Saturday, 13 August 2016

Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

Battle Beyond the Stars, made by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in 1980, is Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai set in space.

The planet Akira (a nod to Kurosawa) is inhabited by a people who have renounced war and violence and they are about to discover what happens when pacifists encounter someone who hasn’t renounced war and violence. They’re about to get stomped by evil space lord Sador (John Saxon) and his army of mutants. Since they can’t defend themselves they decide they will need to hire some mercenaries to do do their fighting for them. Young Shad (Richard Thomas) is despatched to bring back any such mercenaries he can find.

It turns out to be easier than expected, space apparently being full of mercenaries. 

Since this is a remake of the American remake (The Magnificent Seven) of The Seven Samurai if you’ve seen either of those movies the plot will hold no surprises for you. Not that unoriginal plots are necessarily a major problem - it’s the style with which they’re executed that matters. This one is reasonably satisfactory in that respect. There’s plenty of action and lots of explosions.

This was part of Richard Thomas’s attempt to get away from his most famous role, John-Boy Walton in the long-running TV series The Waltons. He’s actually pretty good. 

Of the various actors portraying the assorted mercenaries the most interesting are Robert Vaughn, George Peppard and Sybil Danning. Vaughn, who was in The Magnificent Seven, is rather subdued. In fact he’s essentially reprising his role from The Magnificent Seven

George Peppard on the other hand has a lot of fun as a space cowboy. Sybil Danning adds the only real touch of glamour and sex as a kind of space amazon warrior type.

John Saxon’s performance, as so often, is the highlight of the movie.

The special effects are very impressive given the fairly low budget (although by Corman standards a $2 million budget was a big budget). James Cameron started out as a humble model-maker on the film but shortly before filming was set to begin a worrying discovery was made - the movie’s art director had no idea what he was doing and none of the models or sets were ready. James Cameron suddenly found himself promoted to art director and he did a remarkably good job of it. The miniatures in particular are terrific.

Shooting the movie was a somewhat fraught experience. The process of converting a lumber yard in Venice California into a studio was nowhere near to being completed plus it was an unusually wet winter and the whole studio was ankle-deep in water much of the time. 

John Sayles wrote the screenplay. He felt very strongly that it was necessary to sharply differentiate the various mercenaries and even more important to emphasis their cultural differences. In this he succeeded very well. Apart from making the movie more interesting it gave the actors more of a challenge.

Battle Beyond the Stars is a fine example of Roger Corman’s approach to film-making, based on creative penny-pinching - making a small budget go a long long way and hiring young people with talent but who have not yet made their reputations and can therefore be hired cheaply!

I saw this one on Blu-Ray and it’s one of those rare Blu-Ray releases that is really worth the money. The transfer is excellent. Shout Factory have also been generous with extras - the highlights are two audio commentaries (one of which features Roger Corman and John Sayles), a half-dour documentary on the making of the film and an interview with Richard Thomas (who remembers the movie with great fondness).

Battle Beyond the Stars is certainly a lot less boring than The Seven Samurai. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable space opera. With the possible exception of Starcrash it’s the best of the many Star Wars clones of its era.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

Great review of one of my favorite low-budget films!