Monday, June 16, 2014

“I'm your home now, kid.”

I had heard about 1980's Battle Beyond the Stars for some time as one of many, many 80s Star Wars imitators. Which is fine, that's a legitimate genre as far as I'm concerned, and one I can approve of. What sold me on this movie as something worth seeing was that it was the movie that got James Cameron (and a number of other talented film people) a start in Hollywood. He did this by designing a spaceship that looks like a set of Fallopian tubes with a pair of boobs attached.

Because this is a Roger Corman production and Cameron accurately guessed that it was a design that Corman would give a green light to. That's why.

It's The Magnificent Seven/The Seven Samurai in space. Literally, figuratively, and actually. Evil empire comes to peaceful farming planet (named Akir, no less, as a nod to Akira Kurosawa), demands they surrender and bullies them. Naive farm boy heads off in search for help to fend off the bad guys. That's pretty much it, except instead of Steve McQueen, it's got a talking spaceship with boobs.

Shad: Richard Thomas (most notably John-Boy on The Waltons) is our hero. A Wide-eyed, naïve idealist, he's still got the stones to volunteer to venture off into space without a plan of action to desperately seek help. Despite this, he can't really shake off his people's peaceful nature, so he's kind of a weenie and I'm not really sold on Thomas' performance.

Nanelia: Darlanne Fluegel lives on a space station that Shad reaches. She's a talented engineer and the station is populated by robots and her crazy old dad, Dr. Hephaestus (Sam Jaffe) who's a head in a jar and wants Shad to settle down with his daughter and populate the space station. Shad's like “You're really pretty but I've gotta go do this thing for my planet,” so he leaves and she follows him in her own spaceship and eventually meets up with him and becomes his love interest.

Cowboy: George Peppard (The original Hannibal Smith from The A-Team) is a literal space trucker from Earth. Shad finds him under attack by space pirates, bails him out, and cuts a deal with him. Cowboy will deliver his shipment of weapons to Akir to help them out (It helps that the planet he was originally delivering them to got blown up by the bad guys). Cowboy is a droll, easygoing, swaggering cowboy, and definitely stands out from the rest of the cast.

Gelt: Robert Vaughn (from The Magnificen Seven) plays a ruthless gunslinger assassin who's so deadly and infamous that he's wanted across the galaxy and has to hole up in a run-down, abandoned Space Vegas. Shad recruits him by offering him a meal and a place to hide. Gelt's odd because Vaughn is essentially playing the same character he did in The Magnificent Seven, but it feels a bit phoned in.

Cayman: Morgan Woodward plays a reptilian alien from the Lambda Zone. He's a slaver and mercenary, and he captures Nanelia with the intention of selling her for food. Until he learns that she's gathering people to taken on Sador, who exterminated the rest of his race. Cayman wants revenge, and has a running crew that includes two short aliens called Kelvin. They communicate in waves of heat and don't have ears. Cayman keeps them around because he's cold-blooded.

Nestor: Nestor is a hive mind, and is portrayed by several actors. Most notably Earl “The Zombie Pirate LeChuck” Boen is the lead Nestor. Nestor signs up for the mission because its bored.

St. Exmin: The extremely well-endowed Sybil Danning plays a Valkyrie warrior who lusts for battle and has a tight-fitting costume, I mean ship. She tracks down Shad and wants to join up with him because she longs for glorious battle. He mostly ignores her, despite her being a good fighter, and she obsessively follows him back to Akir and he finally relents and lets her join the group. She's the only one Shad treats like garbage, so obviously she wants to bang him and make a real man out of him, and he's completely not interested in her and repulsed by her violent ways. He does eventually give her some respect at least.

Nell: Lynn Carlin voices the sentient spaceship that takes Shad on his journey of recruitment. She's a gung-ho gal eager to be taken out of mothballs for an adventure. She also provides Shad with motherly advice and is constantly cajoling him to grow a pair and fight back against the villains. Nell's fun.

Emperor Sador of the Malmori: John Saxon is no stranger to hamming in B movies, and he's in full swing here. Sador is a cruel tyrant with an obsession with conquering anything he can and living forever. He does the first by flying his bigass spaceship around and telling planets they belong to him now and shooting lasers at the populace just to prove he can. He does the second by replacing his old body parts with new ones. A subordinate does something wrong? Sador's got a new foot. That sort of thing. He's a cartoonish villain, but that's what this kind of movie needs, and Saxon's fun to watch in it. Oh yeah, and he's got a weird mark/scar/tattoo over one eye, sort of like Sub-Zero had in Mortal Kombat 3.

Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami, who worked a lot in animation as an animator and director (he was co-director of The Snowman Christmas short. You know, the famous one, with the kid and the snowman flying around and stuff?) Anyway, Battle Beyond the Stars feels like the most lavish Corman production I've ever seen, which almost might be damning it with faint praise. It cost $2 million to make, so there's A LOT rough around the edges in terms of costumes and visual effects, but that was a lot of money for a Corman film.

While the effects are clearly a step down from what was being done in Star Wars, there are a lot of them: alien costumes, sets, models, lasers, explosions, rear projection stuff. It was all done on the cheap, but involved a lot of young talent (like James Cameron) that was out to prove itself, and it shows. The filmmakers managed to pull off a lot of with not a lot of resources, and it looks okay. Not great, certainly, but competent, where it would have been easy for it to look terrible.

Story by John Sayles & Anne Dyer, screenplay by John Sayles (who is still a working screenwriter whose credits include The Howling). The plot is beyond derivative in this, directly lifting its main beats from The Magnificent Seven. Character work is also a little iffy. Shad is a putz, but he's not a tremendously likable one. He's a nice kid who's trying to do right, but he passes naïve and goes straight into dense. Nell is kind of the only character with real three dimensionality, and she's a spaceship with boobs.

Shallow characters and plot aside, the script features a lot of interesting Sci-Fi ideas that haven't been done to death in space opera. The Kelvin are a fantastic concept. They can't speak or hear, but communicate in heatwaves. That's weird. That's alien. And it leads to a fun visual gag where the two of them are being used as a campfire. The hyper intelligent, hyper advanced Nestor is is this weird, benevolent thing and oddly enough a source of a lot of humor.

Whenever the movie lets the weirdness through, it benefits, because those touches are what set it aside from just being The Magnificent Seven in space (Though like its inspiration, it does end on a melancholy note which really doesn't sit with the whimsical adventure themes of ADVENTURE! earlier in the film).

This was James Horner's first real soundtrack gig, and like the production crew, he was out to prove something. The score is raucous, sweeping, bombastic, and perfect space opera fare. Yes, Horner has a reputation for recycling a lot of his own material, but the Battle Beyond the Stars music just oozes fun, and its hard not to like his work.

Battle Beyond the Stars is a competently and enthusiastically made B-level Sci-Fi space opera. Not earthshaking, profound, or deeply intelligent, it is charming as hell, and an interesting starting point for a lot of people who would go on to do bigger and better things. It's got lasers and space battles and explosions and aliens and Sybil Danning's boobs trying to pop out of her costumes. It's a lot of fun and totally recommended, even if the ending is kind of a downer because the source material demands it.

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