Thursday, May 4, 2017

Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

Evil space overlord Sador (John Saxon) and his gang of mutants pop in at a tiny, pacifist farming community on an otherwise empty planet to announce the place, or rather its harvest, now belongs to him. He’ll get back once harvesting time has come; to prove his commitment to being evil, he lasers down some random farmer with his ship. After some discussion, the community decides to attempt and hire some mercenaries to protect them.

Spirited young Shad (Richard Thomas) sets out in the old ship of Zed (Jeff Corey) the only of his people who ever went out on space adventures to find help. During his own space adventures Shad manages to get together a team of seven (plus some additions that don’t count for my calculation) – shall we call them magnificent seven? There’s space trucker Space Cowboy (George Peppard), computer expert and professional love interest Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel), space Valkyrie and wearer of very little clothing St. Exmin (Sybil Danning), hive-minded psi clones Nestor (Earl Boen, John Gowans and others), reptilian space whaler, opportunist slaver and Sador-hater Cayman (Morgan Woodward), and last but not least professional (space) killer Gelt (Robert Vaughan, pretty much reprising his role from The Magnificent Seven). Together, they just might beat Sador. Perhaps, there’ll even be some of them left to tell the tale afterwards.

Revisiting childhood favourites can become a bit of a drag, but I can happily report that the Corman-produced Battle Beyond the Stars is even more fun than I remembered it to be. As a grown-up (so-called), I can now understand quite a few more of the jokes and imaginative asides of John Sayles’s wonderful script which only improves the sense of fun, wonder and adventure of the film.

On paper, an attempt to get at some of that sweet, sweet, Star Wars money while also ripping off the structure and plot of Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven might sound like a dreary exercise. In practice, however, the film perfectly hits the tone, the bizarre imagination and the general craziness of classic space opera, working from a script that is perfectly conscious of the utter silliness of the whole proceedings but it also wallowing in it with great delight. Sayles’s script isn’t just funny but also packs in so many ideas ripped right from the SF pulps of the space opera persuasion it at times, particularly in the film’s first hour, feels as if he got paid by the idea, turning the film’s outer space into exactly the kind of weird and wacky wonderland it should be in this sort of film.

The rest of the people involved under director Jimmy T. Murakami certainly got into the same spirit. The space ship miniatures (art design in part by a young James Cameron) and other effects designs certainly suggest that Corman told his people to get as close to the Star Wars (and sometimes Westworld and so on) style as possible without getting sued, but the designs are also genuinely wonderful, putting all the strange beauty of 70s SF paperback covers right on screen, and that in often surprisingly – given the budget - accomplished effect sequences. The matte paintings are incredibly gorgeous, the costume design looks as if the clothes from all old SF movies and shows had gotten together and made babies, and the creature design is high pulp. There’s a good reason beyond his legendary stinginess why Corman would go on to use effects shots from the film in quite a few other productions during the next ten years or so.

Add to this box of the delights the inspired cast (John Boy Walton as Luke Skywalker! Sybil Danning’s breasts as Sybil Danning’s breasts! Robert Vaughan, the killer in space! And so on!), giving just the right kinds of performances – with John Saxon then eating them, the scenery, and probably our mothers, all up – and Sayles’s incredibly fun script, and you have yourself a film with all the feverish ideas of classic pulps, more subversive intelligence than the pulps ever dreamed of having, and just a whole load of beauty to satisfy everybody’s inner child, while keeping the outer grown-up at peace.

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