Friday, July 12, 2013

Cult-Movie Review: Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)


When George Lucas first assembled Star Wars (1977), he pulled together a number of famous film inspirations for his successful pastiche.  These sources included  early space operas such as Flash Gordon (1936), Frank Herbert's epic novel Dune,  and Akira Kurosawa's great film, The Hidden Fortress (1958).

Clearly, there was something canny in this creative approach. 

By re-combining old movie DNA into a new and more technological form, Lucas successfully forged a swashbuckling adventure both recognizable and new; a mythic hero's journey that boasted both a sense of universality and a feeling of individually. 

Ironically, Lucas later sued the makers of the TV series Battlestar Galactica (1978) for undertaking roughly the same endeavor: re-shuffling the creative card deck (with elements of Star Wars, Star Trek, Space:1999, etc.) and coming up with something new and fresh in the process. 

Yet after Star Wars' release and rapid emergence as the biggest blockbuster ever, the outer space movie pastiche actually became de rigueur in the marketplace for a few years, from roughly 1978 - 1980. 

The Black Hole (1979) featured some familiar ingredients from the Jules Verne Captain Nemo story, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  Glen Larson's Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979) combined elements of the popular James Bond film franchise, previous space operas, and even a bit of the 1970s Burt Reynolds persona. 

And last but not at all least, Roger Corman's production of Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) -- finally to be released on Blu Ray and DVD in July of this year -- also mined some of the same territory that had first inspired George Lucas, namely the oeuvre of Japanese director and former painter, Akira Kurosawa (1910 - 1998).  

One of the most influential and admired filmmakers of the 20th century, Kurosawa was an unrepentant formalist,  famous for deploying dynamic film techniques not merely to record or capture action, but to vividly express the feelings behind the action; hot-blooded feelings such as terror, rage, and exhilaration.   So popular was Kurosawa's colorful, exciting approach to film making that the Japanese film import soon displaced Italian neo-realism as the preferred mode of expression amongst American goers of foreign films in the 1950s.

While co-writing the screenplay for Battle Beyond the Stars at the close of the disco decade, celebrated wordsmith John Sayles gazed back at two important earthbound sources, both of them related explicitly to Kurosawa's film canon.  In the first instance, he re-fashioned Seven Samurai (1954) as a space opera.  And in the second instance, Sayles looked also to the American remake of Seven Samurai, the western The Magnificent Seven (1960), to craft his story of warfare and honor. 


Of course, one cannot discount the importance of Star Wars in Battle Beyond the Stars' creative equation either. 

The film's setting is outer space and the primary antagonist, Sador (John Saxon), is armed with a weapon that can destroy planets -- the "Stellar Converter."  That fearsome device clearly harks back to Lucas's Death Star. 

And just as the Jedi Knights of Star Wars subscribe to beliefs related to "The Force," so do Battle Beyond the Stars protagonists, the Akira (nudge, nudge), adhere to the high-minded philosophical teachings of something called "The Varda."

Made on a fraction of Star Wars budget -- a meager 2 million dollars -- Battle Beyond the Stars is also rather famous today because successful filmmaker James Cameron worked on the film as both a production designer and art director, granting the Corman movie a very distinctive and cohesive look in the process. 

But sci-fi fans of the 1970s and 1980s today remember (and honestly, adore...) this Jimmy T. Murakami  pastiche for other important reasons as well.  The film features a rousing score by James Horner (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan [1982], Aliens [1986]), and boasts a good sense of gallows humor to travel alongside its well-developed sense of heart.

When these impressive qualities are combined with the heightened, almost mythic nature of the re-vamped Kurosawa story, the result is pure sci-fi nirvana, and Battle Beyond the Stars remains a perfect, if light-weight, space opera for the silver screen.

"All of our wealth is in our culture..."


Battle Beyond the Stars occurs in deep space, in the far future.  A vicious warlord of the Malmori, Sador (Saxon) plans to seize control of the peaceful planet, Akir, a small world of "stone" and one small "green spot."  

Peaceful Akir possesses "no known defense capacity" and will make for easy pickings should the inhabitants not accept Sador as their new master.  Threatening to annihilate the planet with "the most powerful weapon in the universe," the Stellar Converter, Sador promises to return during the upcoming harvest and conquer the entire planet.

At first, the Akirans are uncertain of how to proceed, but a courageous elder, Zed the Corsair (Jeff Corey) suggests that since the Akirans cannot fight, they must hire mercenaries to fight for them.  He offers his antique ship, Nell, to a young man, Shad (Richard Thomas), so he can undertake just such a quest. 

Aboard Nell, Shad takes off for nearby Hephaestus Station, seeking weaponry and assistance, but is forced to escape from the mad, cybernetic Professor Hephaestus (Sam Jaffe) with no such equipment.  Instead, he teams up with Hephasteus's brilliant and lovely daughter, Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel).  She has never been around other organic creatures before, and decides to help Shad plot a strategy of defense against Sador.

Continuing on his journey, Shad makes several more unusual allies.  These include Cayman (Morgan Woodward), a lizard-man who desires to settle a score with Sador, Space Cowboy (George Peppard), a lonely Earther hauling goods across the solar system and far from home, The Nestor, a bored hive mind, and the legendary gunslinger, Gelt (Robert Vaughn), who just desires a meal and a safe place to sleep.  Along the way, Shad also encounters the brash and impulsive Saint Exmin (Sybil Danning), a gorgeous Valkryie warrior looking to earn honor and glory in combat.

While Cowboy organizes a terrestrial defense force on Akir and falls for a lovely local inhabitant, Lux (Marta Kristen), Shad and the mercenaries engage Sador's hammerhead dreadnought in space, with their lives -- and the future of Akir -- on the line.

"Forms must prey on other forms to survive."


The line of dialogue highlighted above ("forms must prey on other forms to survive") is a perfect and knowing metaphor for Battle Beyond the Stars' storytelling style, approach,, and narrative methodology. 

Indeed, this is a movie that survives, and actually thrives, by preying on other movie forms, namely the Kurosawa film, the Western tradition, and the swashbuckling Star Wars.  In fact, that line of dialogue above might actually be the most efficacious definition of the term pastiche ever put to celluloid.

From both Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven, Battle Beyond the Stars takes it central premise: a group of peace-loving locals must hire outside mercenaries to protect themselves from a conquering intruder. 

In Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and Sturges' The Magnificent Seven, the peace-lovers are simple farmers or the inhabitants of a border town, and the invaders are marauders or bandits.  In Kurosawa's film, the mercenaries are ronin (samurai without masters), and in the western film, they are gunslingers for hire. 

All these character types have been transplanted, of course, to a more "cosmic" scale for Corman's production.  The Akir must not defend a simple village, but a planet itself.  Sador is not just a leader of roving bandits, but a warlord capable of destroying  whole worlds if they don't bend to his whim.  And the mercenaries are a motley crew of alien races, each with memorable and unique physical characteristics; each as colorful and dynamic as Chewbacca, Han Solo, Greedo or C-3P0

In each of these three similar tales, there are other commonalities to consider too. In all instances, the visiting defenders are initially greeted with trepidation, if not outright fear, by the local inhabitants. Despite the fact that these soldiers of fortune have agreed to guard the imperiled locales, they are still viewed suspiciously, and as dangerous outsiders.

Soon, the attitudes change, however, and in some incarnations of the tale, a romance even blossoms between a mercenary and a villager. In The Magnificent Seven, Vic (Steve McQueen) and Petra (Rosenda Monteros) become romantically involved, and in Battle Beyond the Stars, Cowboy and Lux commence a similar relationship.

In the many iterations of this story, the wise-man or elder among the villagers – Zed, here – also meets his maker before the action has been completed  Like Obi Wan Kenobi's death in Star Wars, it's a generational passing of the torch; a necessary step in the young hero's journey to maturity.

Perhaps the biggest change evident in the template of Battle Beyond the Stars involves the apparently upbeat nature of the ending. Sador is destroyed and Akir remains free.  And the dead but heroic mercenaries now become part of the planet’s collective memory, gaining a sort of immortality. In the Kurosawa and Sturges films, however, though some warriors survive the climax  there is nonetheless a more melancholy feeling following the final battle. Specifically, there is acknowledgment from the samurai/gunfighters that they did not actually win the war. Rather the farmers/villagers won…because their homes are saved and their lives can continue as before. Without such a place to call home, the warriors are not the real winners, for they still must wander the landscape and seek employment, not to mention real human connection.

In a very real sense, then, Battle Beyond the Stars effectively “preys” on the earlier incarnations of the Kurosawa story and Star Wars, down to many important details.  We get the set-up of Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven and the unclouded happy ending of the Lucas film.  I should add, as well, that the film opens with the famous Star Wars shot: a gigantic spaceship passing in front of the camera for what seems an eternity.  In this case, however, the Malmori warship cruises towards us, and then banks sharply, as if taking a hard turn.

Casting is another arena in which we can see Sayles, Corman and Murakami "preying" on previous movie forms. Robert Vaughn, playing Gelt, virtually reprises his famous role as Lee in The Magnificent Seven: that of a world-weary and lonely soldier of fortune who just wants a good night’s sleep and a hot meal. His performance is actually my favorite in Battle Beyond the Stars because it so clearly and blatantly harks back to one of the space opera's earthbound models.

If the character of Gelt and Vaughn's presence serve as a direct reflection of  one movie tradition that gave rise to Battle Beyond the Stars, then Cowboy (Peppard) is the audience's other point of easy identification.  Not only is he a native of Earth, but a movie fan himself.  He offers to show Shad some old movies (Westerns) at one point, and during what seems a hopeless battle even croaks "Remember the Alamo!"  Again, these are highly self-reflexive touches.  In a space movie based on a Western (based on Kurosawa's film...), we actually meet a cowboy who is a movie lover and who knows all the genre's rules and details.  That's important, since he finds himself living a Western transplanted to the final frontier.

The "forms must prey on other forms to survive" conceit here is also ingrained in the actual text of the film.  Not just in "meta" or post-modern references to earlier cinematic incarnations of the tale or in clever casting decisions, either, but in bedrock character traits.

For instance, Sador and the Malmori clearly prey on other forms to survive, both in terms of literal strategy and personal choices. Sador’s hammerhead warship travels from solar system to solar system, taking what the Malmori want and need. And on an individual level, Sador actually steals replacement body parts from other forms to prolong his physical existence. Late in Battle Beyond the Stars, we see him undergo replacement surgery in which he gets a new arm; one that formerly belonged to one of the Nestor.  Clearly then, Sador believes in "preying" on others to survive.

So, story wise Battle Beyond the Stars preys on the movies of the past (Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven and Star Wars) in order to cobble together-- Frankenstein-like -- a new and fresh original. The movie never feels like an incoherent hodgepodge, however, for two critical reasons.

First, and perhaps most importantly, the film's production design is both impressive and distinctive. Every world and alien race in the film merits its own individual look and lighting scheme. This visual facet lends Battle Beyond the Stars a veneer of verisimilitude, or at least cohesion.


In many films made today, we absolutely expect different worlds to bear different and distinctive looks, but we must remember that this is a low budget film of the year 1980.

To see how it could have been done – and poorly at that – one need only gaze at such contemporaries to Battle Beyond the Stars as the equally star-spanning Galaxina (1980).   That movie featured Western elements and otherworldly components, but came off as a cheap space western stranded on a studio back lot.

Not so here. For instance, Sador’s colossal control room is eternally bathed in a palette of cold blue light, perfectly befitting his callous, monstrous nature. And the Malmori ships have the grotesque, monstrous look of space lizards...frogs, perhaps.  There's a real icy, reptilian feel to the Malmori in Battle Beyond the Stars, and it's a result of how the characters are lit; and the way their technology is designed and presented.

On the planet Akir, we see something else.  The villagers all dress in muted shades of Earth-tones, and their homes seem to have grown right out of the ground as if terrestrial trees, or perhaps shells. The visual take-away is that the Akir are literally “grounded” people; ones who derive their strength and power from their sense of community and nature. Everything they have originates with their lifestyle, which is a strength in terms of spirituality but a weakness in terms of practical self-defense.  Again, think of the villagers or townspeople -- salt of the Earth-types -- in the earlier films.  The matte-paintings and visualizations of Akir suggest the same thing of this alien race.

The Nestor are another fine example of this high concept production/art design approach. They are highly advanced creatures who share one consciousness.  Everything from the Nestor costuming  to their control panels is white-on-white perfection, a kind of immaculate look for an immaculate, advanced mind, and one which, incidentally, also allows for the makers of the film to create a little Close Encounters-styled action, since the Nestor ship looks like a radiant white flying saucer or UFO.

You can apply this sense of cohesion of approach even as far as Hephaestus Station. This is a virtually abandoned world in which machines have been forced to cannibalize themselves over the years to continue functioning. Nanelia’s job, actually, is one of constant repair…but without fresh resources. The station miniature itself, as well Dr. Hephaestus's "costume," successfully evoke the idea of a world of no spare parts; one where every scrap of metal and circuitry is harnessed to keep the machines “living.”

The spaceship designs in Battle Beyond the Stars are truly wonderful and original too. Sador commands that vast “hammerhead” warship, and a hammer is a perfect symbol for this villain. His approach is literally to smash or bludgeon his opponents into submission. The frog fighters and Nestor ships I mentioned above, but Gelt too flies a wicked looking, sleek fighter that reflects his direct, no-frills approach to combat. Cowboy’s spaceship is also wonderful a kind of space-going junk-heap or pick-up truck with a Confederate flag decorating one side of the hull. Exactly what you’d expect from a space-going loner and throwback.

The most unique and awesome spaceship design in the film, however,  belongs to Nell. She’s the former property of Zed, and one of the few starships in motion picture history to actually feature breasts and nipples as hull formations.

In Star Trek, the Enterprise is frequently referred to as a "she" or as "her," but Nell makes the connection to the feminine...well, literal.  Nell is clearly a woman in spirit and mind, so the film goes one more step and makes her a female in form or body too, equipping her with large breasts as well as two familiar, up swept nacelles.

Without going too much into as dry a subject as sex roles in Battle Beyond the Stars, it is very intriguing that so many of the most exciting characters in the film are women. Nanelia is a brilliant thinker, St. Exmin a warrior for the history books, and Nell a loyal and devoted friend and also shelter. They each form a critical part of Akir’s defense along with the steadfast Lux, and in this fashion Corman's pastiche does “evolve” beyond the men-as-warrior stereotypes of the earlier films. This is an equal opportunity battle, and so much the better.

The second critical reason that Battle Beyond the Stars doesn't feel like a hodgepodge but rather a unified vision involves the characters' frequent and dramatic recitation of “The Varda,” the Akiran’s spiritual guide. In our culture, many of us would say something like, “the Bible tells us that...,” but in the future world of this film, it is “The Varda” that instructs and offers many insights and words of wisdom. “To fight creatures of violence, you must use creatures of violence. “The Varda says we can take life to save life.” “That which is not organic must not harm that which is,” and so forth.

What the Varda gives the film, impressively, is a strong sense of the Akiran people’s morality. They aren’t stupid peaceniks for the sake of dogmatic ideology, and they aren’t belligerent war mongers, either. They have simply found a way of life that works for them, and which answers for them the many questions of existence and “how to live” best.

In providing the people of Akir this philosophy or guide, Sayles’ script permits the audience to see how valuable the culture is, and what would be lost forever under Sador’s domination. Varda is akin to karma, or something like it, and it is the belief system that grounds and guides Shad through his adventures. We understand how the Varda concerns balance in all things, and helps one maintain composure in times of strife.  The application of the philosophies of The Varda grant Battle Beyond the Stars a strong sense of heart.  We understand, intrinsically, what powers the Akiran people; what they hold onto when times are difficult.

Another human, funny and oddly touching moment in Battle Beyond the Stars involves Sador’s realization that he has lost the war...and his life. He cries out – disappointed – that he will not "live forever." It’s as though Sador has never given consideration to the fact that he could lose a battle. And given his history, as the movie describes it, we can’t blame him. Sador, it is said, never quits and never loses.

Well, all good things come to an end, and all bad things too. But Sador’s strangely innocent and petulant death cry makes the Malmori  warlord oddly sympathetic and easy for us to relate to. Unlike the Akir and their Varda, Sador has no sense of balance or grounding except in conquest. He flies around space with his “hammer,” the Stellar Converter, and bends other worlds to his will. Why? Because he fears death -- as all of us do -- and constantly must take more from others so as to live more. He is a great villain, and the film’s spokesman for an anti-Varda philosophy, certainly.


Even back in 1980, it was clear that Battle Beyond the Stars special effects were a step down from what we saw in Star Wars three years earlier.

Many shots (particularly of the frog fighter ships) are repeated too frequently, and there isn’t as much ship-to-ship interaction in the battle sequences as one might prefer. The sound-effects are direct cribs from Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and if you are fans of those shows, you will find this element of the movie extremely distracting.

Yet the battles are aggressively edited, and the detailed miniatures are glorious examples of a bygone art form. What makes the action seem truly epic in the film,  therefore, is the great, evocative score by Horner. The score – along with the general good humor of the film – carry the viewer away in a sense of excitement and fun when things occasionally get iffy.

One thing’s for certain: In the adventure-minded Battle Beyond the Stars, you’ll never suffer the fate that the Nestor fear so dramatically. You’ll never be “bored to death.”

Quite the opposite in fact. Watching this movie again today will likely bring out the kid in you, and make you wish for the Battle Beyond the Stars model kits, action figures and sequels that never arrived.

10 comments:

  1. Odd set of coincidences: a few weeks ago, I watched "Battle" again for the first time in a year or so. Still silly, still cheesy, still fun.

    A week or so after that, my wife and I went to a birthday party for a friend, and we ended up seated across from our friend's wife's uncle, who was a distributor for B-movies throughout the Midwest from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. I mentioned that I had just watched "Battle" -- he rolled his eyes, groaned and smiled. "That's one of my favorites! But I find people either really love that movie, or really hate it!"

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  2. Man, I havent' seen this movie in years. But it was one of my favorites when I was a kid. I need to check it out again.

    I'm glad you mentioned Horner's score, because it is a lot of fun. I still remembered the theme long after I'd forgotten points of the movie. Corman would end up recycling this score for many of his low budget fantasy films, like the "Deathstalker" series. Horner's work on this, "Krull" and "Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan" are still some of my favorite work by the composer, even if they are all really similar in sound and feel.

    Ah, Sybil Danning. Between this film and her wicked vampy performance in the Ferrigno version of "Hercules" she was probably the first crush on an actress I ever had. I've had a thing for Amazons ever since. ;)

    Thanks for the review and bringing back some great memories. I'll have to see if I can find a copy of this flick.

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  3. So much fun this one is. Kudos to the witty script that John Sayles put together, and the original, different look the production team gave us.

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  4. My father exposed me to this one years ago, and it makes me smile just thinking about it. I've always been partial to the exchange between the Nestor and Cowboy regarding the hot dog, and more than once I've heard the '... swift rain is little rain...' proverb echo through my head. I had no idea this was bound for a disc release finally. Outstanding news!

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  5. I have always enjoyed this movie. The script is sharp and features a great sense of humor.I love how Cowboy roasts the hot dogs on the little thermal aliens.

    I was always impressed by the fact the special effects were created in a garage for an almost non existent budget. I miss this type of movie making.

    You mentioned this movie is finally coming out on DVD and Blu but I have had it on DVD for years?

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  6. I seem to remember that even the genre press was pretty dismissive of this film at the time, largely because its debt to The Seven Samurai via The Magnificent Seven meant it wasn't 'proper' SF. Somehow I've never got around to seeing it, but thanks to this review I'll make sure I do. Good that it's finally getting a BD/DVD release.

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  7. Anonymous7:11 AM

    I have always loved this film, and it retains a warm place with me today. I can remember a network (NBC?) showing it (back when network showings of movies were events) and getting excited for the hype and promos. It was one of the early examples for me of a space western, and I know it was what introduced me to the Magnificent 7/Seven Samurai storytelling template.
    The _Psychotronic_ praised this over George Lucas' work for being so fun and over the top.

    Thanks,
    Hugh

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  8. Anonymous4:28 AM

    Always a personal favorite of mine. For such a low-budget production I'm always impressed with how entertaining this is. It looks a lot more expensive than it was. It looks great on blu-ray too - it's proudly sitting on my shelf amongst my other favorites. A must-own for any 80's sci-fi fan. Great write-up and interesting commentary as usual.

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  9. Another one of your sharp and insightful analyses, sir. I saw Battle Beyond the Stars when it arrived in theatres, and I enjoyed it very much. I rewatched the film last year and liked it more than ever; my only criticsm would be that there are way too many spaceship battles.

    "... and there isn’t as much ship-to-ship interaction in the battle sequences as one might prefer." Please, no. I address that issue, briefly, here: http://barrysmight.blogspot.ca/2013/05/my-favourite-treks-batch-1.html

    Exec/Producer Roger Corman scored with Battle Beyond the Stars.

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  10. Anonymous4:21 PM

    It may look a television movie from Glen A. Larson, but it is still an enjoyable space opera fantasy adventure. One that grossed over the $9 Million dollar mark after its opening weekend, there by making this film the most successful of Roger Corman's films.

    Like Roy Batty's final dialogue in Blade Runner(WB, 1982), Shad's dialogue in the end was very moving and spiritual.

    For fans of the classic space opera fantasy, there is a prequel comic book called Battle Amongst The Stars. It involves a young version of Zed and his adventures with Nell. Plus, a young Sador of the Malmori.

    Check it out. It's really cool.

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