We’re all intensely excited for the new Star Wars film after watching that teaser about sixteen trillion times over the past few weeks. When the movie opens in a year’s time, it’s going to be insane with people flocking to see it probably multiple times, just like people did when the original Star Wars came out in 1977. In fact, so much money was made from George Lucas’ modest little space opera that the call for other such adventure films became of utmost importance.
In the years following, dozens of pretenders were made and released, some great and others not-so-great. The following is a list of seven space operas that probably never would have seen the light of day, or at least not the way they did and when they did, if not for the public’s massive need to travel a long time ago to a galaxy far, far away.
Click on the links for full reviews of each of these movies.
Coming about as close as it could to 1977 was the most Italian space movie you’ll ever see, the immortal Starcrash, in which director Luigi Cozzi used what look like plastic Christmas decorations on strings as ships to tell the “story” of a galaxy under attack by an evil count and his squadron of mustachioed baddies. The only hope rests in a scantily-clad woman in thigh-highs who is apparently the best starfighter in the galaxy. It’s about the silliest and most fun movie you’ll see, and one that truly doesn’t make any sense, to me or anyone. I’m not sure what’s the more perplexing casting choice: Christopher Plummer as the kindly emperor or David Hasselhoff as his son.
Message from Space (1978)
It’s not just the Italians who wanted in on the space race. Japan was also quick to answer the Lucas call, with a film that has a lot more in common with Godzilla movies or Power Rangers than it does with anything else. A group of misfit pilots, warriors, and royalty band together to defend a planet of meek agrarian people from an evil prince with the biggest hat I’ve ever seen. The plot to this one makes a lot more sense but it certainly still isn’t more than charming. The ships still totally look like toys but they’re toys I’d at least want to play with. You know, if I were a person who did such things. And a lot of the ships are ACTUAL SAILING SHIPS IN SPACE. That’s just cool.
The Black Hole (1979)
This is one of my favorite movie stories: Following Star Wars, Disney, who didn’t own the franchise at the time if you can believe it, was eager to make their own space film, naturally, and so combed through all the scripts they had. The one that best fit their bill was actually written as sort of a 2001: A Space Odyssey cash-in in the early part of the decade. With a cast of people like Anthony Perkins, Maximilian Schell, and Ernest Borgnine, this is a very bleak and somber movie, but with cute robots added to be more family friendly. At least the score and special effects are top-notch.
Even other big franchises wanted in on the new fad, and none cashed-in harder than the James Bond films, which by 1979 had become a bit of a self-referential hodgepodge. So, naturally, for the 11th film, why not go to outer space? Most of Moonraker is the typical James Bond film, but the last third takes place entirely in the titular space station and even includes a massive laser gun battle between the good forces of Earth and the bad guy forces of Hugo Drax. The effects for this, like The Black Hole, were nominated for Oscars (both losing to Alien) and, despite its baffling absurdity, I kind of dig this movie’s willingness to just be a big dumb space adventure, even with aging Roger Moore as an ersatz Han Solo.
Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)
Despite its unfairly low IMDb rating, this is probably my favorite film in the bunch and one I think is legitimately great. Roger Corman’s turn at doing a space opera, he had it based on Seven Samurai, with a young peasant boy having to travel into the galaxy to recruit people who might help his poor society battle the forces of an evil, resource-sapping dictator, played by John Saxon. He ends up getting George Peppard, Robert Vaughn, a lizard guy, a hive-minded species, a couple of things that radiate heat, and a super busty Austrian woman. This movie boasts a script by John Sayles, a score by James Horner, and special effects by none other than James Cameron. This movie is silly but it’s kind of amazing.
Flash Gordon (1980)
By this point, they were really just adapting anything, or using the success of space opera to allow for things to be adapted, like this update of the old 1930s serials about a sports star from Earth who gets to be the one to save the universe from the vile Ming the Merciless. This movie gets unfairly maligned for being cheesy, but I think that was the point, and Sam J. Jones’ famously wooden performance has more to do with him being dubbed by another actor due to a tiff with producer Dino De Laurentiis than it did his actual performance. Still, huge set pieces, pretty amazing effects, and a soundtrack by Queen that flat-out rocks the casbah. What more can you say besides… FLASH! AH-AAAAAAA!
I’m throwing this one in as the final entry mostly because it was very nearly made a few years before Luke Skywalker made his X-Wing flight but was shelved due to the outrageousness of original director Alejandro Jodorowsky. By time it was made, in the mid-’80s by producer Dino De Laurentiis and director-for-hire David Lynch, the movie bore little resemblance to what the original idea may have been, but it had a young boy becoming a hero on a desert planet against various other bad guy factions, and a lot of pseudo-spiritual whatnot. Lynch has disowned this movie, which is a bit of a shame because there are certainly some awesome parts in it. It just doesn’t hang together very well. Frank Herbert’s novel may well have been unfilmable after all.
And there we have it, friends. Seven cinematic space operas that exist almost entirely because of Star Wars. All certainly worth a watch, because a year until The Force Awakens comes out is a loooooooong time.