Home Video Hovel: Battle Beyond the Stars
There’s a certain art to making low-budget films. It’s very easy to not know what you’re doing and make utter garbage, but occasionally something remarkably enjoyable can come out of it. Roger Corman has made a very long and lucrative career of straddling the line between sucky and sublime by producing exploitation gems like Death Race 2000 and the original Little Shop of Horrors. Today he produces a lot of those laughable SyFy (nee, Sci-Fi) Channel outings such as Dinocroc, Supergator, Dinocroc vs. Supergator, and the nefarious Sharktopus. However, in the late 1970s, to try to capitalize on the public’s love of Star Wars, Roger Corman funded his most ambitious and most expensive to date, the sweeping space opera, Battle Beyond the Stars. Costing somewhere between $2 and $3.5 Million, depending on which report you read, Battle Beyond the Stars was Corman’s unabashed attempt to cash-in on George Lucas’ success by making what he described as “The Seven Samurai in outer space.”
The quiet farming planet of Akir (a none-too-subtle homage to Akira Kurosawa) is suddenly under siege by the evil conqueror Sador (John Saxon), a villain who tries to achieve immortality by harvesting body parts from other species and grafting them onto himself time and again. He tells the peaceful Akira that they have one week to agree to his terms or the entire planet will be obliterated by his Stellar Converter, a beam powerful enough to make a planet go supernova. As Akir has no weapons or people who know how to use them, one brave young boy, Shad (Richard Thomas), volunteers to go out into the cosmos and find some help. He gets aboard Nell, the living ship that resembles the form of a human female (there are even breasts on it…seriously) and the two go off to find help.
Shad’s first stop is to a space station to get weapons from brilliant Dr. Hephaestus only to find that he’s now just a head attached to machinery and the base is completely populated by androids. The doctor wants Shad to marry his beautiful daughter Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel), who is in charge of keeping the androids running smoothly. While this doesn’t seem like too bad a prospect, Shad does insist on leaving to save his people and persuades Nanelia to come with him. Together they recruit a ragtag bunch from all over the universe including the universe’s most famous, and most wanted, assassin (Robert Vaughn), a busty, war-hungry Valkyrie (Sybil Danning), a reptilian smuggler (Morgan Woodward), and a space cowboy named, fittingly, Space Cowboy (George Peppard). Together, the ships all return to Akir to aid the poor people and stop Sador once and for all.
It’s an incredibly simple story, in fact one that’s been told several times, but for within its basic frame there’s room for some fun and interesting characters and adventures. I have a very warm place in my heart for B-movie science fiction so I was likely to enjoy Battle Beyond the Stars anyway, but I was really surprised at how much I liked it. It’s a script that doesn’t take itself too seriously and the cast has their tongue planted firmly in their cheeks the whole time. They all know what kind of movie they’re making and they’re having fun. There are a number of references to other movies peppered throughout, not the least of which is Robert Vaughn playing a futuristic version of the character he played in The Magnificent Seven, another film based on Kurosawa’s epic.
Corman was a master of getting new and untested talent together to work on his films on the cheap and this film is a pinnacle. Directing the film was Jimmy T. Murakami, who had never directed before but had been an animator and art director. The script was written by John Sayles, the score was composed by a very young James Horner, and the art director/special effects supervisor was none other than the director of Piranha, James Cameron, whose contribution cannot be overstated. A huge part of why the film works is the look of it. The special effects shots, comprised of models in the same vein as Star Wars, look spectacular and the only way you’d tell it was a low-budget affair is by counting the number of times shots are repeated (some up to five times). The sets and costumes are similarly very rich and lived in and you don’t really notice that it’s basically just egg and milk crates glued to the wall. Cameron and co get the most out of the very limited funds they had and create effects that, I think, still hold up today.
Where the film falters is, interestingly, in its brevity. It’s a brisk 104 minutes and for a movie that introduces so many characters, they aren’t really given a chance to grow like they should. And when each of the mercenaries meets their inevitable end, they all seem to happen in pretty rapid succession and not for any particular reason. This might have to do with Sayle’s original script being 165 pages and having to scale it back to fit the budget. These things aside, Battle Beyond the Stars is an immensely fun B picture and one that deserves the attention that a 30th Anniversary DVD might bring. And in case you’re interested, Roger Corman’s $3-ish Million investment earned just over $14 Million domestically. Not too shabby.
The DVD is a pretty piece of work, in keeping with the always stellar work of Shout Factory. There’s a new anamorphic widescreen transfer and a new 5.1 surround sound mix, making this little movie look and sound fantastic at home. The extras are also pretty great. There are two commentary tracks, one featuring Roger Corman and writer John Sayles. This is a fun, lively track with the two veterans talking about not only the making of this movie, but little anecdotes about making low-budget movies in the 80s together. A lot of great stories for fans of film in general. The second track is by Terminator producer Gale Anne Hurd who acted as assistant production manager on this film. Hurd has some great stories about the ins and outs of making the film and some musings about her career as it relates to Roger Corman, though too often if feels like she’s answering a question we can’t hear which can be somewhat annoying. There are trailers, TV spots, and radio ads as well, which are only ever fun to watch once, and production stills, which I never think are particularly interesting.
There are two great featurettes on the disc as well. The first is “The Man Who Would Be Shad,” though onscreen it’s called “His Name Was Shad.” This is a 15-minute interview with star Richard Thomas about his career and the making of the film. Thomas has nothing but love for the movie and his glee at being involved in it is palpable. He also gives one of my favorite anecdotes where on his first day he saw the big set they were working on and said to Roger Corman’s assistant, “I sure hope this makes money,” to which the assistant replied, “Oh, Mr. Corman wouldn’t do it if it didn’t make money.” The second is a 33-minute documentary entitled “Space Opera on a Shoestring,” though, again, onscreen it’s called “Shoestring Space Opera.” This is a talking-heads retrospective on the film featuring some of the other special effects workers and the two editors. This is a fascinating look at what it’s like to work on a Roger Corman movie. They have some enlightening stories about James Cameron who even then was somewhat of a tyrant and they also recall “12 year old” James Horner’s wide-eyed exuberance when watching the film for the first time. There’s plenty of Corman stories, too, including one where, after the production had gone over budget again, the money-savvy producer marched onto set, ripped pages out of the script at random, fired three people, and marched off again.
In a genre that ranges from Star Trek to Space Mutiny, Battle Beyond the Stars certainly belongs in the upper category. There’s an awful lot to like in it and it never gets boring, and even when a weak moment comes up, it never lasts too long, and that’s really all you can ask. As far as the DVD is concerned, it’s a definite recommendation as, again, Shout Factory have released a special edition worthy of the word special.