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Old Movie, New Review: Battle Beyond the Stars

June 16, 2010

Battle Beyond the Stars poster
In 1980, fresh off producing Death Race 2000, Piranha, and Rock n’ Roll High School (the one with the Ramones), famously frugal producer/director Roger Corman decided that there might just be something to this whole Star Wars thing that the kids were all talking about. Battle Beyond the Stars was his next production.

With a story lifted straight from The Magnificent Seven (which itself was lifted from Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai), Battle Beyond the Stars doesn’t really tell us anything new. The planet Akir and its peaceful inhabitants, the Akira (named for Akira Kurosawa), are threatened by the warlord Sador (John Saxon) and his “stellar converter,” a weapon with the ability to destroy an entire planet. (Hmmm…smells familiar.) A young adventurer named Shad (Richard Thomas), encouraged by Akir’s last remaining warrior, the geriatric Zed, sets out to find mercenaries to help defend the planet. He takes Zed’s old ship, the artificially intelligent and wisecracking Nell (voiced by Oscar nominated actress Lynn Carlin.)

Shad eventually collects a motley group of six spacefarers willing to take up arms against Sador: Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel), a computer expert and eventual love interest for Shad; Space Cowboy* (George Peppard), a space-trucker with a cargo of firearms; Gelt (Robert Vaughn, playing exactly the same character he played in The Magnificent Seven, down to almost identical dialog), an infamous former assassin; Nestor, five telepathic facets of a collective consciousness; Saint-Exmin (Sybil Danning), a Valkyrie warrior with more enthusiasm than experience; and Cayman, a reptilian pirate whose home planet was destroyed by Sador.

Each one has his or her own reasons for joining the fight, which I’m sure are explored more thoroughly in other tellings of this story. Here they are mostly glossed over. It would be interesting to do a side-by-side comparison of the characters and events between the three popular versions of the story. Having never seen the other two, I can only guess that much of the real motivations behind these participants in this grand battle are lost in this sci-fi version.

That is not to say that Battle Beyond the Stars isn’t entertaining. The story moves along briskly. The production and sound design are surprisingly good considering the budget and the decade. Corman reportedly insisted that each of the seven spaceships have its own distinctive sound, and he evidently liked the design of many of the ships so much that he re-used almost all of the exterior footage in 1983’s Space Raiders, a film with completely different characters and plot. To be sure, many of the special effects are rather poorly done, and it’s clear there was a finite amount of fly-by footage of the various spaceships. It’s easy to tell that you’re seeing many of the same shots over and over again. (In this respect, it’s a lot like watching an episode of Airwolf, which suffered from a similarly parsimonious use of flight footage.)

It’s obvious this movie was made in the shadow of Star Wars. James Horner’s score is reminiscent of John Williams’ famous work, if not blatantly derivative. However, Horner gets a pass for having done the excellent scores for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Krull, and Aliens later in his career. (Krull remains, in my humble opinion, one of the 80’s great, underrated film scores.)

Battle Beyond the Stars was actually the first big break for a then-unknown James Cameron, who was Roger Corman’s go-to production designer and art director. In fact, it was on this film that Cameron met his eventual wife and producer Gale Anne Hurd, with whom he would go on to make two Terminator movies and The Abyss.

Battle Beyond the Stars is a great time-waster of a movie. It’s fun, even without all the tertiary things that make it interesting (James Cameron’s involvement, Robert Vaughn playing the same character from a previous movie, etc.) If you’re the kind of person who likes to get friends together to watch a so-bad-it’s-good movie, or if you don’t have Cinemax and therefore lack ready access to Sybil Danning’s cleavage, you would do well to check out Battle Beyond the Stars.

* I wonder if some people call him Maurice…

2 Comments
  1. T. Stump permalink
    June 17, 2010 10:55 pm

    Gee, a Western-based character, in space?

    You figure that someone would have tried that idea by now.

    What?

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