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Battle Beyond the Stars Review

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by Chris McEneany Jul 17, 2011 at 12:51 AM

    Battle Beyond the Stars Review

    Live fast, fight well, and have a beautiful ending!”

    At last, Shout! Factory, who have been championing the classic exploitation flicks of Roger Corman (many of which have already been reviewed here), have released the prolific producer's most celebrated and expensive endeavour on Blu-ray – 1980's flamboyant intergalactic romp, Battle Beyond The Stars in this 30th Anniversary Special Edition.

    Considering the fame and fortune that it garnered, it was a cinch that Roger Corman would tackle the genre spearheaded by Star Wars, head-on, with his own shoestring interpretation of galactic adventure. Whatever ILM could achieve, the ever-dynamic and opportunist uber-filmmaker reasoned he could deliver at a fraction of the budget. Of course, Science Fiction was massive around this time. Not only had there been the inaugural tale of a galaxy far, far away, but there had been Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the latter especially having an influence over Corman's creative chutzpah with this fast-tracked, pressure-cooker outing for his illustrious and hard-working team of FX people. But Star Wars was definitely leading the field by a huge margin. Disney had leapt on the SF bandwagon quite quickly with the cult-favourite The Black Hole. Then Caroline Munro became the sexiest smuggler-cum-freedom-fighter in the cosmos as the cross-between Han Solo and Barbarella in Starcrash (BD reviewed separately) for Luigi Cozzi. And even Dino De Laurentiis got in on the act with the bizarre Spaghetti space opera The Humanoid, starring the massive Richard Kiel as the titular hero who, together with his robot dog, gets involved with a diabolical, nebula-chewing tyrant. He was also the man responsible for getting a revamped Flash Gordon off to a fetishistic rock-opera Planet Mongo. And TV saw Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica, both of which proved so popular that episodes were re-appropriated for theatrical presentations. In actual fact, it could be said that Corman came late to the party. But when he finally knocked on the interstellar door, he delivered something that was much, much better than many expected and contained more than a few pleasant surprises.

    What nobody quite reckoned on was that Corman's cut-price space yarn would also meld the towering themes of heroism and sacrifice and nobility that had formed the backbones of Kurosawa's classic Seven Samurai and its Western remake, The Magnificent Seven, into the same cheeky mix of aliens, ray-guns and space-babes. He claims that he'd had the idea of setting the “seven-standing-against-tyranny” story in space a long time before, but that it took the success of Star Wars to make his pet project more commercially viable. Well, we'll have to take his word for it, I suppose … but I still reckon that he and screenwriter John (Piranha) Sayles cobbled it together only in the wake of the Force. Either way, they'd found a nice little corner of a very crowded universe in which to boost their rockets and fry some extraterrestrial nasties.

    When the peaceful planet Akir (so named after Akira Kurosawa in an attempt for Corman to pay his respects to the creator of Seven Samurai) is threatened with annihilation by the evil conqueror, Sador (played with Saturday Matinee villainy by the great John Saxon, with extra helpings of cheese and relish) if they do not submit to his rule, they send out for soldiers of fortune to mount a defence before he returns to act upon his ultimatum. Young wannabe-warrior, Shad (John-boy Walton, himself, Richard Thomas) undertakes the mission to recruit a squad of interstellar defenders. In his spaceship, voiced in cutesy Mother-style by a female computer called Nell, whose ergonomic chassis rolls out into a truly splendid pair of steel and chrome boobies – they've even got nipples, folks – and a sleek form that mimics the curve of a woman's back, he begins an odyssey of adventure that aims more for the fun of what SF can deliver, rather than the myth that George Lucas was striving to create. And by simply knowing its own limitations it seems to stretch far beyond them. The typical Corman style is that if he's told something can't be done, or that he cannot afford to do it – he'll do it anyway. But he'll do it his way. Thus this relatively small drama is played out against an epic canvas that really does reach for the stars … and actually stretches beyond them.

    There is a staggering number of ideas and concepts at play in the wry and witty screenplay from Sayles, who had already been compelled to throw out some of the wackiest and most unnecessarily grandiose notions. For much of the first half, the story is like a loving and reverential throwback to TV's Lost In Space, or even the off-Earth adventures of Doctor Who. Every ten minutes has us in a different environment and meeting strange new characters and situations. When Shad voyages out into the big wide universe to round-up mercenaries for the cause, he makes several intriguing stop-offs in bizarre and wonderful places in which he finds his hired guns. There's the labyrinthine Hephaestus space-station that is home to a crew of androids and a benign leader who is now merely a verbose head wired-up to a super-computer. Here, our alien peasant is able to enlist cybernetics specialist, Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel), with whom he will come to discover the joys of love. Playful robotic quirks abound – check out the service droid who looks like Starsky's Paul Michael Glazer – and the “head” man, himself, who turns out to be all that is left of Nanelia's father, is obsessed with having Shad remain a prisoner on the station in order to breed with the lonely girl! Next to be rounded-up is cult star, George Peppard, as deep-space haulier, Cowboy, an Earth-born Western caricature who embodies the film's link to John Sturges' take on the original Samurai, The Magnificent Seven. A carefree drifter who has a saloon attached to his belt (seriously), leather-chaps and a low-slung holster, Cowboy actually confesses to watching old movies – aye, they'll be Westerns – in his ship during long voyages. The once passive Shad finds a blaster-happy side to himself when he swings Nell around to save Cowboy from the deadly attention of a group of spacejackers – literally rescuing the wagon-train from the attacking Indians as it were. Cowboy even makes references to Custer's Last Stand … and you do find yourself wondering if he's actually going to mention The Magnificent Seven at one point. And then we go all sci-fi again when Nanelia is abducted by the Cayman, a tall reptilian warrior who looks like he's been the template for Bossk from The Empire Strikes Back, Grig from The Last Starfighter and even Jerry from Enemy Mine. Very interested in selling her off to interplanetary slavers or simply harvesting her “protein” for other customers with somewhat more unusual desires, the Cayman is only brought on-side when Nanelia mentions that she and her friends intend to take on the dreaded Sador. The Cayman has some unfinished business with the genocide-savouring despot and, together with his loopy chums, egg-headed midget-twins, collectively known as the Kelvin for they have the ability to manipulate temperature, and his body-building manservant, decides to join the good fight.

    Harassed by a glowing amoeba-like starship, Shad is teleported aboard it to meet the dome-headed Nestor – a community of clones who act as one unit with a hive-brain. Bored by their endless existence traversing the universe and feeding sensations and impulses telepathically back to their race back home, the Nestor (another collective, just like the Kelvin) simply ask to come along and join in the fun as war is something that they never experienced before. Although we have a group of around five of these cosmic weirdos in their ethereal craft, they speak through just one … and he just happens to played by Sarah Connor's Judgement Day-boggled shrink, Earl Boen, who you are sure to recognise even beneath the pasty-face make-up.

    But the strongest link to the past comes when he learns of an infamous mercenary hiding away on a desolate and haunted planet. Called Gelf, this now-retired contract killer has a bounty on his head in every quarter of the galaxy. He sits in a cave that looks like the remnants of Scaramanga's games-room in The Man With The Golden Gun and contemplates the evil of his life and the dubious morality of the code that he has lived by. But when Shad offers him a place on the team and the payment of his home world's hospitality and the promise of sanctuary there … he naturally jumps at the chance. Played by Robert Vaughn, the echoes to his slick gambling gunfighter, Lee, from The Magnificent Seven are all too apparent. Vaughn said at the time that he'd played the same character twice, and he just wished that he'd been in Kurosawa's version as well to complete the trilogy!

    Sybil Danning, the B-movie exploitation goddess (who can ever forget her booby-baring end-titles montage in Howling II?) is terrific as the daredevil Valkyrie flyer, Saint Exmin. Playing a vivacious Viking-vixen with her ample assets barely concealed by her provocative and eye-popping armour, the statuesque Sybil was the reason that dads kept taking their kids to see the movie. Danning and Murikami know this will be the case, so they exaggerate her caressing of the controls on her little ship, have her reclined so far back in her cockpit that she is practically lying down, chest heaving with the thrill of the hunt. Sayles provides her with some strangely stirring battle speeches – stirring in more ways than one, that is. “You've never anything until you've seen a Valkyrie go down” she boasts about the nature of her kind's heroism. And her talk of longing to go out with a bang is the stuff of pure Carry On.

    John Saxon, God love him, is having a ball doing this panto routine of boo-hissery. Painted with a weird metallic blue-silver sheen, and sporting a tattoo-like birthmark that smears its way over his eye like the physical stigmata of some Bondian villain, it still seems highly amusing to see that he has a neat comb-over going on too – especially as he has neat line in genetic manipulation and mutant creation on the go. One great scene has him receiving a new limb from a reluctant donor, implying that this is a routine MOT for the cantankerous conqueror. In a way it is a shame that he only gets to strut his stuff on his command ship, barking orders and being a swine to his mutant-minions. I mean it would have been great to have seen him going toe-to-toe with those pesky hero-types at some point. He could have utilised some of his own extensive Kung-Fu training for a final act skirmish, for instance. But then he is playing not just second, but eighth fiddle to the good guys.

    Critics often heap scorn on the abilities of poor Richard Thomas, but I actually find his performance quite winning in an understated way. The narrative doesn't give him much of an arc, it's true, but he manages to be both innocent and knowingly humorous in about equal measure. He handles a couple of pithy comebacks quite well and it could be important to note that he battles about in a costume that looks like an off-the-peg version of Luke's ultra-cool Bespin fatigues from Empire Strikes Back. But, really, the similarities to that destiny-bound farmboy stops right there. Peppard had actually worked for Corman before on 1977's post-apocalyptic actioner, Damnation Alley (BD review coming soon), so he knew the score. He seems very happy to be involved with the production, even if he appears a touch too relaxed at times. He even taught himself to play the harmonica for the role and certainly enjoys chomping down on a cigar or two … in subliminal preparation for playing Hannibal Smith in The A-Team, perhaps? As the nominal stars of the show, both actors blend in extremely well with the oddball assortment of cast-mates.

    The film is directed by Jimmy T. Murakami, who had served as producer for Corman, as well as assistant director on the First World War aerial action flick, Von Richthofen and Brown. He was also fairly instrumental in getting Corman's previous riot of exploitation, Monsters From The Deep (see separate BD review), finally on to the screen. You can see quite plainly that this is not a film that demanded much in the way of inspired direction. He could basically set up his shots – which must have been hysterical considering that most of the sets still had wet paint and had only just been put together minutes before the cameras started rolling – and just sit back and let his cast rattle through their lines in that breezy nature that people have when they are not taking things at all seriously. The space battle scenes at the end become quite tedious and repetitive, but there are still great little vignettes dotted about most of the dogfights that look unusual enough to be quite memorable. And the fighting in the rocky maze that the Akirans have created on the planet's surface with the purpose of bogging down and trapping the enemy's foot-soldiers brings with it some neat physical chaos. Points must go to the effect that Sador's pulsing sonic weapon has upon its victims, who drop to their knees in agony with blood spurting from their ears. Murikami would actually go on to co-direct the animated short of Raymond Briggs' The Snowman as well as the sobering When The Wind Blows, revealing quite a few more strings to his bow.

    Visually, the film is a wonder. On the cheap.

    But never underestimate the wizardry that goes into designing and building the intricate models from scrap and scratch. There's some real flair to the spaceships – each one highly individualised and composed with lots of tiny detail. The various alien landscapes that we see are also quite eye-catching with bold use of miniatures, sets and matte paintings that provide a wonderfully old school atmosphere and texture to the film, as well as some brief moments of genuine awe and wonder. Under the strict auspices of James Cameron, who took over the art design for the movie after the original guy was ousted, there is a staunch practicality to the equipment and hardware on show. The visual effects do look quite primitive – the space-battle scenes and the laser blasts especially – but they still look more than decent, once you've made your concessions to the style, the age and, most crucially, the budget. The guy who was in charge of the visual effects was Chuck Cominsky, who has maintained a collaborative relationship with James Cameron ever since. He even worked on Avatar and Aliens Of The Deep for the filmmaking pioneer. But Cominsky was something of a groundbreaker, himself, on Battle Beyond The Stars. To get the impression of ships in flight, he mounted cameras on tracks so that the same shot could be repeated with absolute precision, moving the camera whilst the model craft remained in a fixed position. In conjunction with a bi-pac technique, two reels of film could be exposed at once on the same camera. Versatile and innovative visual FX brothers, Bob and Dennis Skotak, were then able to shoot different backgrounds and overlay the exposed print against raw stock which meant that they could achieve movement of the spaceships and the backgrounds as well to create a more fluid action shot. The blending of live-action with composited miniatures should not be overlooked either … and it is a shame that the film gets such an eye-rolling and shoulder-shrugging response from people who dismiss these colourful effects as lousy when they are, in fact, highly accomplished, all things considered. A handful of enthusiastic and very young technicians working round the clock for an absolute pittance and breaking all the accepted rules simply because they are learning along the way! Come on, folks, this is inspired stuff!

    And, let's be honest … where else are you going to see a pair of huge galactic breasts roaring through the cosmos in vivid panning flybys?

    All of this colourful fun is accompanied by a ballsy, broad and irresistible score from the then incredibly young James Horner. Having worked with Corman only a matter of months before on Humanoids From The Deep, Horner, fresh-faced but insanely hungry for work, lobbied hard to land this gig. In an unusual step for a composer he would appear on the set and sit in on the dailies and the editing, keen to get his timings just right. Clearly he believed that this would be the project that would possibly launch his career. And he was right about that. The success of Corman's film and the unique adoration that Horner's music won saw to him getting the job that would cement his name in fans' hearts forever-more, the outstanding score for Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Kahn. Listeners will recognise in his ebullient and rousing fanfares for Battle Beyond The Stars and his more unusual and exotic villains' themes the very elements that would become the composer's established trademarks across a great many genres in the decades to follow. There's lots of Trek here, folks, plus the large-scale symphonic fantasy of Krull. Taking an orchestral approach over electronics also elevated the film to the bigger canvas of Star Wars, and the grand Wagnerian approach of John Williams. But what is interesting to note, and a touch atypical for Horner, is that he lifts, quite liberally, from another maestro in the late, great Jerry Goldsmith, with numerous nods to his momentous score for Star Trek The Motion Picture. For instance, Goldsmith's Klingon/action motifs are recalled in exciting passages that tend to build up towards a big explosion, and the Craig Huxley “Blaster-beam” so beloved from Robert Wise's slow-moving but visually spellbinding Trek odyssey is brought into play quite often. Far from sounding like copycat material, however, these recognisable themes and effects help the film to “fit in” with the more expensive and popular franchises that it takes its cue from. Without a doubt, Horner's score gives Battle Beyond The Stars a superbly memorable musical signature.

    What is all the more remarkable about the film is just how packed with incident it is. In the first ten minutes we have been introduced to Sador and his imperious warship, the Hammerhead, witnessed him destroy a puny space station, slay some civilians for target practice and issue his ominous threats to the Akirans, and seen Shad escape from the clutches of the two bride-snatching mutant watchdogs guarding over the planet. It is this breakneck pace that makes the movie so satisfying. Every scene is played either for thematically arresting SF, pleasingly juvenile action or simple, but intentional laughs. And there's some giddy and irreverent heroism in here, too. Just listen to the Cayman's warbling battle-cry of pure vengeance during his kamIkaze run towards the end! In the right frame of mind, you can have a whale of a time with it.

    By now, you should all know how much of a fan I am of Roger Corman's brand of barrel-scraping exploitation. His Poe adaptations in the sixties were unparalleled joys and I long for them to arrive on Blu-ray, but I simply cannot shake the tremendous affection I have for his frequently derided pictures from the seventies and the early eighties. There is often so much imagination and insane creativity going on with these more over-the-top productions that, if they were a box of toys, you would struggle to get the lid back on. Just how much input he had with them, besides hiring-and-firing crew and cutting costs on his lightning-quick but often cataclysmic set visits is always up for question. But without him at the helm, greenlighting and financing such prolific output, it is a sure thing that many of the acknowledged “classics” that we revere today would not have been made. Or, at least, not made in quite the same way. People like Joe Dante and James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese got their breaks and their training from his wildcat, on-the-hoof film-school of hard knocks. And just look at all the makeup and visual FX artists and technicians, set designers and conceptual painters who worked their way up to celebrated status through their tireless association with his skinflint, scrimp 'n' save, adapt-or-die productions. We certainly have a lot to thank Roger Corman for.

    Knocking Damnation Alley I can understand – although I still love it – but knocking Battle Beyond The Stars is just plain wrong. It sets out to entertain, which it most certainly does. The maverick intentions of the screenplay are wittily and saucily played out by a cast who get the joke and understand just where to aim the humour so that kids and adults alike are treated fairly. We have a great cast who are being forced into ridiculous costumes and plastic sets and made to do and say stuff that would shame Irwin Allen's lesser calibre serials, yet this is exactly as it is meant to be – daft, loopy, yet deliriously infectious and good-natured at the same time. Those who deride it for being a cheap rip-off of Star Wars are also firing pretty wide of the mark too. This is Seven Samurai not the Rebel Alliance. If anything, visually and dramatically, this is much more akin to Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers than Luke Skywalker and the Millennium Falcon.

    Optimistically and brazenly, it aims very high. And certain people, myself included, can't help but admire and applaud such riotous ambitions.

    This is great stuff, filled with humour, action, charm and threadbare awe … but it is not for everyone.