Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Starchaser - The Legend of Orin

Once upon a time, there was a very stupid child. He thought there were clearly defined periods in every person’s life and stark boundaries on anything and everything. Girls liked My Little Pony, boys liked G.I. Joe. Once you hit a certain age you gave up things like comic books and cartoons. As you grew up you would automatically attain perfect knowledge of the world and how to live in it.

Then one day in 1985, his parents took him to see a movie that was his first step in breaking those nice little orderly lines, though they surely had no idea what they were getting into when they did.

That movie was Starchaser.

After opening credits on a star field backed by gloriously cheesy 80’s synth, the movie opens on a bleak underground mine where humans mine powerful crystals under the watchful eyes of robots. Zygon, the speaker for their pitiless gods, goads them on with threats of the furnace that powers their awful world going out if they don’t provide ever more crystals.

Until, that is, the miners discover a sword that projects an image of an old man who speaks of a magnificent universe beyond the mine, and exhorts them to “find the blade, and you will find your freedom.” The blade and the man fade away, leaving just the hilt and the promise of something better.

Most of the miners are dubious, except a boy named Orin who looks like an 80’s rock star and isn’t quite old enough to have had his spirit completely broken by the years of unceasing toil. He and girlfriend Elan make a plan to sneak into the next load of crystals to see what lies beyond, and learn it’s all a sham; there are no heartless gods, Zygon’s planning to use the crystals to launch a bid for galactic domination. We find out how serious he is when he strangles Elan. And she’s dead. Forever.

Elan’s grandfather had been killed previous to this trying to keep the robots from finding the sword, but he was old and infirm anyway. Considering the kind of life they lead it’s a miracle he lasted that long. The hero’s girlfriend didn’t get killed, anymore than the hero didn’t always win. It just didn’t happen.

Zygon seems to recognizes the bladeless sword Orin carries, and it suddenly starts to glow, giving him a chance to run for it. He flees into a tunnel, which promptly caves in. Like all would-be conquerors, Zygon presumes Orin died. Like all would-be heroes, Orin survives the disaster without a scratch.

A montage shows him digging upward for the first time in his life (“Never dig up. Up is hell”), until, his food exhausted and his hope almost spent as well, Orin emerges into a swamp. You and I wouldn’t be too excited by this, but Orin’s elated to find out the universe really is bigger than his people’s cave.

That is, until he runs into a pack of deranged “man-droids” who want to cut him up and use his body parts to replace their own. This was the moment when I started to realize cartoons were just another medium. These guys were scary, especially this one.

But once again the hilt saves Orin when it suddenly generates a blade of energy and kills two of his captors, letting Orin bluff the third into cutting him loose. While fleeing from the vivisected freaks’ vivisected freak buddies, Orin literally runs into a cigar-chomping space smuggler who he promptly saves from a giant swamp bug.

Orin tags along when they’re detected by the guard-bots of the crystal storage base Orin just escaped from. From there Orin learns he’s a chosen one destined to save the universe from robot enslavement, and along the way things are made interesting by a prissy ship’s computer, a sleazy gynoid, and a politician’s beautiful daughter (voiced by Noelle North!) who’s charmed by Orin’s macho headband.

Oh no!

Now, some of the movie’s influences are kind of obvious. Like the two main characters. Orin’s got a sword that only creates an energized blade when he’s going into combat. Dag (the cigar-chomping smuggler) is more than a little reminiscent of another hard-bitten space dog whose trilogy had wrapped up a couple years earlier.

But Starchaser's still a solid movie and it earns that PG rating, too. Besides the death, cursing, death, and scary patchwork robot people, it can be kind of crude. Like when Dag captures a secretarial robot in the process of escaping the crystal base, he later reprograms her by opening the access hatch on her butt. And looking at it with adult eyes, there’s one scene that sure looks like it takes place in an alien whorehouse.

Bite THAT shiny metal ass...

So not only for pushing the limits of what was and wasn’t done in animation back then, but also for telling a pretty good story and having some great animation, Starchaser’s a movie that easily earns my recommendation. This movie isn’t good in a silly way, it’s good in a good way. Even if the story’s a little predictable at times, the pacing’s solid, the characters are likable enough, and the villains are both credible and kind of scary. It’s also not afraid to take the occasional stab at levity, like with where Silica’s attitude adjustment takes place.

Even if it's not a good idea to look too close at the scenery sometimes.

Having listened to me heap praise on this movie, would you believe it was actually written by the same Jeffrey Scott who was my semi-regular whipping boy for his work on Dino Squad?

I’m not sure I do either.

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