from it is a cruel cackle. That kind of anger welling up in your stomach is neither fun nor funny.

A movie like Pumaman also draws laughter, but instead of being cruelly derisive, it’s a hearty guffaw. The creators may have failed spectacularly at creating something good, but at least they were trying. They remind me of William McGonagall–bad at what they do, but so honest, so heartfelt, and so blissfully unaware of their shortcomings that you can’t help but feel fondness for them. As a movie in which events occur, Pumaman provides plenty to laugh about, and it leaves you with a warm happy feeling instead of an imbalance of the humours.

The lesson: a good parody requires some amount of affection for the things being parodied. This is why Terry Pratchett, Weird Al Yankovic, and the MST folks are so beloved, and conversely why Seltzer and Friedberg (the bastards) are not. Isn’t it more fun to watch something you can feel good about, even if it’s bad?

In case you want to start watching MST3K, here are some episodes that are good starting points:

  • 820: Space Mutiny
  • 624: Samson vs the Vampire Women
  • 903: Pumaman
  • 310 and 318: Fugitive Alien (1 and 2)
  • 816: Prince of Space
  • 703: Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell
  • 604: Zombie Nightmare
  • 705: Escape 2000