The Ice Pirates (1984) poster

The Ice Pirates (1984)


USA. 1984.


Director – Stewart Raffill, Screenplay – Stewart Raffill & Stanford Sherman, Producer – John Foreman, Photography – Matthew F. Leonetti, Music – Bruce Broughton, Visual Effects – Max W. Anderson, Special Effects – Jonathan Kaplan & John Short, Makeup – Maurice Stein, Robots – Michael McCracken, Art Direction – David M. Haber & Kent Forman. Production Company – JF.


Robert Urich (Jason), Mary Crosby (Princess Karina), Michael D. Roberts (Roscoe), John Matuszak (Killjoy), Anjelica Huston (Marda), Ron Perlman (Zeno), Alan Caillou (The Count), Marcia Lewis (Frog Lady), Bruce Vilanch (Weird Wendon), John Carradine (Supreme Commander of the Templar Knights)


In a galaxy ruled by the evil Templar Knights, water is the most valuable substance and pirates make their living stealing shipments of ice. On one such raid, the pirate captain Jason and his crew kidnap the Princess Karina. However, they are captured and taken to be sold into slavery on the Templar homeworld. Just prior to their castration for sale as eunuchs, Karina intervenes to save them. She wants them to crew a ship to go in search of her father who has vanished while searching for the mythical water-filled seventh planet.

The Ice Pirates was one of many films attempting to compete in the big science-fiction boom that followed the success of Star Wars (1977). Many films during this period simply grafted other genres – the Western, the war movie, the samurai film – onto outer space settings, substituting one-man fighters for horses, rayguns for six-shooters and lightsabres for swords and so on. The Ice Pirates is just a B-budget swashbuckler thinly dressed up in science-fiction garb.

When it comes to science-fiction, Pirates is appropriate a title as the film pirates nothing so more flagrantly than just about every element of its story. It pillages almost every aspect from the 1980s science-fiction boom, in particular Star Wars – comic robots, hologram messages, small ships conducting dogfights, barrooms of aliens, scenes akin to the fight aboard Jabba the Hut’s barge in Return of the Jedi (1983). Elsewhere, the quest for the mythical seventh planet Earth is taken from Battlestar Galactica (1978), while even more directly it reuses stock footage from Rollerball (1975) and Logan’s Run (1976).

The film’s more overtly comic tone garnered it some decent reviews from some surprisingly respectable quarters – from journals like Films and Filming and even the eminent The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1992). Not far underneath, the film is a muddle from beginning to end. For a start, there is a premise that seems to have failed to research even basic high school chemistry – the characters are all air-breathing humanoids, so one wonders why more of the much-needed water could not have been synthesised out of the hydrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere (something that is a relatively simple operation chemically speaking)?

Michael D. Roberts, Anjelica Huston and Robert Urich in The Ice Pirates (1984)
Ice Pirates – (l to r) Michael D. Roberts, Anjelica Huston and Robert Urich

Action scenes appear strung together – transitions jump hurriedly from the tail of one sequence to the middle of the next without any concern for explanation of the interrupt. The ending arriving at Earth merely comes to an irresolute halt just when the film becomes interesting. It is an ending that is an abrupt scratch of the head and leaves much – the quest to find Karina’s father, more water and the overthrow of the Templars – up in the air unresolved.

The comedy and genre parody is feeble – the visuals for a space battle are a videogame that flashes ‘Game Over’ at the end of a space dogfight. Much of the rest of the film is down at the level of toilet humour level with a space herpy doing bad Alien (1979) impersonations. The time warp battle at the end with the characters aging and even giving birth to their own children who rapidly age and join in the conflict is an amusingly staged set-piece and is the scene most people remember about the film.

Robert Urich and Mary Crosby at least appear to be having fun. Anjelica Huston, just before she became a recognisable name, has an impressive presence as one of the pirates, although Alan Caillou performance as the Count contains some of the worst hamming this side of tv’s Batman (1966-8). The special effects contain some very obvious matte lines.

Only a few months later, director Stewart Raffill went onto make the decent time travel film The Philadelphia Experiment (1984). Raffill has remained a minor genre hand since with the eminently forgettable likes of the cute alien film Mac and Me (1988), Mannequin on the Move (1991), Tammy and the T-Rex (1994), Croc (2007) and Bad Girl Island/Sirens of the Caribbean (2007).

Trailer here

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