The Clone Wars.
Following the unexpected success of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” in 1977 (“A New Hope” wouldn’t be added to the title until years later), studios big and small were scrambling to create their own space operas. Some were embarrassingly obvious in their mimicry (Luigi Cozzi’s “Starcrash”), others gained their own cult followings (Glen Larson’s “Battlestar Galactica,” which was later validated by a vastly superior remake in 2003). Most were simple camp escapism, lacking the resources, quality control and mythical reach of Lucas’ trendsetting homage to the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers’ serials of the 1930s (as well as Akira Kurosawa’s films of the 1950s).
One of these would-be Star Wars clones was comfortably in the middle. Low-budget filmmaker and one-man film school Roger Corman marshaled a band of eager, very young filmmakers to create his own space opus, “Battle Beyond The Stars” (1980), written by John Sayles and directed by Jimmy T. Murakami.
In the simplest terms, the story is a remake of director Akira Kurosawa‘s “The Seven Samurai” (1954) which was later remade into “The Magnificent Seven” (1960). Instead of a farmer recruiting banditos to save his small village, we see young Shad (Richard Thomas) recruiting multiple alien mercenaries from all over the galaxy to defend his peaceful, defenseless planet Akir (named after Kurosawa). Variations of this story have been told for generations, and it’s a time-tested formula. This old tale is woven into a silly-yet-sincere adolescent space opera that is laced with little bits of naughty innuendo as well.
*****SPACE BATTLECRUISER-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
Orbiting the peaceful planet Akir, a small, manned weather satellite makes first contact with a giant alien spacecraft. The crew of the satellite are delighted to make contact, until they realize the ship is a deadly Malmori battlecruiser, which soon destroys the pesky satellite…
The “Hammerhead” battlecruiser is under command of evil, one-armed warlord Sador (John Saxon), who parks his ship over an assembled group of Akira (the plural name of the planet’s inhabitants), forcing the peaceful planet’s inhabitants to unconditionally surrender or be destroyed.
Sador’s vessel is armed with a planet-killing ‘stellar convertor’ weapon (shades of the Death Star). Sador is aided by a dim-witted crew of sadistic, would-be rapists and plunderers who are played more as dark comic relief than any genuine menace. Their bored, blue-collar line deliveries break up the melodrama a bit. Sador orders a detachment of these imbecilic henchmen to watch over his newly acquired planet, while he goes off to take care of other business in the galaxy…
Akir’s aged, blind, ineffective leader Zed (Jeff Corey) has a Corsair spaceship, but is unable to use it in his current condition. A young Luke Skywalker-sort named Shad (Richard Thomas) steps up and volunteers to pilot the vessel. He vows to find mercenaries who will defend the pacifist population of Akir. The spaceship “Nell” is vaguely shaped like a woman’s upper torso, with twin gun turrets rising up like a pair of arms, and yes…a giant pair of breasts. A spaceship with boobs. And that was intentional. This is indeed a Roger Corman production, alright…
Piloting the old vessel “Nell” is a bit challenging at first, since the female-voiced computer system (voiced by a salty-tongued Lynn Carlin) has a will of her own, not to mention a more aggressive posture than her pacifist pilot. Their first destination is a run-down space station of Dr. Hephaestus (“Lost Horizon” costar Sam Jaffe), a famed cyberneticist who is now little more than a talking head, living with his daughter Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel).
Narnelia has lived her entire life alone with her father and their cadre of robots who maintain the all-but-deserted station. Her life is one of solitude, and her father offers Shad a choice; stay with his lonesome daughter and “mate”… or else. Shad is flattered, but he has a duty to his people. Shad pleads his people’s case to Narnelia, who is smitten with the young would-be warrior, and she agrees to help him escape from his android guards. She will also flee the station in a separate vessel, and help Shad find other mercenaries for his cause.
A liberated Shad returns to Nell, and they immediately come across a space freighter piloted by ‘Cowboy’ (a pre-“A Team” George Peppard). Cowboy is a space trucker currently being attacked by would-be hijackers. Shad works up the courage to defend Cowboy from his attackers and succeeds, using Nell’s lasers to blast them into bits.
Cowboy thanks Shad for the rescue, but the two of them are forced to watch helplessly as Cowboy’s destination is obliterated by Sador’s “stellar convertor” weapon (yes, just like Alderaan). Cowboy was due to deliver a shipment of hand weapons to that planet’s population to arm them against Sador’s forces, but it’s too late. When asked where Cowboy hails from, the veteran space trucker says “Earth.” “Never heard of it,” replies Shad.
Realizing that Cowboy’s weapons shipment is exactly what his planet needs to repel a possible ground invasion, a savvy Shad proposes taking the weapons (with Cowboy training the Akira in their use) as payment for saving Cowboy’s life. With nothing left to lose, Cowboy agrees, and an alliance is formed.
Meanwhile, Narnelia isn’t having quite as much luck as Shad. Her weaponless vessel is soon overcome by a (literally) cold-blooded reptilian creature named Cayman (Morgan Woodward, looking very much like one of the unmasked ‘visitors’ from Kenneth Johnson’s “V” miniseries). Cayman has Narnelia bound and ready to be served as supper until she mentions that she is on a vital mission to recruit mercenaries in order to overthrow Sador.
That name rings a discordant bell with the man-sized lizard, as Sador is the mass murderer responsible for making Cayman the last of his reptilian race. Relishing the opportunity for vengeance over a snack, he frees Narnelia and agrees to join her quest, along with his twin ‘Kelvin’ companions, a pair of beings who communicate through searing waves of bodily heat (get it? Kelvin scale…?)
Next, Shad is captured and rendered defenseless by the Nestor; a race of three-eyed clones who are essentially a single consciousness linked by multiple bodies. What one of them feels, they all feel. If one of them eats, they all taste it. The Nestor tell Shad that they’ve sent five of their kind to aid his quest against Sador mainly because… well, they’re bored. While the FX makeup of the Nestors is amateurishly bad (even at DVD resolution), the gag of a single shared consciousness is intriguing, and feels more like something from pulp sci-fi novels, or a Doctor Who serial, rather than a borrowed Star Wars trope. The ‘lead’ Nestor (if there is such a thing) is played by Earl Boen, who would gain a bit of cult fame as the psychiatrist in the first three “Terminator” movies (directed/produced by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd, who also worked on this film…)
On a remote, cob-webbed recreational planet (complete with decaying flesh-bot prostitutes), Shad finds a reclusive, legendary assassin-for-hire named Gelt (Robert Vaughn). The blood on Gelt’s hands forces him to live like a wealthy hermit in his rundown decaying treasure vault, for fear of deadly consequences should he ever show his face in civilization again. The character of Gelt is a cut-and-pasting of Vaughn’s own “Lee,” his wanted gunman character from “The Magnificent Seven.” And Vaughn seems totally okay with it. In fact, Vaughn plays the hell out of this role; treating the material like Shakespeare rather than a Roger Corman-produced Star Wars wannabe.
Returning with the new recruits to his cause, Shad encounters a small, but well-armed ship piloted by a buxom warrior named Saint Exmin (Sybil Danning), a member of the Valkyries (I kid you not). In her lead pushup bra and sculpted headdress, Danning looks like a NSFW version of the ‘Space Vikings’ Dr. Smith encountered on TV’s “Lost in Space.” Shad is initially annoyed by the strapping warrior’s insatiable appetite for combat, but grudgingly accepts her offer to aid his quest.
On return to Akir, Shad and Gelt thwart the near-rape of Shad’s kid sister Mol (Julia Duffy) by Sador’s dimwitted thugs. In retaliation, Mol hacks the thug’s controls, allowing Gelt the opportunity to destroy their fleeing ship. Successfully landing on Akir, Shad asks his frightened people to welcome these new “forms” (his world’s preferred term for ‘beings’) to their world. With that in mind, the people of Akir welcome the band of mercenaries as saviors to be celebrated, not feared. Former “Lost in Space” star Marta Kristen (“Judy”) plays Lux, an Akir native who works the peaceful planet’s defense control system. She later becomes a love interest for Cowboy.
With a little bit of downtime before Sador’s forces return, Shad and his team of mercenaries formulate strategies and get to know each other a little better. Cowboy romances Lux with his harmonica and a beer-spouting spigot located just above his man-parts, while St. Exmin teaches naive Narnelia the not-so-finer points of how to get a man’s motor running (though not quite as explicitly as in other Corman epics, since this movie was aiming more for Star Wars demography, rather than Corman’s usual boobs-and-explosions crowd). Believe it or not, this movie is a lot more chaste than other Corman flicks, such as “Attack of the 50 Foot Cheerleader.”
In yet another ‘homage’ lifted almost word-for-word from “The Magnificent Seven”, a pair of Akira children approach bitter assassin Gelt and try in vain to befriend him. He gives them a speech about his irredeemable life of murder and death. Once again, Vaughn plays the material straight as an arrow, and really sells it. Much of this movie’s strength lies not just in its imaginative low-budget visuals, but also with its sincere cast.
Sador returns to Akir, and is met by Gelt and St. Exmin in a space dogfight. Gelt is shot down by Sador’s Hammerhead. St. Exmin puts up a valiant struggle against the heavily armed battlecruiser but untimely succumbs to the ship’s superior firepower. The space dogfights of the film are easily outdone by the computerized effects available today, granted, but they were quite impressive by the standards of 1980. The detailed miniatures and imaginative ship designs would not be at all out of place in a Star Wars or Star Trek movie of the same vintage.
On the planet, Sador’s ground forces land and are met by a guerrilla band of laser-pistol packing Akira, who’ve been trained by Cowboy. The Akira put up a brave fight as Sador rolls in a sonic tank, which emits ear-splitting sounds. Cowboy’s army of insurgents manage to defeat the tank and kill off Sador’s troops, but at great cost…including the otherwise useless blind leader Zed (love how the ineffective Akir leader is named after the numerical value for nothing… interesting political commentary, if intentional).
One of the Nestor is captured by Sador’s forces and brought back to his ship, where Sador’s surgeon proceeds to cut the the prisoner’s right arm off and graft it onto Sador. All of the Nestor feel their comrade’s pain, but they also use the opportunity to control Sador’s newly grafted arm (which is still part of them, not Sador) in an attempt to assassinate the dastardly warlord. The plan fails as the arm is hurriedly hacked off again, but Sador is left momentarily shaken. Cowboy gets back in space and after a valiant attempt to repel the Hammerhead, he is shot down and crashes back into Akir. The mercenaries are soon destroyed one by one with lasers and nuclear missiles. They are simply outgunned, despite the Akira forces’ victory on the ground.
With only Narnelia and Shad surviving aboard Nell, the ship is caught by Sador’s tractor beam and towed in. With no choice, Shad activates Nell’s self-destruct as he and Narnelia flee the ship in an escape pod. As the ship is pulled in closer to the Hammerhead, Sador orders Nell to surrender. The foul-mouthed starship tells the warlord what he can do with himself as she self-destructs, taking the Hammerhead and Sador with her. Nell makes the final sacrifice, and Akir is freed.
In the escape pod, Narnelia and Shad are grieving for all of those who died to liberate the planet. Shad tells her that in his world’s belief system, “No form ends if those who remember and love them live on” (or words to that effect). The saying is this movie’s answer to “May the Force be with you.”
The Ship That Launched a Thousand Faces.
“Battle Beyond the Stars” was directed by Jimmy T. Murakami (“Heavy Metal”), but there was much uncredited work and oversight done by its famous B-movie producer/director, the legendary Roger Corman. Corman has been making low-budget exploitation flicks since the 1950s, and is still working as a producer today (in his 90s). His movies vary in genre from comedy-horror (“The Raven” “X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes”) to sci-fi action (“Wild Angels,” “Deathsport”). While incredibly prolific himself, Corman is arguably more known for the number of careers he has launched than for his own works. These careers include producer/director Francis Ford Coppola (“The Godfather” “Apocalypse Now”), producer/director Jonathan Demme (“Silence of the Lambs” “Philadelphia”), actor Bruce Dern (“Coming Home” “Silent Running”), Jack Nicholson (who first starred in Corman’s 1961 version of “Little Shop of Horrors”) actor/director/producer Ron Howard (“Eat My Dust” “Apollo 13”) and countless others, including giving a young William Shatner a feature film lead in the low-budget racial melodrama “The Intruder” (1961). Corman’s stewardship on “Battle…” would launch a second wave of talent…
A model-maker and carpenter on the production was a young James Cameron. Yes, the future ‘king of the world’ who would go on to direct landmark epics as “The Terminator”, “ALIENS,” “The Abyss,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “True Lies,” “Titanic” and “Avatar.” Corman noticed the young then-25 year old’s work, and immediately elevated him to special effects lead (causing some jealousy among a few of his peers) and even allowed the former truck driver to do some second-unit photography on the film. While there is much backlash against Cameron’s movies of late (particularly “Titanic” and “Avatar”), you will not find me among his detractors. I find Cameron’s movies to be massively entertaining feats in filmmaking, despite a tendency to lapse into cliches now and then.
Corman’s legendary eye for talent recognition bordered on the psychic, sensing skills and ambitions that would surpass his own. Corman’s knack for guerrilla filmmaking (making movies quick-and-dirty, and by any means necessary) would be a trait passed on to many of his ‘students’, who often described his mentorship as The Roger Corman Film School. Many of Corman’s students would soon be making films and even television shows on massive, studio-fueled budgets that the scrappier Corman would never dream of.
Another of Corman’s students who worked on “Battle…” (and recorded one of the commentary tracks on the movie’s DVD) was now current mega-producer Gale Anne Hurd. She landed the gig of unit production manager for the movie at the tender age of 24. Hurd, like her ex-husband James Cameron (with whom she’s frequently collaborated) would graduate from Roger Corman’s de-facto school to have her own massive career in films and TV as well. Her credits include “The Terminator” movies, “ALIENS”, “The Abyss,” “Alien Nation” (movie), “Tremors,” “The Incredible Hulk” (2008) and she is currently producer on AMC’s immensely successful “The Walking Dead” TV series (2010-present).
“Battle…” also has a jaunty, almost nautical-sounding musical score that might cause some sharp-eared listeners to recall music they’ve heard in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” “Cocoon” and other mainstream films. That is because “Battle…” was the 5th film credit for a then very-young British composer named James Horner (1953-2015). Horner’s score for “Battle…” is (like the film’s sets and visual effects) one of the elements that elevates it from the lower-quality Star Wars imitators of the time. There are brief musical phrases and motifs used in the film that could later be heard in many later films of Horner’s, as he had a tendency to sometimes recycle elements of his own work for future projects (hey, steal from the best, right?). The Oscar-winning composer would compose and conduct music for countless films, including “48 HRS,” “Cocoon,” “ALIENS,” “Field of Dreams,” “The Rocketeer,” “Braveheart,” “Titanic” and “Bicentennial Man.” Sadly, Horner died 5 years ago in a plane crash at age 61, his career ending at its apex.
My Own Close Encounter With Sador Himself, John Saxon.
At the 2013 WonderCon convention in Anaheim (right next to Disneyland), I had the pleasure of meeting the longtime actor John Saxon, whose IMDb filmography includes movies and TV series such as “Enter the Dragon,” “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Dynasty,” “From Dusk Till Dawn” and many others. His face has been a staple of television and feature films for as long as I can remember. Even today, in his 80s, he maintains a very active career. I still remember his energy and vigor when I met him, as well as a certain self-deprecating affection for his past roles. He mentioned how much he enjoyed playing bad guys whenever he could.
We also talked about his role in Corman’s “Queen of Blood” (1966); a lower-budgeted precursor to Ridley Scott’s “ALIEN” and a favorite B-movie of mine as a kid. I asked Saxon to autograph of photo of himself as Sador, of course. Saxon is a terrific guy, whose long career easily makes him “one of those faces” you’ll never fail to remember when you see it.
“No form ends…”
Recycling of sounds, props, miniatures (pre-CGI), sound effects and costumes was very common in low-budget sci-fi filmmaking back in the day. In fact, it’s still a common practice today, although modern technologies have served to mask some of the more obvious repurposing. “Battle…” would borrow many sound effects from such TV shows as “Battlestar Galactica” and “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”; in fact, you’ll recognize many familiar laser blasts and whooshing noises of spaceships when you hear them. You’ll also hear the ‘photon torpedo’ sounds from the original Star Trek thrown in for good measure. There are also vast warehouses on studio backlots and around Los Angeles where filmmakers can rent props, pieces of set dressing or costumes.
“Battle Beyond the Stars” used a very familiar looking piece of set dressing for the computer core of “Nell.” In fact, those same computer banks, with their blinking red and yellow lights, would later be reused in other sci-fi productions such as “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan” and the TV series “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.” The “Nell” computer core was most recently seen in the soon-to-be auctioned off “Modern Props” collection of longtime, retiring prop-maker John Zabrucky at his warehouse in Los Angeles. You can see a tour of Zabrucky’s warehouse in the video below. Enjoy!
Summing It Up.
What separates “Battle Beyond the Stars” from the other Star Wars clones of that era is an amusing combination of self-awareness and genuine sincerity. The movie knows full well that it’s a knockoff, yet it unfolds with an earnestness and surprising creativity (given its budget) which compensates for its lack of originality. Adjusting for the period in which it was made, many of the visual effects in “Battle…” (all practical, pre-digital) are generally more competent than many of its contemporaries. I never got around to seeing “Battle…” theatrically as a teenager when it first came out, but I would see it a few years later on TV (25″ cathode ray tubes are a bit more forgiving of low-budget moviemaking seams). Over the years, I find that this silly movie only gets more enjoyable with age. Unless you’re a Lucasfilm lawyer, it’s really hard not to be just a little bit charmed by “Battle Beyond the Stars.”
Given the current coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world and the need to stay home as much as possible, “Battle Beyond the Stars” is available for rent or purchase on many streaming platforms (Vudu, YouTube, Tubi, AmazonPrime) and you can even buy a physical copy (by mail, to maintain social-distancing) on DVD or BluRay (Shout Factory did a terrific special edition about 10 years ago). If you have patience for outdated production values, there are certainly worse ways to spend 100-odd minutes than to enjoy a sincerely entertaining, wonderfully goofy little space opus like “Battle Beyond the Stars.” Worth taking a look…