“Star Wars” is about as big of a pop cultural phenomenon as you can get, but there are still some areas where its influence is practically non-existent. For example, even though the major characters of “Star Wars” are global icons with name recognition in even the farthest corners of the world, none of them have ever received enough votes to stand on the dais with the leading candidates for British Prime Minister. However, Lord Buckethead, main villain of the 1984 “Star Wars” spoof “Gremloids,” has. This past June, Lord Buckethead received more than 200 votes in the United Kingdom general election, which was enough to get him on a stage with the top vote-getters and the requisite attention from Twitter. So yes, “Star Wars” may have billions in box office revenue, the respect of high-minded critics, and a merchandising empire responsible for more plastic than Dow Chemical, but “Gremloids” has Lord Buckethead.
Lord Buckethead’s road to political notoriety began in the opening scenes of “Gremloids” (aka “Hyperspace), when a couple of drunken fishermen accidentally shoot down his spaceship. Lord Buckethead and his army of diminutive robed henchmen are chasing down a rebel princess who has intercepted some very important imperial transmissions, but they make a navigational mistake and end up on Earth. One of Buckethead’s little footsoldiers gets separated from the group and holes up in a basement. The homeowners call up Max, a nerdy exterminator who is in over his head trying to evict a hostile alien creature. Max wants to live long enough to take his final exam for business school, so he hightails it out of there.
Lord Buckethead and his minions wander around town looking for the stolen transmissions, which leads them to a transmission repair shop and an employee named Karen (comedian Paula Poundstone before she was infamous). Buckethead is positive Karen is the rebel princess he’s searching for, but while he’s pressing her for information Max stumbles into the garage and gives Karen a chance to escape. The two run off into the woods with Buckethead and his forces hot on their heels.
This leads to one of my least favorite things in movies – the mid-chase chill-out. It goes like this: Malevolent forces are chasing you, and by the sheer grace of God you somehow give them the slip. Now that you’re in the clear, you have a number of options. You could return home. You could find a way to alert the police or the army or Hellboy or whatever. You could get word out to your loved ones that you’re safe for the moment. But you don’t do any of those things. Instead, you and the person you’re with – who is usually more or less a complete stranger to you – decide to hunker down in an unfamiliar location and spend some time getting to know one another. This location may be a place of business that is closed for the night or an empty house. You will find alcohol there, and you will drink it because it has been a long day. You and the other person you’re with will argue at first. However, a combination of sharing personal details and drinking someone else’s alcohol means that by the time the malevolent forces finally catch up to you, the two of you will be much closer and it won’t seem as forced when the two of you kiss at the end of the movie.
Meanwhile, local law enforcement is investigating the arrival of Lord Buckethead with the help of a young government scientist, played by Chris Elliott just before David Letterman made him famous. There are a few laughs to be had as Hopper copes with a town full of dumb rubes that would rather talk about guns than the alien invasion and want to blame cattle mutilations on squirrels. Unfortunately, the movie wastes a lot of Elliott’s screen time asking him to channel Richard Dreyfuss in “Jaws” before finally letting his familiar comic persona take over during the climactic confrontation with Buckethead and his forces.
The last act of “Gremloids” takes place mostly on Buckethead’s crashed spaceship. There, he tries to get Karen to give up the plans she doesn’t have, his minions try to convince him they’re on the wrong planet, and Max tries to make sneaking around a series of identical hallways seem interesting. None of them are successful. Eventually Max and Karen escape the ship and the movie closes out with one of the most “let’s just get this over with” endings imaginable. Not that this story needed a “Lord of the Rings” style epilogue to tie up all of its loose ends, but this is the bare minimum of an ending. The only way this movie could have had a lazier ending is if the actors had all walked away from the camera and let the film run out.
In a galaxy of movies that ripped off “Star Wars” in one way or another, “Gremloids” definitely isn’t the brightest star but occupies its own place in the firmament. Instead of making a straight-up spoof of the original full of jokey names like “Fart Vapor,” it goes its own way, even if that way isn’t really worth the trip.