If you like second rate Star Wars knock-offs more than Star Wars itself, Battle Beyond The Stars is the film for you! For this 1980 space extravaganza Roger Corman followed George Lucas’ lead, swiping from mythology, westerns, and samurai films. While Star Wars was influenced by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, Battle Beyond The Stars blatantly rewrites the director’s The Seven Samurai as well as its western re-imagining The Magnificent Seven. Corman adds a layer of cheap sleaziness that makes the film both bizarre and mesmerizing. If you stayed up all night drinking Smirnoff Ice and watching The Empire Strikes Back, Battle Beyond The Stars is the nightmare you would have.
Like a lot of Corman’s films, Battle Beyond The Stars was a starting point for future film luminaries. James Cameron (Avatar) designed the beautiful, incredibly detailed models. Composer James Horner would go on to score over a hundred more films, including three for Cameron. Assistant Production Manager Gale Anne Hurd went on to a successful career producing many films including Cameron’s Terminator, Aliens and The Abyss. Screenwriter John Sayles has become a legendary independent filmmaker, scoring Oscar nominations for his films Lone Star and Passion Fish.
But before all that we have Battle Beyond The Stars.
Our story centers on the unfortunately named Shad (not quite Chad, not quite Shit) from the planet Akir. Being pacifists, the Akira are left with little recourse when Sador (the awesome John Saxon) and his team of butt-faced mutants threaten to destroy Akir in seven days. (While it’s obvious that the Akira are named after Kurosawa, it’s unclear whether their religion, “The Varda,” is named after New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda. But I digress.)
Poor man’s Luke Skywalker that he is, Shad (Richard “John-Boy Walton” Thomas) leaves Akir in search of mercenaries to defend the planet. Shad’s ship Nell is one of the more unique spaceships in science-fiction film, looking like a buxom flying slug and voiced by Lynn Carlin (Faces) with a sassy femputer personality. On the audio commentary Corman repeatedly calls the ship “Mother.” What this says about him and his relationship with his mother I’d rather not know.
Shad’s first stop is the space station of weapons manufacturer Dr. Hephaestus. Those who know their Greek mythology will remember that Hephaestus was the crippled god of manufacturing. Our Hephaestus is a disembodied head sticking out of a steam cabinet living alone with his daughter on a space station full of androids. He imprisons Shad in an attempt at forcing him to mate with his sheltered daughter Nanelia (kinky shades of A Boy And His Dog). But Shad quickly wins Nanelia’s heart and the two escape to search for more recruits.
And what recruits they find! You’ve got Cayman of The Lambda Zone, a lizard man seeking revenge on Sador for wiping out his race, the Kelvin, two small aliens who speak in degrees of heat, the silent Quopeg who looks like John Ritter’s gladiatorial brother and Nestor, five psychically linked clones from a planet of many more psychically linked clones. Nestor looks like Gary Oldman’s old man Dracula painted white and talks like KITT from Knight Rider.
There is Saint-Exmin of The Valkyrie, a busty warrior looking to prove herself in battle. Her costumes combine the best of Norse mythology and heavy metal cover art, making it seems like she sprung to life from the side of a painted 1970’s VW van. As Saint-Exmin, Sybil Danning gets incredible lines like “I could do wonders for that boy! I would tingle, dingle, dangle, prangle his transistors! You know? Sex!” Interestingly, Danning starred in another Seven Samurai remake, 1983’s The Seven Magnificent Gladiators.
Robert Vaughan plays Gelt, a retired space assassin hiding out on a deserted planet from a galaxy that wants him dead. Gelt is a science-fiction retooling of Vaughan’s character Lee from The Magnificent Seven. Vaughan is brilliant, playing Gelt with a stoic sadness as he intones lines like, “I eat serpent seven times a week.”
But Battle Beyond The Stars‘ greatest character is George Peppard’s Space Cowboy, a harmonica playing, hot dog eating, scotch and soda drinking, interstellar trucker. But that’s not all! Upon meeting Shad, Space Cowboy proudly declares, “I have the greatest collection of old westerns!” Heathcliff Huxtable, eat your heart out! Oh, and did I mention that his belt dispenses scotch, soda and ice? Well, it does!
One thing that stands out in this film is the way our heroes are motivated by loneliness and isolation rather than, say, heroism, bravery or reward. Cayman is the last of his race, Nanelia has never ventured outside her father’s space station, Saint-Exmin needs to prove herself in battle to be accepted by her people. Nestor says about his home world, “there is only one consciousness. As you might imagine, this has proven very lonely and very dull.” Gelt is haunted by a life of violence and hunted by those seeking revenge. Our heroes join this fight wanting nothing more than the feeling of inclusion.
And so, the battle begins! It’s filled with blood and violence, quiet moments of reflection, ridiculous space weapons, the blossoming of young love and fantastic, over the top, pathos-fueled death scenes. Our dead heroes won’t come back as smiling blue holograms. All the film gives us is a saying from The Varda: “No life-force is ended until all the lives that it has touched have ended, until all the good that it has done is gone.” Corny? Perhaps. But I think it’s a pretty deep thought. Especially in a film that also features the line, “Quopeg! Cut the Zime loose! We cruise for Akir!”
Jacob Steingroot is a film editor, illustrator and trivia champion. He has an undeniable love for vinyl records and out of print VHS tapes. His artwork can be seen at www.catsaregrey.com.