The Timeless Lessons of Captain EO

 Love it or hate it, Captain EO’s message to the world isn’t going anywhere.  

Some of you immediately remember your first experience seeing the science fiction classic Captain EO. You were either at a Disney park between 1986 and 1997 seeing the original short film, or you were there between 2010 and 2014 when the film was brought back to Disneyland and Disney World as the Captain EO Tribute. You may recollect being completely spellbound by the “4D” production, classified as such for its 3D effects and moving seats, smoke, and lights there in the room with you. Alternately, you may have unpleasant memories of being shaken up and down in your chair to the beat of some music you didn’t enjoy and the sight of some crazy, campy, 80s extended Michael Jackson music video that made zero sense. For me, Captain EO is a magical journey into space with a timeless message that deserves another watch, even if you’re just clicking a YouTube link and not there in the theatre (a place you can no longer go to see it, since it was replaced with less exalted 4D programming like Honey, I Shrunk the Audience). 

I saw Captain EO in my sister-in-law’s living room for the first time this week. Its showing was prefaced by my relatives rolling their eyes and declaring that this was absolutely the WORST ride that they had ever been forced to suffer through in their entire lives. Naturally, I loved it. If you’ve never had the opportunity to watch it, here’s what you should know. Captain EO is an 18-minute sci-fi film from director Francis Ford Coppola and executive producer and writer George Lucas; it stars Michael Jackson as the magical Captain EO, the leader of a spaceship full of goofy aliens and robots seeking to bring peace and happiness to a desolate planet led by the evil transhuman queen Supreme Leader, played by Anjelica Huston. It took more than one year to make and cost an estimated $17 to $30 MILLION dollars to produce. At the time, it was the most expensive film ever produced on a per-minute basis. 

You should be aware that I’m not here to defend 3D in any way; while there were many who enjoyed the ride, others found it jarring, and I’ve never personally experienced it since I’ve only seen Captain EO via YouTube. (In fact, on the subject of 3D, the famous sound designer and editor of Captain EO, Walter Murch, wrote a piece called “Why 3D Doesn’t Work and Never Will: Case Closed.”) I also have no intention of defending Captain EO as worth the incredible amount of time and money it took to produce (though that may just be a hazard of working with Michael Jackson, who reportedly requested edit after edit to the film, never completely satisfied with it). I simply want to take a look at its more redeeming aspects and point out what makes it an essential piece of pop culture for you and for historians from this time forth to give at least a cursory glance. 

The Music 

Two Michael Jackson songs are featured in Captain EO. First, there’s an original piece created just for the film called “We Are Here to Change the World.” It’s a classic Jackson song with a catchy hook you won’t be able to stop humming. It wasn’t officially released until 2004 as part of Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Collection, and even then it’s just a shorter version of the full song from the film. Deniece Williams did cover it on her As Good As It Gets album in 1988. Second, there’s a short snippet of “Another Part of Me,” which was released in its complete version on Jackson’s 1987 Bad album. Both are full of the synth pop sound that you know and love if you’re a fan of Michael Jackson. Of course, there’s also an orchestral score which was composed by the great James Horner. If you love Captain EO, you might enjoy checking out Buckethead’s original album Captain EO’s Voyage. Just to warn you, it’s not full of the happy, upbeat style of music from the film, but instead has a darker focus - it seems to be Buckethead’s way of coping with the death of his idol through a mournful tribute album. “Shadows Between the Sky” is one of the best tracks. 

Michael Jackson, Dancing 

It is, after all, what he does best, and while some complain that he’s just employing the same old crotch grab, shoulder shimmy, moonwalk, and "Thriller" moves, I feel like MJ’s dancing never gets old. The first time I saw a video of him dancing, it was hard for me to believe that he was a man and not a machine (definitely a theme explored in Captain EO). This character is not unlike Ziggy Stardust or other Bowie personas; though a rainbow emblazoned t-shirt and white leather buckles might look absurd on anyone else, Michael Jackson makes it work with total, undeniable confidence. The film was choreographed by Jeffrey Hornaday and Michael Jackson and the dancing is just plain fun to watch. 

The Supreme Leader 

When Captain EO begins, the furry puppets and outdated robots might disappoint you, but the Supreme Leader definitely won’t. Anjelica Huston gives a chilling performance as a transhuman evil queen whose torso is connected to the ceiling with dozens of coiling wires. She’s alien, she’s human, she’s machine, and she’s totally awesome. She sentences MJ’s crew to be turned into trash cans and Captain EO himself to “one hundred years of torture in my deepest dungeon.” That’s when the captain of pelvic thrusts pulls out a great song to unlock the beauty hidden within the evil queen, and though she battles him fiercely with her cybernetic “Whip Warriors,” in the end she’s transformed into her true, lovely, definitely human self. Her twisted, metallic world turns into a lush paradise in which she seems equally at home, and she and Captain EO are now the best of friends. What is NOT to love?

The Director and the Producer 

Here’s where we’re talking about some serious star power. Captain EO was directed by Francis Ford Coppola - yes, the director of Apocalypse Now and The Godfather. At the time Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Jackson were THE most sought after director and performer around, and Captain EO put them together. Interestingly, Coppola came up with the name "Captain EO" from the Greek deity Eos, the goddess of dawn. I’m just going to let you ponder that one on your own. If the beginning of Captain EO looks just like a scene from Star Wars (plus furry creatures and MJ), that’s because Lucas was heavily involved with the creation of the short film. Lucas chose Coppola to direct despite fear from the production team that Lucas would be too tempted to step in and take over (these fears were unfounded since Lucas was frustrated at having to answer to anyone else after his success with Star Wars). Coppola was involved for three weeks of principal photography; afterward, there were six months of cleanup work by the second unit to take care of story holes, syncing errors with the audio, and other technical problems. If you want to read the true account of what it was like behind the scenes with these famous figures, go read Terri Hardin Jackson’s story of working as a creature builder and puppeteer for Captain EO

The Themes 

It’s no accident that the Supreme Leader’s mechanized, German expressionist, black-and-white world is filled with drones doing the bidding of a demagogue, while Captain EO’s crew is colorful, wacky, multi-species, and individualized. The film was released six years into the Reagan Administration. Both Captain EO and Star Wars are clear good versus evil tales with a hero and a villain, and you can see the parallels for yourself. The message that stands out most to me is exemplified by MJ’s response to Huston’s dire pronouncement of a grisly fate; he calmly requests a chance to show her that he doesn’t see her as a monster, but knows her true self to be good (scenes from Return of the Jedi are flashing through my mind). It’s an overwhelming message that love conquers all and there’s good in all of us, even if it’s disguised by wires and coils and cables and some pretty amazing stage makeup. And, as Ellen Degeneres once said, “I also believe in dance.”

Sarah Quinn
Sarah Quinn

I'm a writer in love with India, Stars Wars, fantasy, travel, and Thai curries. My childhood heroes were Luke Skywalker and Joan of Arc. I muse on superheroes, sci-fi, feminism, and more.

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The Timeless Lessons of Captain EO