Raiding Stars For A Vision

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

I’m a fan of Rifftrax and Mystery Science Theater 3000. This is because I love B movies and odd things, often they’re more revealing of the human condition than supposedly “good” and “popular” things. I find the humor of Riffers often tells us a lot about ourselves – be they dealing with a flawed movie or a popular one like the Rifftrax crew does.

Recently, I attended a Rifftrax of the half-Kickstarted film Star Raiders: The Adventures of Saber Raine. It was a film that was difficult to classify, and though the Riffing was fun, there’s a considerable amount to learn from this film. Three people cracking insightful jokes isn’t enough to really dive into what this was – and why it could have been better.

The film itself seemed to be an attempt to do pulp science fiction – it was essentially a 21st-century attempt to do a kind of 80’s-direct-to-video take on pulp SF. Chisel-jawed Saber Raine, former military space hero turned mercenary, is hired to rescue a prince and princess from a mysterious alien and his legion of cyborg zombies. There is, of course, more to the story as our hero and his group battle towards their targets on a war-torn world.

By description? It sounds like it should be a lot of fun. In reality, Star Raiders was a strange patchwork of things that never felt fully executed, a pile of ideas and scenes and concepts. It was a film that felt like its creators never fully realized it, partially because there were limits on money and actors, but partly as they didn’t quite seem to know what they wanted. I had fun – I would have enjoyed it on its own as that pushes some of my buttons – but it’s an erratic movie.

For instance, there were wonderfully retro spaceship designs that seemed to have come out of the ’30s and 40’s – and some excellent CGI. There was a villain with an army of cyborg zombies out for vengeance due to a centuries-old injustice – a great reason to raise an army of cyborg zombies. At least one swordfight appeared onscreen as per unwritten rules of pulp SF. Dramatic backstories were the order of the day as we find out the history of an alien race.

Sounds fun? Except . . .

The script managed to be sparse then over the top. Worldbuilding was dropped on us in giant globs between scenes that weren’t that needed. A few actors needed more coaching, even though some were obviously giving their all. Things got almost-explained. Some plot twists (such as a romance) seemed grafted on for no good reason. The feel of the film veered wildly, as if unable to settle on how its inspirations should work.

Star Raiders is a film that should have been better than it was, even when it managed to overcome its flaws. It was clear some of the cast was fighting to make it work no matter what. I was very impressed with martial artist Tyler Weaver Jr. – though it was clear his acting skills needed work, he charged ahead with a loveable lack of inhibition and some serious action skills.

So I began asking myself – what would have made it work? Quickly, I came to realize something that my friend Serdar summarized as follows:

“The greatest entertainments of any era either totally embody their moment in time, or seem outside of time altogether.”

Star Raiders was the child of many parents, many inspirations – from the ’30s to the 21st century. But they never quite gelled, never came together. It felt disjointed, as if the people behind it didn’t know what it should be, but thought they did. Perhaps it’s history – having to be finished on Kickstarter – was part of it.

I wanted to like it. Like Wolfcop and Manborg, it was an attempt to embrace something cheesy and fun and sincere. In fact, I did kind of like it, in the sense I could feel the heartbeat beneath the surface – it wanted to be a retro SF adventure but never settled on how.

It didn’t achieve the feel of a given decade, being a patchwork of inspirations. There was passion there, but unfocused, embracing neither a given decade nor a coherent fusion.

It had a lot of story but didn’t seem to know what it wanted to do with it. It was clear there was an attempt at worldbuilding, establishing an entire galaxy of people and politics. Someone loved their idea and didn’t know what to do with it.

There were obvious budget issues but forget those. The staff didn’t seem to care, and I respect that – it didn’t stop them.

Some actors needed to do better; clearly, some coaching was needed. It didn’t stop them, which I respect.

When I look it over, I think what Star Raiders lacked was not money or talent or enthusiasm – it charged on uninhibitedly. It was that its staff needed to sit down and figure out what they wanted. Was it going to be more of a given genre? Was it going for a more timeless feel? How would the intricate worldbuilding come out to enforce the feeling?

Star Raiders, despite its pause for Kickstarter funds, felt like what it really needed was a pause for everyone to figure out what it was at heart, to grasp that enthusiasm beneath the idea and weave it into something stronger.

The lesson here is the one Serdar stated. You can go for a feel for a time, or you can touch on the timeless. You might even be able to weave several times together as Star Raiders attempted. But to create a work, you have to know what to embrace to bring it out; you need a vision, a sense of place, of where you’re going.

For me, I wish the crew behind Star Raiders and films like them well. May they find their vision (and perhaps their sequels) and embrace it. We all need a place to go, creatively.

Steven Savage