Jul 29, 2020
Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), a recap (part 6 of 6)
Last time: Sador arrived and ran headlong into stiff opposition, losing fighters and many soldiers on the surface of Akir. But the good guys suffered losses as well, with many farmers turned fighters dying along with Gelt and possibly the Kelvins. And now, Sador prepares a sadistic interrogation of one of the Nestors.
Sador asks his new Nestor how many ships the Akir have and what their capabilities are, but Nestor points out that would give the man an unfair advantage. Nestor, the dude has a sun-gun mounted in the front of his ship; I don’t think “fair play” is in Sador’s vocabulary. Sador asks if Nestor can handle pain, and his captive admits he’s got next to no threshold for it. Sador then introduces Nestor to his torturer for this evening: his surgeon Dako. And now I see what Sador is wearing is not some simple evening casual wear, but a hospital gown, and his right arm is no longer in a sling. He settles onto a nearly vertical examination table like the one Nestor is strapped to. Hmm, does Sador like pain and wants in on the fun? Dako points dramatically…
…to what looks like a surgical buzzsaw. It starts up and then he starts gesturing at it more and it begins to glow. So the medical equipment is all controlled via hand gestures? I hate to see what would happen in you sneezed and reflexively wiped your nose.
Back on Akir, one of the Nestors confirms that they can’t handle pain, and they essentially shut off Sador’s prisoner. Nanelia buries her face in Shad’s shoulder and cries, and I like the idea that it’s one thing to be told that Nestor was just one of a whole, a tiny part of some vast intelligence, but she mourns him all the same.
Back on board, Dako has to admit to his boss he done screwed up and the “patient” has expired. But Sador doesn’t care about that; he just wants the arm Dako amputated off of poor Nestor. And now we see that there’s something seriously wrong with Sador’s arm. And now that crack way back in part one concerning Sador wearing the one guy’s foot or whatnot actually makes sense; Sador maintains his existence by cannibalizing parts off of poor bastards. For all we know, the only original part left is his head. It actually would have been cool if they had worked up some sort of sci-fi stitching around John Saxon’s neck, but I guess that would have been a little too Frankenstein’s Monster and might have come across more hilarious than horrific. Dako gives Sador a shot of something in the neck and takes him right out. Later after the operation, Sador glories in the fact he has a functional right arm again:
Although he does have one nit, in that his new hand can’t fit inside his right glove. And now we see why our Nestor was captured; the other Nestors close their eyes and as one they begin to move their right arms. Sador’s new limb starts moving on its own, much to his unease. And then it goes for the knife on his belt. Dako struggles with the rogue limb as the Nestors attempt to slit Sador’s throat via remote control. They almost succeed, but alas, Dako is able to get the knife out of Sador’s… I mean, Nestor’s hand, and strap him to the operating table as Sador cries out, “Cut it off!” And like that, the connection is gone, and the Nestors have failed to assassinate Sador. That was actually a pretty clever plan, except for a couple things. The big one being, how did the good guys know about Sador’s arm? It’s obvious Nestor’s plan was to allow part of him to be captured for the express purpose of getting the arm hacked off and grafted on to Sador for the assassination attempt. But how did they know Sador’s right arm was messed up? It couldn’t really be seen in the transmission he made at the beginning of the film. You could argue the good guys interrogated a prisoner and found out about it, but Nestor arranged to be captured before the fighting started. Maybe if the good guys had managed to rescue that poor woman from earlier and had captured her captors and interrogated them, then this plot chasm wouldn’t exist. It feels like a scene was cut that would have explained it all; for example, Nestor didn’t do much in the initial battle, so what if he had been able to spy on Sador’s transmissions, saw the arm, and based on what they knew regarding Sador’s practices (gleaned from Space Cowboy and/or Cayman) they devised the plan? But hey, if you have an answer, feel free to divulge it in the comments section below.
Shad doesn’t take the bad news well, and he lashes out at the table and sends a bunch of flimsies flying while Cowboy smokes a cancer stick. Shad says, “They’ve had it,” but St. Exim exclaims she hasn’t given up yet, and the Nestor spokesperson says while there’s life, there’s hope. Cowboy keeps quiet, probably because his pappy taught him that if you ain’t got nothin’ nice to say, then don’t say anythin’ a-tall. Later on in Nell, Shad preps the ship for takeoff when Nanelia visits him. She tells him she wants to go up with him, assuring him that she can help. Shad knows he shouldn’t take her with him, but he wants her along because he’s terrified. And while he doesn’t say it, it’s obvious he doesn’t want to die alone. I guess Nell doesn’t count.
Back on board Sador’s ship, Dako is doing some jury-rigged spot welding on Sador to seal the gaping hole where the arm used to be. Sador is not amused and he orders all ships to prepare for a full-scale attack. All remaining ships, that is. The fighters launch and the pilots immediately start firing at, well, nothing. I guess it’s best to let the boss see you doing something that at least looks productive? But they don’t have to wait long, because Team Shad, Cayman, St. Exim, and Nestor all fly up to meet them. Cayman draws first blood, blowing a fighter out of space, while St. Exim goes toe-to-toe with another one. They trade shots and she takes her opponent down. Shad lines up a shot and scores another victory, while Nestor makes a run at Sador’s vessel. But oh noes! Sador’s people score a direct hit on Nestor’s glowing ship, and he goes into a tumble. A follow-up shot finishes our foursome off.
Down on the planet, Space Cowboy stares up at the sky with his new lady friend as Sador orders the deployment of the stellar converter. Nanelia reports this, and on Akir, Space Cowboy hands his friend his hat and plants a farewell kiss on her.
Then without another word, and without any music, he heads off towards his ship with a resigned expression on his face. Sometimes less is more, and this is an excellent example.
Up above, St. Exim starts her run on the hammerhead ship while Sador orders the force-field to be lowered in preparation of turning Akir into a ball of white-hot plasma. His minion tries to point out that hey, maybe lowering the force-field while there are still enemy ships buzzing around out there is a bad idea, but Sador’s not having it. St. Exim sees her opportunity and gives out a really fake dubbed scream, and I’m wondering if this is because Sybil Danning can’t scream very well in real life. I mean, considering the types of movies she’s famous for, you’d think that’d be a key part of her skillset. St. Exim pulls a sort of rip cord and the nosecone of her ship flies off, with the rest of the ship heading right into the hammerhead.
The engine section explodes on impact, taking the stellar converter with it. Sador orders the shot, but his chief minion has to give him the bad news: his biggest toy’s been damaged. Sador’s expression is one of shock, and evidence that it’s been a long time since he’s been handed so many losses in such a short time. Meanwhile, a helpless St. Exim is surrounded by three fighters.
She calmly introduces herself and pretty much says she’s had a fantastic time. Then she nukes herself, taking the three fighters with her. Shad murmurs the code of the Valkyrie: “Live fast, fight well, and have a beautiful ending.” Sador doesn’t think that ending was so beautiful; he orders all the drones to protect him while they retreat behind the sun. Yeah, whatever drones are left, jackass.
Elsewhere, Space Cowboy takes off.
While I think Gelt’s wedge ship was pretty cool, I have to say I have a soft spot for George Peppard’s space rig. Maybe it’s just me liking how it’s a bit reminiscent of a lunar lander so it does feel a bit like it’s from Earth, or maybe I’m just having Moon Zero Two flashbacks or something. Whatever the case, I think this is model maker Jim Cameron’s best work on the film.
Up above, Cayman gives Sador a call and tells him he wants to “bump heads”. For once in this whole movie, Sador makes a prudent move and checks to make sure his force-field is more powerful, and then he asks of “what form” Caymen is, and Cayman identifies his species. Sador is amused and surprised in that he thought he’d wiped that race out. Ah, now I get why Cayman is so hot to take Sador down. Our villain accepts the challenge and the ships charge at each other.
Meanwhile, Space Cowboy introduces himself and heads on in. Two fighters—perhaps the last two—bear down on him and he takes them out. Sador’s response is to fire nuclear missiles at our Earth-born space trucker. A lot of missiles. Like, it looks like just about all the missiles he had left. One catches up to Space Cowboy and detonates, knocking out his engines and sending him into an uncontrolled spin towards Akir below. Space Cowboy makes a quick guesstimate that he’s got about thirty seconds to live. His last act?
He plays his harmonica, because what else can he do? Shad watches as the ship crashes, and we see the wreckage strewn across the surface of the planet. Up above, Cayman gives a war cry as he opens fire on Sador in an obviously hopeless run. But hey, I dunno, maybe he’ll get a lucky shot in and take out—
Nope, never mind. Goodbye, Cayman, you were a fun character.
For Shad, this is the last straw. He decides to take Nell in, reasoning that Sador will be back with more ships and they’ll never be done fighting. Well, I have to say this is a pretty ill-conceived plan. What if Shad fails? Then Akir has no more ships and no way to get help. He and Nanelia did a pretty credible job securing allies the first time around, so how much easier will it be to tell the whole galaxy that Sador is flying around in a damaged ship with zero fighter cover? I bet there’s lots of people like Cayman out there eager to settle the score. And what about more Nestors? If this movie had been made today, rest assured the film would have ended with Sador flying away, and Shad swearing vengeance as we await Battle Beyond the Stars II. But even in 1980, sequels still were the exception rather than the norm.
Nell and Nanelia try to talk Shad out of this, but he’s not listening. Damn, I guess war has turned the farm boy into a vengeance crazed crusader. Um, kind of like Cayman. And we saw how things turned out for him. Sador launches more nuclear missiles, and with Nanelia’s help at sensors. Shad is able to line up shots to blow them out of the sky. Things are looking good when another batch of missiles flies in. One gets through and scores a near hit, causing the obligatory sparks to go flying inside the cockpit. And not the romantic kind, either. Shad gets a bit battered and Nanelia is glowing in that way women do to suggest they’re in distress but the director still wants them to look pretty. Shad asks Nell for a damage report… and Nell has no idea who Shad is. Nanelia checks out Nell’s hardware, and her memory’s been damaged. As Shad switches to manual, Nell asks where Zed is. You see, this is why you should always regularly back up your data. Now excuse me while I take a break from writing and back up mine.
Elsewhere, Sador asks what the last ship is, and his chief minion says it’s an old corsair and it’s crippled. Sador orders it captured, then he starts laughing maniacally with his minions quickly joining in, with one guy up front flapping his arms like he’s Morris Day and it’s time to do the Bird.
Nell gets caught up in a tractor beam that disables the guns, and as they dragged up to Sador’s ship, Shad quotes the Varda’s first rule about using force against itself and somehow this translates into reversing thrusters. What, so they’ve got engine power again? Whatever. Shad sets the ship to self-destruct and Nell assures Nanelia she’s not going to blow up with them on board; she’ll wait until they’re in “the projectile” before going boom. Uh, yeah, I’d be all sorts of concerned about my only way off the ship being a synonym for a bullet. As Sador’s men rush to board Nell, she starts the countdown but keeps getting the numbers wrong, and she keeps calling Shad “Zed”. Shad pauses in the doorway and gives Nell a quiet goodbye.
Maybe it’s just the James Horner score that’s doing it, but the idea of a self-destruct to take out the bad guys has a Star Trek III: The Search for Spock kind of vibe. And the countdown to destruction is also reminiscent of the Genesis device detonation from Wrath of Khan. Shad and Nan secure themselves in “the projectile”, and he pulls a lever and a section of bulkhead explodes away, revealing the small craft. It launches up…
…and away. Nell explodes, taking what’s left of the stellar converter with her. Dr. Dako tells Sador that they’re all going to die, but the boss doesn’t take the news well and he’s in total denial, claiming he’s going to live forever. As the bridge catches fires around him, Sador stands befuddled and I love the tone of fear in John Saxon’s voice as he says, “I want to live forever!” The hammerhead ship blows up and the day is saved.
Nanelia thinks about all their dead friends and Shad assures her that as long as the Akir remember them, they’ll never really be gone… and damn, doesn’t that sound just like McCoy from Star Trek II when he’s talking about Spock? And on that note, cue end credits.
So, that was Battle Beyond the Stars. It’s been many, many years since I last saw the film in its entirety and honestly, I actually like it. Of course, the special effects at the time don’t match up to Star Wars and some of the production values are a little low; there’s a reason Sador’s ship is in dim blue mood lighting, after all. Yes, it does borrow liberally from The Seven Samurai, but it’s just one in a long line of films to have done so. Star Wars does much the same with The Hidden Fortress, so it’s just a matter of degree when you think about it.
Richard Thomas and Darlanne Fluegel are likeable protagonists and the rest of the cast is serviceable to good. James Horner’s score is one of his best in my opinion. And the casting of John Saxon, George Peppard, and Robert Vaughn elevate the film from a B film to, well, maybe a strong B or weak A? I know we’re living in an age where star power just isn’t as important anymore, where a movie starring a big name is no longer a guarantee for success, but back in the ’70s, memorable names could lend weight to a film. So sure, Roger Corman could have spent more of his $2 million budget on the special effects rather than hiring Peppard and Vaughn, but I can see why he made the gamble and ponied up the cash to secure their services.
If while watching this movie, you have a feeling of déjà vu, it might be because many of the effects were recycled for the film Space Raiders, released in 1983, which also used Horner’s score. So no, you’re not going crazy. And if you think recycling footage is somehow dishonest, just remember Harve Bennett managed to finish Star Trek II under budget by using footage from The Motion Picture. That being said, Space Raiders is a crappy movie and no, I won’t be recapping it.
Battle Beyond the Stars is notable for being one of the projects that made James Cameron the man he is today, in that it was how he met producer Gale Anne Hurd. Hurd produced the Cameron directed 1984 film The Terminator (which if you recall, starred Earl “Nestor” Boen), then the pair got married in ’85 and both worked on 1986’s Aliens, which re-united them with composer James Horner. Cameron was Battle Beyond the Stars’ iron man, working ridiculously long hours on modeling and special effects. When Corman lost his art director, Cameron took on that job as well, re-negotiating his salary up to $750 a week. Cameron went from model maker to special effects technician to art director, so while the guy might be a jerk in real life and a miserable person to work for (look up horror stories about the living hell that was The Abyss shoot), you can’t deny his talent, ambition, and amazing work ethic.
Oh, and guess who worked as a painter and carpenter on the set? Why, Bill Paxton, who would later appear in many of James Cameron’s films. And with that it’s time to say, “Game over!” and close out this recap. Next time, I’ll be returning to the world of comics, and I hope you take a look.