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Cinema

Frank Sidebottom The Home of the Retrospective

FILM RETROSPECTIVES

A nostalgic (but not blindly nostalgic) look back at some cult and classic movies. Are they worth checking out once you take off the rose-tinted glasses? Find out in this retrospective section.

Battle Beyond The Stars (1980) produced by Roger Corman

What’s it about?

The planet Akeer is threatened by a race of belligerent mutants called the Malmoris, who are led by Sador (John Saxon). He says he will return in seven days and, if the people refuse to accept his rule, he will destroy them with a powerful weapon aboard his spaceship called the Stellar Converter.

Shad, a boy (played by Richard Thomas) volunteers for a mission to seek Dr. Hephaestus (Sam Jaffe) who can provide weapons to help his people defend themselves. So, he takes a talking spaceship called Nell and flies out to seek the doctor.

When he arrives, however, he finds that Hephaestus is so old his body is kept alive by a computer and is more interested in getting Shad paired up with his beautiful daughter Nanelia (played by Darlanne Fluegel).

Girl talk between Darlanne Fluegel and Sybil Danning

Shad gives up on Hephaestus but does manage to persuade Nanelia to help him, and the pair head off to round up a team of mercenaries who will help in the forthcoming fight. On their travels they team up with Cowboy (George Peppard), a space trucker from Earth; Cayman (Morgan Woodward), a reptilian slaver who has a score to settle with Sador; Nestor, a group of white aliens who share the one consciousness; Gelt (Robert Vaughan), a contract killer who is one of the most wanted men in the galaxy and St Exmin of The Valkyrie (Sybil Danning), a fearless warrior.

Watch a trailer (courtesy of YouTube channel Trailers from Hell):

Why is it significant?

George Lucas’s Star Wars was a huge phenomenon in the late 1970s, and as a result, many film studios in the U.S. and elsewhere were clamouring for a piece of the action. Even such an eternally dependable box office mainstay as James Bond was cashing in with Moonraker’s space battle finale.

Despite the fact that such special-effects heavy films tend to cost a great deal of money to make, spendthrift producer Roger Corman looked at the viability of doing it on the cheap. In 1979 he tested the water by distributing Luigi Cozzi’s cheesy Italian space opera Starcrash in US cinemas via his company New World Pictures. When it became a big success (according to interviews with Corman himself it netted $30 million) he proved that he could make a large profit from the phenomenon with little financial expenditure. Hence, armed with a script inspired by The Magnificent Seven and a much lower budget than Star Wars ($2 million, which, believe it or not, at the time was the largest sum Corman had ever spent on a film) he made Battle Beyond The Stars.

Battle Beyond the Stars poster

While Jimmy T. Murakami was the nominal director, Corman apparently carried out some uncredited work himself despite the fact that he, for the most part, had worked solely as a producer following his difficult experiences on Von Richthofen and Brown (1971).

How does it hold up?

It’s a notable film in retrospect due to the array of fledgling talent that was involved. The best known is a certain James Cameron (ever heard of him?), who had a hand in the art direction, miniature and matte effects here. He also met Assistant Production Manager Gale Anne Hurd here; they got married and she produced his films up until their divorce in 1989. The miniature work does indeed look quite impressive, especially considering the budgetary constraints he must have been lumbered with. For instance, the obligatory Star Wars-like opening shot of a huge spaceship looming into view does manage to convey an effective sense of vastness from a detailed model.

James Horner, who has composed music for countless major Hollywood productions since then (including Cameron’s own Aliens) created the rousing orchestral score.

The best thing here, however, is the screenplay, written by John Sayles, who has subsequently received a lot of critical acclaim for his writing and directing work on such films as The Brother from Another Planet (1984), Matewan (1987) and Lone Star (1996). The characters here may not be overly complex but they do register as having their own individual motivations and personalities, so it’s easy to care about their fates. There are some flashes of real wit and imagination here - at one point the Malmoris bring out a sonic weapon only to be thwarted by two aliens who communicate via heat waves, and hence have no ears.

Roger Corman must have been pretty proud of this one, right?

After all, he even recycled music and effects shots for several of his later productions including Forbidden World (1982) and Space Raiders (1983). I guess he had to get the most from those relatively expensive production values.

However, even in this relatively extravagant movie, some budgetary rough edges do rear their ugly head at times: the space battles later on feature a fair amount of visibly repeated shots, and the planet exteriors consist of smallish sound stages mixed with obvious matte paintings.

Richard Thomas never quite seems at ease in the role as the film’s young hero but the supporting cast is better. George Peppard and Robert Vaughn lend veteran star quality to their roles, and John Saxon chews the scenery as the villainous Sador. Sybil Danning may not be the world’s greatest actress, but she does well to placate Roger Corman’s usual adult grindhouse audience in a manner that cunningly stays within PG material. She wears a brazier that seems to consist of metal fingers that only cover alternating strips of her breasts, and later on, she spouts the immortal line: “You’ve never seen a Valkyrie go down!”

Battle Beyond the Stars is no Star Wars but it is enjoyable in its own right. It has an undeniable sense of fun and humour which gives it a pass despite its occasionally cheap look.

Runtime: 104 mins

Dir: Jimmy T. Murakami

Script: John Sayles, Anne Dyer

Starring: Richard Thomas, Robert Vaughn, John Saxon, George Peppard, Darlanne Fluegel, Sybil Danning, Sam Jaffe, Morgan Woodward

Rating: ☆☆☆

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