After Star Wars was released and hit it huge at the box office, nearly every sci-fi film made afterward during the next decade plus was immediately (and unfortunately) compared to it. This bit of mental short-handing by critics, fans and other detractors with short attention spans may have been correct about most of these films’ characters, visual effects and overall designs being influenced by the art direction and effects found in George Lucas’ movie, but in terms of story, well… that’s where some needed their heads handed to them. That easily digestible tale of mystic good versus mystic evil in an epic fantasy/space opera lite setting was cut from the cloth of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, assorted WWII movies (The Dam Busters, 633 Squadron and others) and most importantly, a great “little” film by Akira Kurosawa called Hidden Fortress (which SHOULD be a RFoTW, but I haven’t gotten around to seeing it again).
In fact, Kurosawa’s films have formed the basis of a few important American and international film hits, and if you poke around enough, you’ll see (and be surprised) that some of your own favorites started life as Kurosawa projects. Probably his best known film (at least here in the US), Seven Samurai was reworked into a few films over the years as The Magnificent Seven and this particularly cool 1980 sci-fi sleeper produced by Roger Corman and directed by Jimmy T. Murakami. As fun as Lucas’ flick was, as a lower budgeted quickie, Battle Beyond The Stars manages to be its equal in a few small areas and actually surpasses it in at least one surprising manner…
Granted, its US$2 million dollar budget wasn’t exactly extravagant (although it was the most expensive film Corman had produced at that time) and yes, some of those special effects haven’t aged well. That said, the script by John Sayles does a decent enough job with the source material that it manages to be effectively emotional, amusing and memorable from the moment James Horner’s stirring main theme kicks in. The plot is pretty much the same as Kurosawa’s classic, with Akir, a planet of poor farmers replacing the tiny Japanese village and a fleet of space mutants led by Sador of the Malmori, an ancient ruthless dictator type (played by John Saxon) replacing the raiding bandits. I can recall back in the day seeing a TV commercial for the film and thinking Richard Thomas was a bad choice for the lead before I saw it in a theater, but he’s actually perfect as Shad, the young farmer who’s tasked with finding mercenaries to help defend the planet Akir after Sador threatens to turn it into a new sun. I guess all those years on The Waltons paid off, as he’s basically John-Boy channeling Luke Skywalker’s exuberance more than he’s emulating Mark Hamill’s performance.
The film also references The Magnificent Seven in a few ways, but mostly by having Robert Vaughn play the same character he played in that film, a self-exiled killer hiding out because of the many bounties on his head. All he wants is a safe place to live out his life, so he’s immediately attracted to the Akir cause once he’s found. The “western” theme is continued with George Peppard’s “Cowboy” (his harmonica playing, love for hot dogs, and “trucker” getup adds to his happy-go-lucky persona) and a few other comfortable elements that lend the film a certain warmth. There are other alien types that get met and added to the cause and they’re all distinctly different and fun to watch act and interact with each other. Each has his or her own reasons for joining the Akir cause, from revenge to being bored to seeking a kind of peace through aiding others using violence, all of which ends up making sense in one way or another.
Heating things up further on the female side are Darlanne Fluegel as Nanelia, the daughter of a half-man, half machine he encounters early on, Marta Kristen as Lux (one of the natives who falls for Cowboy), and Sybil Danning as Saint-Exmin, a Valkyrie warrior who wants to prove herself in battle despite Shad not wanting her to join up. I’d have to say that one of the reasons guys I knew went to see this film was because of Sybil Danning, but she didn’t play anything resembling a brainless scantily clad space sexpot. Granted, she WAS scantily clad, but Exmin was a strong, stubborn girl dead set on following her race’s creed of seeking glory through battle despite all odds. And despite all odds, she never loses her dignity (or her top) during the film, so don’t dive into this on if you’re expecting what you were thinking you were going to get. Amusingly enough, the “sexy” in the film actually comes from the sentient ship Shad “pilots”. It’s made to look like flying cleavage and has a pretty sassy attitude, often insulting Shad as he gets to know “her”.
As noted earlier, the film actually surpasses Star Wars in allowing quite a lot of main characters to be killed off heroically (or stupidly in at least one case), keeping with Kurosawa’s film as well as that western remake. This means any chances of a sequel were nil plus zero, but it makes for more impact, especially when it’s a likable character or someone who didn’t get more screen time (for example: “Lazuliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!” BOOM!) Granted, I can recall most reviews of this not being too kind (yes, Lucas’ film was referenced frequently as one of the “better” film this borrowed from), but Corman’s New World Pictures was probably insanely happy that the film was raking in what it cost to make and then some not too long after it was released. The film is also notable for its model work, which is great (all the alien ships look different and reflect the personalities of their pilots, a nice touch) as helping launch the career of James Cameron, who directed the special effects.
Of course, an actual sequel would have DEFINITELY been better than what happened when Corman decided to reuse a bunch of those great spaceships and effects as well as bits of James Horner’s score in some truly terrible sci-fi quickies such as Space Raiders (which is a terrible but hilariously watchable train wreck), Star Quest II (also awful) and Dead Space which, despite some interesting genre similarities has nothing to do with the Electronic Arts/Visceral Games series at all, but everything to do with being a cheesy 1991 flick with a pre-Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston as well as a near shot for shot remake of another Corman production, Forbidden World (which is also terrible in a “so bad it’s good” way). OK, at least there’s a fair amount of cheesy gore and some nudity there if that’s your thing, so I can see some of you smiling and clicking away to check those two flicks out first. Go, you! Anyway, everyone else, start with the more enjoyable recommend here and work your way down (way down) if you choose…