I adore science fiction movies; like, almost categorically love them. Even the bad ones, I just think are super fun to watch. Obviously my favorites are things like Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Forbidden Planet, and Planet of the Apes, but I’m also quite partial to the ones that maybe aren’t as well known, but definitely should be. What I plan to do with this feature is showcase some of my favorite obscure, old, forgotten, or just plain strange entries into the genre, and for starters I’ve chosen one of my absolute favorites: 1980’s Roger Corman-produced space opera, Battle Beyond the Stars.
After the massive global success of George Lucas’ Star Wars, everybody started putting out their own clone space operas – science fiction films set in space that were more concerned with romance and adventure than actual science. It also massively raised the bar for special effects model work and getting the most out of very little. Not to be outdone, über-indie producer Roger Corman, purveyor of cheap but profitable exploitation films, set forth to make his own space adventure, and shelled out the highest budget he’d ever sunk into a film, about $2 million (compared to Star Wars‘ $11 Million). To work on the film, Corman hired young talents who would go on to great success: Academy Award-nominated screenwriter John Sayles wrote the screenplay; Academy Award-winning composer James Horner did the score; and Academy Award-winning director James Cameron was in charge of special effects and art direction. Not a shabby lineup.
The story is very straight forward and follows the basic plot of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and its Western remake, The Magnificent Seven. The evil Sador (John Saxon) and his army of mutants set upon the peaceful planet of Akir, threatening that if the Akira (subtle…) do not submit to his rule and subjugation, their planet will be utterly wiped out. Possessing no army or weapons, the Akira nominate a young farm boy named Shad (John-Boy himself, Richard Thomas) to take the living ship, Nell, and find warriors to help his people defend their world. Among those he recruits are the young, beautiful robotics expert Nanelia, freighter pilot Space Cowboy (George Peppard), buxom warrior woman Saint-Exmin (Sybil Danning), hive minded Nestor, and bounty hunter Gelt (Robert Vaughn playing essentially the same character he did in Magnificent Seven). With the help of this ragtag group, the people of Akir learn to defend themselves, and the mercenary ships hold off the bad guy ships during space battles and stuff.
The story is not particularly groundbreaking, but within that framework, Sayles is able to give us a funny, irreverent script with very entertaining, diverse characters. Nestor, for example, is a hive-minded race portrayed by several actors in white with white face paint to ensure they look perfectly similar. The character of Space Cowboy is an actual throwback to old western films, with him roasting hot dogs, drinking scotch (from his belt buckle) and playing the harmonica. Even the villain, Sador, is dynamic and interesting. His M.O. is to conquer and gut planets in order to harvest organs and body parts from its residents to prolong his life, with the goal being total immortality. He gives the leftover pieces to his dim but loyal underlings. These characters all have huge amounts of personality and charm which make them unique.
My favorite aspect of the film is how it makes effective use out of the limited budget. Shad’s first stop is to the satellite run by Dr. Hephasestus, the robotics engineer. Instead of building a bunch of robot suits, the actors simply wear plastic-looking makeup and walk around robotically. It sounds cheesy, but it’s surprisingly effective. The design for the various ship interiors is also incredibly detailed, while also being incredibly inexpensive. If you look closely at the walls of Nell’s cockpit, you’ll see egg crates and bits of model kits glued to the wall. At a glance, though, it looks completely legitimate. There’s a great lived-in quality to all the ship sets, due to the lighting and coloration of the backgrounds. You’d truly never know they were painted mere moments before cameras rolled.
Obviously, aside from the music, the most impressive thing in the film is the space footage, with ships designed by Cameron. Say what you will about his ego nowadays (or even then, apparently) but he knew how to construct intricate scale models and effects. His biggest achievement is, of course, the living ship Nell, with a design based on the body of a woman. He gave the ship breasts, for Pete’s sake, and while this should be totally ridiculous (and it is, a bit), it seems to all serve a purpose. There is another ship, flown by the reptilian salvage pilot Cayman, that looks like a scaly, big-mouthed carp, which for a ship that flies around collecting wreckage is completely plausible.
There are certainly things about the movie that don’t work. I’m not here to tell you it’s a perfect film by any stretch. Apparently, Sayles’ script was much longer and was cut down severely before (and sometimes during) shooting in order to save money. Because of this, certain characters are not as fleshed-out as they probably ought to be. Particularly during the end battle scene (which looks gorgeous), characters are killed without the right amount of build-up given how much time is spent with them during the rest of the film.
The film did moderately well and certainly made its money back and then some, but hasn’t been remembered very fondly. It has a 45% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 5.2 on IMDb, which I think are entirely too low. No, this movie isn’t as good as Star Wars, but it’s not trying to be. It succeeds in being a fresh, fun, charming sci-fi romp with some excellent effects and damn fine music. Both of these were so good, in fact, that Corman used them again, in their entirety, for a later film, Space Raiders. I fully urge you all to track down Battle Beyond the Stars and give it a look. I’m gonna go watch it again right now.