The Starfighters is the most perfect movie ever to appear on Mystery Science Theater 3000. It debuted during the show’s magical sixth season – after Joel Robinson had escaped the Satellite of Love, but before TV’s Frank or Dr. Forrester kicked the bucket. The good folks at MST3K had quite a lot of courage to take on a film like this, which is devoid of seemingly anything funny. But their risk paid off handsomely and it turned into the most entertaining episode the show ever produced.
Sure, The Wild World of Batwoman is pure insanity, Manos: The Hands of Fate is a living nightmare, Mitchell features the laziest cop in the world, Space Mutiny makes a mockery of space operas, and Time Chasers basks in its low-budget scrappiness. But The Starfighters has one thing that all of those and every other film featured on MST3K does not have: Nothing! Absolutely nothing happens in The Starfighters, and it’s a terrifying beauty to behold when you realize the whole movie contains neither gripping drama nor action nor comedy nor even filler. It’s like looking at the clear blue sky for an hour and a half, and yet its sheer nonexistence is its greatest charm.
This should be a really short article. Just watch the Starfighters MST3K episode right now. It’s perfect, and I think you’ll agree it’s simply the best:
Okay, I guess I should try to justify my bold claim that this is the best MST3K episode. So here are my reasons.
Levels of Humor
The Starfighters is a film I loved as a kid because the jokes from Mike Nelson and the Bots fly a mile a minute and they all hit their targets perfectly. These guys are always excellent riffers, but they really pulled out all the stops for this film and managed to tell joke after joke that just has me in stitches every time. As a kid, I loved all the silly things they would say and the funny voices they made, but as I got older I realized just how many sexual innuendos they were making at the pilots’ expense. Once you pay attention to what they’re really talking about in the refueling scenes, you’ll never look at airplanes the same.
Plus, this is one of the few MST3K episodes that had the honor of being overtly referenced in Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. A joke is repeated nearly word for word in that theatrical film when Mike says, “I’d like to thank me for flying Me Airways.” Check it out:
Everyone Set with the Premise of the Movie?
There’s a scene early on in which two commanding officers discuss three incoming pilots, one of whom has a father who is a former pilot and is now a congressman. Mike and the Bots mostly just sit back and allow the scene to play out. They do offer a few barbs here and there, but there aren’t enough spaces between the rapid-fire dialogue to let them do any major riffs. The scene is setting the groundwork for what is ostensibly supposed to be the main conflict of the story between father and son. But that conflict winds up going absolutely nowhere, something that we’re clued into by the joke that immediately follows it. Mike turns to the Bots (but it sounds more like he’s talking to the audience at home) and says, “Okay, everyone set with the premise of the movie… some kind of plane thing?” None of it matters at all. Don’t even bother trying to pay attention to the plot. There is none.
Later, after that young pilot flies for the first time in the Starfighter jet, he wows his Major. He proves himself to be not just a passable pilot but a savant of the skies. The Major gushes over him for quite a while and his fellow pilot even makes a big deal about it, too. But the trouble is we’re never shown his expert skill as a pilot. We hear those two guys praise him to high heaven, and then they never mention it again. Again, it just doesn’t matter. That level of dropping the ball is breathtaking to behold. The movie desperately wants us to believe something is going on below the surface, and then it pulls the rug out from under us just as we get down on the floor to take a peek. Thankfully, Mike and the Bots are on hand to point out the futility of finding any kind of depth in this film.
A Perfect Balance Between Mean and Good Fun
Mike, Crow, and Tom Servo pull off a masterful balancing act, managing to be rude and crude without ever drifting into the realm of the mean-spirited. How do they pull this off? Here is an example. They make an awful lot of fuss about how ugly the Air Force pilots and commanders are, even going so far as to advertise, “Is your face odd, misshapen? Join the Air Force!” But during one of the extended flying sequences where nothing much is going on, they point out, “We can make fun of these guys, but Saddam Hussein ain’t laughing, huh?” Exactly. They don’t hate these pilots. Their riffs are all in good fun, and this kind of humor gives us permission to laugh at these pilots while not necessarily denigrating the entire military.
So many scenes have me laughing my head off throughout this film. But there’s one in particular that has one of the most astoundingly hilarious things I’ve ever seen on MST3K. The Major is introducing his three new pilots to the Starfighter jet, and he keeps asking them questions and then interrupting them when they try to answer. Mike and Crow pick up on this odd habit and they take advantage of an ensuing section of silence to insert a side-splitting riff.”
Crow (imitating the Major): Yeah, there’s plenty of girls around here.
Mike (imitating a pilot): Well, that’s great because I’m really…
Crow: SHUT UP!
This riff could not be more perfect because the film set it up so beautifully. As a cherry on top, the Major never does this again, so there’s no pressure to try to milk the joke for more laughs later.
You Can Tell by the Music
Halfway through the film, something comes dangerously close to happening. The young pilot is flying solo in his Starfighter as soothing music caresses our ears. But then he suddenly alerts the Major that he has an unsafe reading on one of his gauges. The Major flies up close to him to do a visual inspection of his jet as the soothing music resumes its normal volume like nothing has happened. Tom Servo notes, “Well, you can tell by the music that it’s a dangerous situation.” The film’s score is so dull throughout the film, you would almost think it was trying to mock the film’s tone by pedantically adhering to the visuals without any concern for the lack of deeper meaning in them. After all, as Crow points out, “This is about a lot more than flying.” “Yeah,” Mike responds, “it’s about landing, too.”
Baffling But Not Insulting
The Starfighters is that rare film that is baffling without being insulting. “Did they ever consider that this wasn’t riveting?” Tom Servo wonders as what passes for an action sequence comes and goes like the wind. I really have to wonder if writer/producer/director Will Zens was trying to make a good film or if he was really cynical about the whole endeavor. The film defies explanation. It has bizarre, abstract phone conversations mingled with painfully long discussions of corn detasseling and unromantic scenes of romance. Oh, and there are endless sequences of jets refueling, dropping bombs, firing missiles, and shooting Gatling guns for target practice. None of it makes any sense, but it never insults my intelligence by demanding that I think it’s anything besides a trivial film about the aimless lives of a few bumbling pilots. I respect the film for that.
I can’t help it. I love The Starfighters. I have watched it more times than I can count, and I still get a kick out of it every time I revisit it. Some bad movies distract me by attempting to tell stories, but this film seems to exist purely as a framework to hang jokes on. It was made to be made fun of. This movie somehow exists without being anything. Nothing happens in the whole movie, and I love it for accomplishing the impossible and being completely devoid of any kind of substance. Now that’s really something.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
All movie clips are the copyright of their respective owners.