The Race for Space: Star Wars' Many Cheap Imitators

Dan Auty

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In cinema, it’s also the quickest way to make a buck — it’s almost impossible to think of a hit film that hasn’t spawned imitators, cash-ins, rip-offs, sequels and remakes. Entire film industries have been built around producing quickly-made pictures that could take advantage of a big movie’s success.

Before Star Wars was released in 1977, the idea of the marketplace being flooded by a host of low budget sci-fi movies – and indeed non-sci-fi movies that suddenly threw in a load of random SF elements – would have seemed ludicrous. At that time, sci-fi was not a genre you dabbled in to make money.  But when George Lucas’ film became the most successful movie ever made, entrepreneurial producers quickly put their cheapo disaster epics and shark attack thrillers to one side and headed into space.

The success of Star Wars inspired a long line of bad sci-fi movies.

It wasn’t all low budget foreign knock-offs either. The highest profile cash-in was the lavishly-mounted ABC show Battlestar Galactica, which featured very familiar heroes, heroines, villains, robots and ships. The similarities were such that Star Wars distributors Fox sued ABC’s parent company Universal for copyright infringement, even though there was a pre-existing agreement between the two studios, since Fox had actually leased its soundstages to Universal to make the show.

Almost as blatant – and a thousand times more ridiculous – was the 1979 Bond movie Moonraker. Bond producers were planning to make For Your Eyes Only next, but a quick change of schedule saw Roger Moore entering orbit to do laser battle with evil industrialist Hugo Drax and his men. The results were not good, but the film remained the most successful 007 movie for nearly two decades, showing how little was needed to please space-crazed movie fans at that time.

Even James Bond cashed in on audiences' excitement for outer-space antics with Moonraker.

Of course, the true gems of Star Wars hackery were produced overseas. At that time, film industries like those of Italy, Spain and Turkey thrived on unofficial knock-offs of hit Hollywood movies. Luigi Cozzi’s Star Crash from 1978 is perhaps the best known spaghetti Star Wars, a gloriously shonky slide of sci-fi campery, in which ex-Bond girl Caroline Munro battles bad guys in her pants, a young David Hasselhoff waves a weapon around that looks suspiciously like a lightsaber, and Christopher Plummer enjoys a paid holiday in Rome. And if Star Crash leaves you wanting more, then 1979’s Star Odyssey should kill any desire to go further. One of four Lucas rip-offs that Alfonso Brescia churned out in a single year, it makes Star Crash seem like, well, Star Wars by comparison.

Star Crash is a gloriously over-the-top attempt at emulating Star Wars.

Going five steps further was the Turkish ‘epic’ The Man Who Saved the World, which has become simply known over the years as Turkish Star Wars. This one-of-a-kind experience goes further than its peers in not only copying scenes from other movies but stealing them outright. The film opens with a space montage that literally just lifts footage from Lucas’ film – the Millennium Falcon, TIE Fighters, the Death Star, it’s all there! Later on the cantina scene is recreated, but with added kung fu, while the thrilling desert-set climax is set to the score of another Lucas favourite, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Of course, it would be unfair to the end this without pointing out that Star Wars itself was directly influenced by both the sci-fi serials and westerns that Lucas had loved as a kid, and the Kurosawa movies he watched as a young film buff. If the low budget copies and cash-ins haven’t had the legacy of Lucas’s saga, then at least they did what they needed to do quickly, cheaply, and with reasonably entertaining results. And if nothing else, they’re still all better than the Prequels.


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