Space Cop is full of laughs as well as inspiration for aspiring filmmakers
There’s a video from 2009 you can watch on YouTube titled “Space Cop Trailer.” It resembles a home movie, made in an afternoon, but has a remarkable 143,000 views. This preview is essentially a spoof of one of those high concept, Sci-Fi, buddy cop movies that were so prevalent in the 80’s — Think Lethal Weapon crossed with Alien Nation — but obviously shot with a budget consisting of what was found between some couch cushions. “Space Cop Trailer” was not an actual trailer for a finished film, but more like a couple of guys, goofing around with a video camera on a Saturday afternoon. It’s a very unassuming little video but it’s competently made. There are no flashy special effects or much hint of a plot but the camera is steady and the actors are into their roles. All the scenes consists of the filmmakers wearing Goodwill costumes while a thunder throated voice explains the premise and repeats the title, “Space Cop” ad nauseam. The soundtrack over compensates for the lack of action but the tagline insists it’s “An Adventure for all of Mankind”. It’s ridiculous and silly and it feels like little more than an excuse for some friends to hang out and experiment with movie making, based on the idea they hatched, late one slap-happy Friday night.
One would never assume there would be anything more from this concept. One would be wrong.
Typically, film geeks love to talk about making a movie but they never get further than just messing around with a camera. Well, I’m here to say that six years later, Jay Bauman, Mike Stoklasa and Rich Evans, the hive minds behind the “Space Cop Trailer” video have achieved what few set out to do. They expanded upon an idea and made a full feature film. It’s a real movie and everything. These guys from the Midwest didn’t need to move to Hollywood, Bollywood or Dollywood to make a movie but simply wrote a script, built sets, crafted props, and recruited a cast and crew and turned their 3-minute skit into a 90-minute motion picture. Space Cop is (technically) the second comedy film from the plucky independent production company Red Letter Media and it’s an impressive achievement. It’s actually funny. However, more importantly, if you were to watch it with a certain eye and set of expectations you’ll find not only laughs but a lot to appreciate. Space Cop is pretty damn great.
“What? We saw where he went; now we level the building. That’s police work.” – Space Cop
Set in the not-too-distant future (the future of space), where flying cars and moon colonization are taken for granted, the Space Police’s most lazy, dimwitted, and violence prone officer, Space Cop, spectacularly bungles a hostage negotiation. After inadvertently killing thousands of innocent bystanders to stop a single criminal, the Space Chief of Police (played with hilarious zest by Patton Oswalt) demotes the titular hero to Space Traffic duty. On the first day of his new assignment, Space Cop pursues an alien moving violation into a cosmic wormhole and is accidentally transported from the future (the future of space) back in time. After being begrudgingly accepted as member of the present-day Milwaukee police force, Space Cop is partnered with a cryogenically unfrozen detective from the 1940’s. Now, these two fish-out-of-water must put their differences aside to stop a group of aliens and an evil disembodied brain from destroying the world. Can old fashioned police work and a futuristic technology (from the future of space) stop the bad guys and save the day? The odds are against Space Cop but that’s just they way he likes them.
Space Cop is not a film you’ll find at the multiplex or Netflix. You can’t even rent it at Red Box. It’s a movie you have to order by mail or digital download on faith alone, but if you’re a fan of Red Letter Media (like me) you won’t be disappointed. Their reputation sold me on purchasing a copy and I’m hoping my recommendation can in turn support their film. This was clearly a passion project for Jay, Mike and Rich and their friendship and dedication to the movie can be felt in every scene. There’s a lot to love about Space Cop on its own but even more if you understand what it took to actually get the film made. However, it you’re not familiar with the story of Red Letter Media let me quickly bring you up to speed with their meteoric rise to minor famous internet celebrity.
“(sigh) Chips in a bag. I’ll never get use to that.” – Space Cop
In December of 2009, Chicago film school graduate and Wisconsin native, Mike Stoklasa uploaded a YouTube video that was the Internet equivalent of a lightning rod. The Phantom Menace Review was a 70-minute analysis that used biting humor and keen insight to thoroughly deconstruct and eviscerate the fundamental problems with George Lucas’s 1999 Star Wars prequel. The video quickly went viral and even attracted the adoration of celebrity geeks such as actor Simon Pegg, writer Damon Lindelof and even (future Star Wars filmmaker) J.J. Abrams. It was a big splash for Stoklasa but more importantly, it garnished him a burgeoning fan base.
Film geeks loved Stoklasa’s review. His astute critiques and sense of humor set Mike’s work apart from the glut of YouTube critics clamoring for the spotlight. But the most memorable component to The Phantom Menace Review was the hysterical and eccentric persona Stoklasa created to narrate his video: the demented, but insightful, senior citizen and serial killer Mr. Harry S. Plinkett. Instead of using his own voice (which he deemed to be boring) Mike spoke in a slurred and funny cadence he called Mr. Plinkett. Between his terrific commentary, Stoklasa filmed intermittent, comedy vignettes that showcased the bizarre point-of-view of Old Man Plinkett. These breaks in the narrative were outrageous digressions from the Star Wars commentary but they also demonstrated Stoklasa’s filmmaking prowess. The Phantom Menace Review became so popular that the Internet demanded more. Over 7 million views later, fans eagerly waited to see what other movies Red Letter Media might takedown, however Stoklasa had bigger ambitions. His next project would be more than just another one-man deconstruction but rather a collaborative effort.
“You didn’t kill him, did you, Space Cop?” // “He’ll be fine. I accidentally set my gun to stun.” – Space Cop
Between, 2010 and 2014 Mike continued to intermittently release more Mr. Plinkett reviews but in the spring of 2012 Red Letter Media debuted a new project on YouTube. Half in the Bag, a regularly released movie-review series featured Mike and his friends Jay and Rich talking about new films in a Siskel & Ebert type format. These episodes were faster to produce, flexed Red Letter Media’s filmmaking muscle — by incorporating SNL type sketches along with their discussions — and helped cultivate an audience through regular content releases. More importantly, it allowed fans to better know Mike, Jay and Rich: their personalities, their taste in films and their unique brand of humor. I mention all this because your enjoyment with Space Cop isn’t dependent on your familiarity with the guys of Red Letter Media, but it would certainly enhance it. I’d compare it to following Bill Murray or Kristian Wiig on Saturday Night Live before seeing Ghostbusters or, well, Ghostbusters. It’s always nice to sample the ice cream before buying a cone.
If you don’t have the time or inclination to check out Red Letter Media’s stuff the best comparison I can make — and the biggest compliment I can give — is that these guys feel like kindred spirits to Trey Parker and Matt Stone. They, of course, are the comedy geniuses behind South Park who similarly got their start by making low budget films like Orgazmo and Cannibal: The Musical. I probably would never have watched either of those films if I wasn’t a fan of South Park and BASEketball first and I remember enjoying them more simply because it was made by people I liked and admired. I have a lot of respect for Mike, Jay and Rich and feel like Space Cop is very much in the same idiosyncrasy of Matt and Trey. Now that I think about it Space Cop feels cut from the same cloth as their action spoof Team America: World Police. Both films are outrageous in their presentation and rely a lot on the audience’s familiarity with action genre tropes. They also both incorporate lots of blue humor and slapstick but are supported by a clever and thoughtfully written screenplay.
It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Mike, Jay and Rich were fans of The Naked Gun, The Pink Panther or Austin Powers. Space Cop’s heroes are definitely in the same mold as Drebin, Clouseau and Powers; that is to say predominantly fools who perplex supporting players like Robert Wagner and Ricardo Montalbán when they are not annoying their crime fighting partner or superior. The antics of Space Cop (Rich) and Detective Cooper (Mike) are delightfully reminiscent of Leslie Nielsen, Peter Sellers or Mike Meyers but never derivative. In other words, the heroes are buffoons who interact with more sensible people who look on in dismay.
Or maybe that’s just the reality of Wisconsin.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to imply that Space Cop rips off jokes from Team America or any other film for that matter. In fact there thankfully seems to be no blatant references to other movies at all e.g. Friedberg & Seltzer. I merely wanted to convey the impression that directors Bauman and Stoklasa are fellow movie buffs that have made a certain type of comedy, and that they have drawn inspiration — not lazily referenced — a myriad of films.
“It’s not a costume. I’m a Space Cop. A cop from the future. The future of space. My wife’s dead. Well, technically she’s not even born yet. She’s dead in the future . . . of space. – Space Cop
Since Space Cop is not a big studio film, but clearly low budget, it would be reasonable to assume the production value is lacking. That’s a fair assessment but I’d like to stress that there is nothing about this movie that I would consider cheap. Making movies, even small projects, isn’t easy and much of my enjoyment of Space Cop was appreciating all the craftsmanship and hard work on display. Space Cop is filled with schlocky sets, generic special effects, questionable acting and a b-movie plot but it’s all part of the joke. The movie isn’t simply spoofing a z-grade movie but gleefully coloring outside the lines. There is actually a wonderful proficiency for filmmaking in every frame of this scrappy, makeshift comedy, but some of my favorite bits in the film where the intentional use of cheesiness.
I know my biggest laugh came as a direct wink at the shoestring budget. In the climatic finale, Space Cop performs a devastating wrestling move on an alien trying to surrender. The scene is highly stylized with a lot of dramatic lighting, slow motion, and vibrant camera work. When the alien is facing the camera an actor in a costume plays him. When the angle is reversed the alien is obviously a dummy. Space Cop effortlessly lifts the alien and slams it through a wall. I laughed so loud I woke the cat. It was a kind of absurdity that I don’t see too often but when I do it tickles my funny bone and makes milk shoot out my nose.
Even when I’m drinking coffee.
Yet, beneath all the squibs and After Effects what’s fundamentally well done about Space Cop is that its script is solid. In fact, as ridiculous as the plot is you could easily take the movie’s superb story structure for granted. George Lucas once famously said, “A special effect is a tool, a means of telling a story. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” Co-directors Mike Stoklasa and Jay Bauman certainly took this ideology to heart. Space Cop’s characters have motivations, every scene has a clear a setup and payoff, the plot flows and even the heroes have (a bit of) an arch. It’s sounds easy but National Medal of Arts winner Stephen King couldn’t direct a movie to save his life and Pulitzer Prize winning critic Roger Ebert will never be remembered for writing Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Screenwriting is hard and writing comedy is even harder. Often it’s just a series of lose sketches strung together so I tip my to Red Letter Media for taking the time to write a straightforward story. Sure, the ending leaves some unanswered questions but the resolution is satisfying and made more sense than the average Christopher Nolan blockbuster. Lucas, who was determined to work outside the creative control of the studio system, might even be a little envious of what these guys from the Dairy State achieved. Space Cop was made with total creative control, has nifty special effects, likeable characters, a lot of laughs and, most important, a good story.
Then again Red Letter Media skewered every creative effort George Lucas has made in the last 16 years so he probably wants them dead.
If there is any criticism to be leveled at Space Cop it is purely a matter of taste. This is not a movie I’d recommend to my mother. Mike, Jay and Rich’s commitment and attention to detail has greatly endeared me to the Red Letter Media team; they make no-money filmmaking look effortless. Understandably, these guys and all of their friends needed to work within certain constraints but what they achieved was pretty remarkable and all so damn charming. I am curious what my friends would think who don’t follow Half in the Bag or who aren’t movie geeks. The only complaint I can make was the amount of ADR (audio dialogue replacement) or “looping” was a tad distracting. When filming on location the boom mic can pick up lots of unwanted noise so the actors re-record their lines in the studio. But as a movie geek I understood why they made this choice and how time consuming it was to mix the audio. It’s a double-edge sword of being a nerd. I recognize how the sausage was made and then I either let it go or fixate on it. Speaking of “looping”, there is a genius subplot that pokes fun at time travel stories and causality loops. You don’t need to be familiar with that troupe to get the joke but it you are a film fiend then you’ll definitely appreciate what Space Cop has to offer: a movie by movie geeks for movie geeks.
Not to mention it’s really funny.
“I gotta do it my way. The Space Cop way. The ‘get the bad guy before he gets away’ way.” – Space Cop
Reelizations: Rich Evans is a naturally gifted performer who charm takes a one note character and carries the entire film. His commitment to his performance is on par with Karl Urban in Dredd. Judge Dredd never removes his helmet and visor and neither does Space Cop.
- Mike Stoklasa would never be confused for a graduate of Juilliard but he’s natural in front of the camera and has great chemistry with Evans. I got the impression he ad libbed or exaggerated his performance in several scenes in an effort to get his costars to bust up laughing.
- Jocelyn Ridgely appeared in one of the Plinkett skits filmed for the original Phantom Menace Review and is a terrific actress. She is to Red Letter Media as Carol Cleveland was to Monty Python.
- I found every supporting performance in Space Cop to be very entertaining but my top hat has to go off to Tim Higgins in the dual roles as the Moon Mayor and the Bartender. His line delivery killed me and his mustache gives the Monopoly Guy a run for his money. Likewise, Dale R. Jackson shined as the traditionally flustered and loud Police Captain featured in every 80s Cop film.
- Space Cop borrows a fight choreography joke from the classic Wayans Brother’s comedy I’m Gonna Get You Sucka, but I think Space Cop might have done it better.
- The musical score composed by Marty Meinerz was very 80s synth and perfectly set the tone.
- I liked how the final credits added distortion so Space Cop resembled a cheesy VHS movie from the bowels of a 80s Video store.
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