When Star Wars exploded on movie screens in 1977, it elevated sci-fi out of the low-budget B-movie ghetto in a way that 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes had tried to do and didn’t quite achieve. While those two films had the spectacular visuals, humanist allegories, and deep thoughts about the meaning of man, they lacked the slam-bang action of a great 1940s Flash Gordon movie. Star Wars showed that people would go for big dumb fun, and the race was on for the next one. In the years that followed, many studios attempted to join the “Me Too” Chorus, with Star Trek grabbing the high-end market and the original Battlestar Galactica locking up the TV audience. The low end was filled with cheesy movies featuring clumsy alien make-up and iffy blue-screen effects. 30-odd years later, one movie stands above them all as the greatest film in the crowded “cheap Star Wars knockoff” genre: Battle Beyond the Stars.
Roger Corman had established himself as the king of the quicky drive-in movie decades earlier (this is, after all, the guy who literally wrote and shot Little Shop of Horrors over a weekend because he had already paid to rent the set for a different movie and decided to squeeze out a second film with the same cast and costumes), but after Star Wars, he saw an opportunity to aim a little higher. He decided to finally break the $1 million budget line and make a space extravaganza.
Following Wally Wood’s dictum, “never create something you can steal,” Corman and screenwriter John Sayles decided to lift the plot of The Magnificent Seven (which had lifted the plot of The Seven Samurai) and move it to space. As a wink to those who pay attention, the residents of the planet Akir are called the Akira, in honor of filmmaker Akira Kurosawa.
When scenery-chewing bad guy Sador (John Saxon) demands all the natural resources of Akir, noble young farmer John-Boy Walton, er, I mean Shad (Richard Thomas) decides to take off and search out mercenaries he can hire to protect the planet. Naturally, since the truly great never steal from only one source, John-Boy and Nell, his sexy lady spaceship (seriously, the thing looks like a flying female torso and sounds like a phone-sex operator), immediately run right into the High Lama of Shangri-La from Lost Horizon, played by the same guy, 99-year-old Sam Jaffe, who looked old in 1937. Sam wants grandkids to populate his desolate space-station, so he’s going to capture John-Boy and make him “procreate” with his daughter Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel). Nan’s not having any, though, and runs away with Shad. They go on to recruit Gelt (Robert Vaughn), a notorious gunslinger for hire who is wanted in all known civilizations; Cowboy (George Peppard), a perpetually-drunk space trucker hauling a load of weapons; a bunch of clones named Nestor; a lizard-man named Cayman of the Lambda Zone, his slaves, the Kelvin (little people who communicate by radiating heat); and a Valkyrie warrior named Saint-Exmin (Sybil Danning) who single-handedly earns the film its PG rating (PG-13 didn’t exist yet) with her strategically-almost-revealing costume. Space battles and hijinks ensue.
Corman was famous for running a very tight crew, with everyone expected to do whatever was necessary to get the movie done. He’s pretty much the patron saint of independent film. On BBTS, Corman had hired a young would-be filmmaker by the name of James Cameron as a model-maker in his shop. Cameron was assigned to assist with camera rigging on this film, but after the art director was fired, Cameron moved up to become the de facto art director and production designer. This was his big break in the movies, which he got because Gale Anne Hurd, who would later be his wife for a while, was working for Corman and recommended him for the art department.
Another soon-to-be-big name that emerged from BBTS was the film’s composer, James Horner, who had only scored one movie before this one, Humanoids from the Deep. Many of the themes and motifs that Horner later incorporated in other films like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan first show up in his BBTS score.
The film’s director was Jimmy T. Murakami, who was better known as an animator. Among other achievements, Murakami produced the original run of the animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV series.
Leaving aside the many not-yet-famous people behind the scenes, and the many almost famous or once-famous people in front of the camera, what makes Battle Beyond the Stars the genre classic that it is? I think the best way to put it is to say it was better than it needed to be. With a high concept and a low budget, the movie just needed to be reasonably entertaining and true to the core of the Seven Samurai story. As long as at least a few of the key emotional beats are there, the movie will work, and the producers far surpassed that baseline, adding a lot of charm along the way. By throwing in winking references to other pop culture landmarks (Marta Kristen, the older sister on Lost in Space, shows up in a key role as one of the Akira) and hanging a lampshade on most of the biggest tropes (casting Robert Vaughan as exactly the same character he played in Magnificent Seven), the filmmakers were able to rise above the cheese, and in the process, elevate the film. Even though the ship’s corridors are constructed of spray-painted McDonalds take-out containers, the movie doesn’t look especially cheap. Every dollar of the budget is on the screen, most of them used pretty effectively. Cameron manages some pretty good effects within the constraints he was given, especially considering that computer effects were still a few years in the future.
What really does it are the subtle little throwaway gags, the clever banter, the chemistry of the actors, and the willingness to wander off into mostly unrelated side stories like Cayman’s previous encounter with Sador or Saint-Exmin’s battle philosophy or Nanelia’s father’s creepy agenda, all of which add depth to the characters, who could have been cardboard cutouts in the hands of a less talented screenwriter. This is a movie that rewards you for paying attention, such as the quick silent shot of the heroes sitting around toasting marshmallows over the heat-radiating heads of the Kelvin.
Is it an important movie? Nope. Is it a great movie? Maybe, depending on how you define your terms and what you consider greatness. Corman was smart enough to know he couldn’t compete with Star Wars in the area of dazzling space battles, but he knew he could create engaging characters on a budget, and he did. The sheer imagination exhibited in the motley crew of could-be world-savers is impressive, and the characters are memorable.
One of the more common traps that indie filmmakers fall into is overreaching, writing a big script that their resources can’t support. John Sayles is known for tailoring his script to his budget. He brought that frugality to Battle Beyond the Stars, carefully writing around the biggest expenses. Most of the better-known stars only appear in a limited number of scenes, carefully spread throughout the film but most likely shot in a short time to keep salaries down. The film is a master class in how to squeeze the most out of a budget. Many of the spaceship models and scenes were later recycled in other Corman productions, including running on a TV in the background in Tom Hanks’ breakout film, Bachelor Party. Even though this was Corman’s most expensive movie (it cost a whopping $5 million), it was still a lean enough production to pretty much guarantee a profit.
Today, Corman is lauded for having launched the careers of directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, and the aforementioned Cameron, and is rightly regarded as one of the most influential producers in Hollywood history. Battle Beyond the Stars is a clear demonstration of his skill. It’s cheese, but it’s damn fine cheese.