Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), a recap (part 1 of 6)

NOTE: This article is a work in progress.
Please check back soon for more installments!

To say Star Wars was a gamechanger is putting it lightly. While science fiction as a genre had been represented in some way, shape, or form in cinema since its inception, it seemed once George Lucas and Gary Kurtz’s masterpiece dropped, it had a ripple effect. James Bond went into space with Moonraker; Paramount opted to put Star Trek on the big screen instead of returning to television; and we got films like like Starcrash and Japan’s Message from Space, not to mention Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers both hitting TV and having their pilots shown in theaters. Hell, Disney dusted off the project that would later become known as The Black Hole, and gave us The Cat from Outer Space and Return from Witch Mountain. And then of course, there was Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars.

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What else can be said about Roger Corman that my fellow ‘Boother Rob Kirchgassner hasn’t already said in his rundown of Corman’s Poe adaptations? The man is a legend (Corman, I mean. Although I still think highly of Rob) who left an indelible mark on the film industry. Producing a whopping four hundred and fourteen films and directing fifty-six? That there’s a tremendous legacy. When I mentioned Battle Beyond the Stars in the comments section here as a possible movie to watch during this damn lockdown, a reader suggested it might be a good film to recap. And when Rob wrote his tribute to Roger last week, I thought maybe it might be time to give this classic piece of cinema a closer look.

Our movie opens with… uh-oh, it’s the spinning blue circle of doom! Is my film about to crash? Maybe I should have sprung for the extra two bucks for the HD version. Why didn’t I do that in the first place, you might ask? Hey, I’m watching a Roger Corman film; he’d understand a guy wanting to cut costs. Besides, some things weren’t meant to be seen in HD; there’s a reason they had to digitally remaster the old Star Trek episodes.

Oh, whew! It’s just an opening graphic that morphs into a faux hyperspace effect as James Horner’s utterly epic score sweeps over me. This might be a B movie, but damn, nobody told James; the guy goes balls out no matter what the project. And with the light blue used for the opening credits combined with Horner’s epic score, I’m honestly getting a Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan vibe here.

We get our opening credits and Richard C. Thomas gets top billing. I grew up watching Thomas on The Waltons… well, it’s more like my parents watched The Waltons and I usually fell asleep. We also have Robert Vaughn, John Saxon, and George Peppard as “Cowboy”. This was Corman’s most expensive movie, at a then-impressive two million dollars, with much of the budget reportedly going to Vaughn and Peppard.

Cut to a ship flying through space, and by the way it’s shot we can tell it’s pretty massive. Also, judging by the hammerhead and gray hull, it’s like the love child of a rebel blockade runner and a star destroyer.

By the way, if you read a joke and it sounds familiar, I didn’t steal it; I’m just honoring Corman’s legacy and saving money by recycling it.

The (presumably) massive vessel approaches a planet and the scene shifts to a large control room of some sort, cast in some really mellow blue-green lighting.

The place looks big enough to be a disco, with the guy up front ready to DJ. A voice talks about the planet they’re approaching. It’s called “Akir” and is pretty much all rock except for a little patch of green. A more mellow voice—John Saxon’s distinctive tone—wants a closer look as their big viewscreen gets filled up with the planet. The deeper voice says the planet’s got no defenses, a “solar” technology, and only one spacecraft: an old weather ship.

Cut to said weather ship where we have two dudes, and the younger one is giving a report while the older guy is doing something else; probably playing Pong or something. But then the older guy is interrupted when he spots the massive hammerhead ship coming into view, and instead of assuming the worst, they put on their happy faces and transmit a welcoming greeting. The ship gives no response, and just keeps coming menacingly approaching, and it appears the vessel is so powerful it can create sinister exterior mood lighting.

By the way, it’s a nice shot, in that you get a real feel for just how big this ship is, since those little lights on the weather vessel are presumably portholes (I added the blue circle because it’s hard to easily differentiate between the two ships in this shot. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been any easier to see with the HD version. Really). When there’s no response, the guys on the weather ship attempt to use a translation program, but this nets the same result. Well, okay, not exactly. The hammer-headed vessel zaps the weather ship, and instead of blowing up, the model fades away in a shower of pretty lights. Hey, that model’s still good! They might be able to use it in Battle Beyond the Stars 2!

Cut to the planet below, where we get a look at Akiran society.

And damn, that’s some truly ugly architecture there. I mean, sure, if I were a kid living there, I’d find the tubes fun to crawl and slide around in, but where the hell are you supposed to actually live? I guess those are supposed to maybe be petrified trees or something, but then you have the pod things littering the ground. I give this attempt to show an alien society an “A” for effort and a “D” for execution. An alarm sounds and we focus on a red crystal, and then the hammerhead ship comes flying in super-duper low over the settlement. And now we see other buildings, and while they’ve all got that melted round aesthetic, they actually look livable. So… the attempt gets an upgrade to a “C”. The citizenry stare up in awe and fear at the vessel, and we spot Richard Thomas along with the guy who’s obviously the Obi Wan of this flick, who looks… familiar.

Oh wow, it’s prolific actor Jeff Corey (1914-2002), who played (among a great many other things) the chief asshat in the Star Trek episode “The Cloud Minders”.

The ship stops in midair and looks like it could drop on top of these poor bastards at any second. Saxon’s voice echoes out and his face appears on the belly of the ship.

Well, points for the pale skin and birthmark, but couldn’t they have done something about that hair? Maybe give him a wicked skull cap, or shave it or something? I’m guessing John didn’t want to cut his signature combover, because it would have affected his ability to get gigs in movies and shows like Blood Beach, Vega$, and Running Scared. And the concept of the hologram looks familiar. The V remake a few years back did something very similar. Hey, if you’re gonna borrow, borrow from the master, right?

Saxon introduces himself as “Sador of the Malmori” and tells the Akirans he’s here to conquer them with his “stellar converter”, which is supposedly the most powerful weapon in the universe. I’d say it’s a lame name, but somehow the Japanese made a “wave motion gun” sound cool on Space Battleship Yamoto, so this movie gets a pass. Sador says he going to take their harvest, which will be coming ready in seven passings of their red giant. Well, that explains the sinister mood lighting from before, I guess. Just to prove what a total bastard he is, he orders his “snipers” to fire down on the people, and they prove to actually be pretty good at their job as they gun down numerous people. Then again, the Akirans are packed pretty tight down there so they’re kind of hard to miss. And with that, Sador departs because he has appointments elsewhere, but not without leaving a fighter behind to keep an eye on things.

Later on, the planet leaders meet and one guy points out that the “Akira” follow the “varda” which calls for non-violence. Akira? Like… Akira Kurosawa, director of The Seven Samurai, which this movie shamelessly rips off is inspired by? Nice homage there, Roger. Jeff Corey, whose character is named “Zed”, points out he’s fought before but can’t now that he’s blind, which I guess explains that faraway, disinterested look he was sporting earlier. Zed says that to fight violent people they’ll need to find other violent people, but a woman points out they’re strapped for cash. Zed counters that violent people fight for different reasons, and after the fighting’s done and they have the mercenaries to deal with, then they can use the varda… somehow? Problem is, who’s going to go find the guys willing to fight for them?

Answer: John Boy, whose character’s name is “Shad”. Hmm, he looks like a humble young farmer getting ready to go out on a quest. I guess old tropes are the best tropes, eh, Roger? He says he can pilot Zed’s old ship, and “she trusts me”. Oh great, he’s probably one of those guys who gives their cars names; I bet he calls his tractor “Sally” or something.

Later, Zed and Shad head off to the ship where the old man gives the kid his marching orders: head to the Phoenix Cluster and find Dr. Hephaestus, a weaponsmith. Gee, that’s a convenient name. I’m guessing “Dr. Hephaestus” is an alias and he’s probably wanted for war crimes or something. Zed says to just drop his name and ol’ Heph will help him. The scene cuts to…

…ah, yes, the infamous “boob ship”. The high mounted struts? Not bad. The cockpit? Works for me. Orange color? I actually like it. Breast-like protrusions to rest on? What were they thinking? It doesn’t help that in clearer shots, it looks like they have nipples. And then the ship’s sentient computer’s name is “Nell”. Nell, by the way, is voiced by Lynn Carlin, who appeared on two episodes of The Waltons. Small universe, huh? Nell and Shad have a little back and forth, proving the ship’s got a little sass. The boy powers up Nell and they’re off, and are soon spotted by the fighter Sador left behind. On board we get a better look at Sador’s minions without all that discotheque lighting.

So… space orcs? They’ve got identical scars down their foreheads and faces, so I’m guessing they had some sort of lobotomy? Maybe Sador likes ‘em obedient and stupid. But I kind of like the look. The pair debate what to do and decide that since they didn’t have orders about escaping ships, they’ll just blow it up. They attack and Nell tells Shad to fire but he balks, saying that this will “show their hand”. On the one hand, it makes sense; if Sador even suspects the planet has defensive capabilities he might just scorch-earth it. But on the other hand, maybe Shad’s a pacifist and can’t shoot? He asks Nell if they can outrun them and she snaps back that they sure as hell can’t outfight them with him in the driver’s seat. Ooh, harsh, Nell.

Sador’s fighter follows and what comes next is, well, for the time period about average as far as the special effects go. Industrial Light and Magic were a level above everyone else, which is one of the many reasons Star Wars became so iconic. So I’m not going to hold the film’s visual effects against it. It’s like looking at a Picasso and saying “Why isn’t it animated?” or something. The pilot tries to get in position so the gunner can get a shot off, but Nell’s a little too quick and agile for them, and she and Shad manage to escape as the fighter slows down. The gunner asks the pilot why he backed off; the pilot responds they had orders to watch the planet. The gunner says, “Hell with the orders,” and the pilot points out that “Lobo disobeyed orders. Now Sador’s wearing his left foot.” That… is a pretty weird statement, but it’s enough to get the gunner to back down.

On the boob ship, Nell continues to rip Shad a new one for running away, pointing out how badass Zed was back in the day and how he would’ve kicked ass. The kid points out their job is to find mercenaries, not get into random fights, but you can tell Nell’s burns have hurt him. We then get scenes of red lighting and the ship flying through space… and more red lights and the ship flying through space… and more… you get the idea. I get the feeling Corman wasn’t sure if “hyperspace” was copyrighted and he couldn’t find any other way to explain how the ship covered light-years of distance. The ship reaches Hephaestus’ station and they do a slow fly-by as John Boy tries to raise someone.

I kind of dig the design; if you don’t have to worry about having it spin to generate artificial gravity, a space station doesn’t have to look pretty and symmetrical at all. It’s ugly and I like it. We get a few familiar “Hornerisms” here, as the music is a little reminiscent of his work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture during the V’Ger fly-bys. But I guess that shouldn’t surprise me. No one’s answering the phone, so Shad flies Nell inside and parks.

What mysteries will he find on board? Tune in next time to find out.

Multi-Part Article: Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), a recap

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