Right away, folks, Battle Beyond The Stars reveals itself to have a treat of a transfer.
Shout Factory have gone back to the original internegative and, via AVC, have bestowed this low-budget cult gem a simply wonderful hi-def makeover. The print is in relatively great shape, there's no real damage to speak of other small elements of debris, the odd little scratch and a couple of slight judders and tiny frame-stutters. The picture is clean, crisp and colourful … and consistent, which is quite remarkable considering the comprehensive (wow - “C” word overkill or what?!) amount of visual effects sequences that it has that tend to betray their vastly different sources far too keenly. Grain is intact and does not suffer from any overt digital tampering, although it is fairly light and certainly not attention-grabbing. The image is smooth and very film-like, and does not have any edge enhancement, unwanted colour or brightness boosting. There's no unsightly banding taking place, although I did catch one or two easily forgiveable instances of it, though. Smearing or distracting compression artefacts aren't a problem either. I've seen quite a number of Shout's discs now, and they've all been very good. Battle Beyond The Stars could well be their best looking, though.
This is a detailed image that reveals some terrific close-up information. Faces, hair and eyes are rendered with clarity. Costumes aren't too bad. We're not talking about finite threads and texture in the material, but this is still pretty darn decent. The miniature and model work is well presented too. We are never going to be under the illusion that the vehicles we see are anything other than salvaged oddments and kits painstakingly glued together, but the imagination and detail that has gone into these creations is allowed to shine through with this transfer. Keep your eyes peeled for what looks like a little Lego figure in the docking bay of one spacecraft. Whether this is down to the greater resolution and better maintained contrast or not, but the matte-boxes that we can sometimes see around spacecraft in action don't look quite as jarring as they once did. I'd expected them to look much worse. I'm possibly more forgiving than most people regarding this sort of thing, though. Backgrounds aren't severely tested because there really aren't too many long or deep shots. This is middle-ground live-action shooting for the most part, but this doesn't mean that background detail is being skimped on – it just means that there isn't much back there for the eye to focus on.
Colours are excellently reproduced and the film looks warm and glowing without appearing pushed or egged-on. As far as I can recall, it has always had an appealing comic-book hue and this is reflected on the BD. Skin-tones are flush without being too ruddy. The primaries aren't sweltering but they are well saturated and pleasing. The laser-beams come across very well. They can't help but look post-production boosted, sharpened and cleaned-up but this is not a fault of the transfer in the least. Another bonus is the stability and depth of the blacks. Deep black starry canopies wrap the frame. Thick shadow-play helps lend mood. There are some shots that appear slightly too dark, and some detail on spaceships can be swamped, but I don't think that this is down to the encode, and these instances are few and far between.
Overall, I was very impressed with this transfer. The film looks positively vibrant and exciting even if its vintage and source cannot fully be masked.
You get two options here, there's a DD 2.0 track and a remixed DTS-HD MA 5.1 alternative. I plumped for the surround option and wasn't disappointed.
Recently, I heard the lossless surround track for Conan The Barbarian, which came out only a couple of years after Battle Beyond The Stars, but also stemmed from a mono source. Although there are a great many variables that come into play when remixing an audio track and it is unfair to compare the two, I still have to say that I found this to be the better all-rounder for sheer entertainment value. Despite not being genuinely created with any sort of wraparound in mind, Battle's sound design seems to lend itself to some decent panning, directionality and some effective rear-support.
When you get the denser, more immersive effects that try to fill the room, the results are actually quite convincing. When laser bolts sizzle and zwap! around you and when spacecraft blast across the cosmos the effects don't sound anywhere near as bogus as you think they will. Or should sound. There is a nice level of transparency and a seamless steerage that goes a long way to drawing you into the action. I think the main reason for this is that the remix is not too ambitious with its intentions. The engineers knew which elements and effects to concentrate on and they didn't make the mistake of simply pushing everything out further and stretching signals just for the sake of it. This doesn't mean that this track is an amazing example of a lossless surround mix, but it does show that not all revamped and tinkered-with tracks are going to sound fake or underwhelming. Bass isn't too shabby either, with some good solid depth and power to it, although the sub won't be overly taxed even when it gets hit with some of the bigger explosions.
Dialogue doesn't get short-changed or compromised at all. And, very importantly, the score from James Horner is allowed some width and energy and a nice swelling warmth that showcases the template for many of his classic themes and motifs. If I was to be picky, I would say that the musical elements could have done with even more of a push. As it stands, however, this still comes across as lush and exciting and full of the appropriately rousing and/or menacing vigour.
Good work from Shout. This won't aggravate the neighbours, but it should please the fans who get a little more bang for their buck, and some more sonic space to play in.
Two commentaries grace the film. John Sayles and Roger Corman talk on one, whilst producer Gale Ann Hurd (ex-Mrs. James Cameron and prime mover-and-shaker at New Line and Hemdale) provides the other. As you would expect, the first track is the better one. By far. Both Sayles and Corman offer some fascinating and amusing insight into the genesis and the production of the film, how they cast it and gathered the crew together, and how the screenplay was altered from its more elaborate, epic and downright expensive original form to the version that was ultimately filmed. Hurd's chat track has a few more lulls in it and is drier, on the whole, but still offers plenty of interesting snippets about the concept for the movie and the trend that it was latching on to.
The Man Who Would Be Shad is a brand new fifteen-minute interview with Richard (John Boy) Thomas who discusses how he viewed making the film as a chance to broaden his range as well as an opportunity to break away from his eternal image as a Walton. Still cheerful and enthusiastic, he enjoys reflecting upon his time working on a little space epic and his experiences under the Roger Corman influence.
Shout Factory have, by now, managed to procure some terrific behind-the-scenes faces from these early days already, and their retrospective documentaries are great fun to watch. Free-wheeling, frank and honest, these certainly deliver the goods, and the gossip, from the bizarre and extremely busy days when most of these people cut their creative teeth for Roger Corman in his lumber-yard studio in LA.
In Space Opera On A Shoestring we get a thirty-three minute look back at the whole production process in the words and recollections of the visual technicians and producers who worked on it. We hear from Aaron Lipstadt, monster-maker Alec Gillis, Alex Hadju, Allan Holzman, R.J. Kizer, Robert and Dennis Skotak, Thom Shouse and Tony Randel. All of this is comprehensively illustrated with fantastic on-set stills, effects work and behind-the-scenes images of the crew at work. As with Galaxy Of Terror (BD reviewed separately), there is much mention of the participation (nay, the rule) of James Cameron, and lots of amusing anecdotes.
After this, we get to see the promotional aspects of unleashing a little space war movie and trying to make it look huge with the film's theatrical trailer, some radio spots, production photos, a stills gallery and images of the posters.
This is another solid stack of supplements for a small low budget exploitation flick … with a loving cult following who should totally lap them up.
Another winner from Shout Factory provides Corman fans with one of their Holy Grails of cheap and cheerful exploitation. Their release is typically impressive and presents the film looking the best that I've ever seen it, and sounding great too.
Personally, I'd love to recommend Battle Beyond The Stars to all those who love their SF adventure yarns, but I know that, like many of the uber-producer's movies, they simply aren't to everyone's taste. I played this for my son who adores the genre and, like me, understands and loves the simultaneous limitations and charm of older films, but he didn't warm to this at all. He thought it tacky, stupid and badly made. Well, this opinion was rife back when the film came out too … and I'm sure that it will find newer viewers much harder to please again. Incidentally, he didn't accuse it of being a Star Wars rip-off, which is a label that far too many critics seem too happy to saddle it with. It is a space-born take on Seven Samurai, and all Star Wars did was fuel Roger Corman's desire to set a movie in the cosmos and have laser beams flashing about all over the screen.
Well I loved it all back then, and I still love it now. But then I'm a massive fan of the Corman stable, and I loved the genuine Star Wars riffs that came out at the time – such as The Humanoid and Starcrash. But Battle Beyond The Stars is terrific fun from start to finish. It has its tongue in its cheek and it plays out like an expanded episode of Lost In Space or Buck Rogers, a sort of greatest hits compilation of set-pieces and scenarios from a very inventive era in SF, if you like. And who doesn't love a “boobie-ship” and a buxom Valkyrie intent on “going down” in glory? Or seeing John Saxon's freshly grafted-on limbs attempting to murder him? Or John-boy Walton fighting mutants in outer space?
It's Battle Beyond The Stars on Blu-ray … and, for some people, that's several shades of awesome.
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