Battle Beyond The Stars (1980) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Beyond time, beyond space, beyond comprehension!

Roger Corman returns to the roots of science-fiction with the low-budget Battle Beyond the Stars which served as an early start for several successful filmmakers and has achieved a cult following. It is also the most blatant attempt to capitalize on the success of the Star Wars films to date.

First Impressions

Battle Beyond the Stars looks like a combination of Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and a Western. Lots of special effects shots in the trailer and little of the actors doesn’t seem to bode well for the content of the film however. It has a B-list cast including Richard Thomas (The Waltons), George Peppard (The A-Team), Richard Vaughn, and John Saxon, plus tons of spaceships, laser fights, and aliens. Ready to learn why the battle is beyond the stars?

Presented below is the trailer for the film.


Sci-Fi Saturdays

Battle Beyond The Stars

Battle Beyond The Stars title card.

The Fiction of The Film

A giant spaceship appears over the planet Akir, commanded by the evil Malmorian, Sador (John Saxon), who demands payment of the poor farmers within “seven risings” or he will unleash his stellar converter, the most powerful weapon in the universe. (The film already seems extremely familiar.) The farmers have no weapons so young Shad (Richard Thomas) volunteers to travel into space on Zed’s Corsair, named Nell, a sentient AI powered spacecraft. Zed (Jeff Corey), once a great warrior but now old and blind, directs Shad towards Dr. Hephaestus in the Phoenix Cluster to get weapons and mercenaries.

As Shad flies away from Akir, he is attacked by a Malmori fighter but refuses to fire upon it, as that is not the way of the Varda. He arrives at Hephaestus’s space station to find it entirely populated with androids, except for the doctor’s daughter Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel). Hephaestus (Sam Jaffe), who is now just a head mounted on a robotic body, want’s Shad to stay and mate with Nanelia, but he escapes and Nanelia follows having never experienced life outside the station. Elsewhere, Sador revisits the planet Umateal to collect his payment, but is rebuffed. He uses his stellar converter to turn the planet into a star.

Shad continues on his quest, sending Nanelia and her ship into the Lambda Zone where she is attacked by a creature made of light called a zime. Luckily she and her ship are saved by Cayman (Morgan Woodward), a reptiloid Lazuli, and the last of his species. He is crewed with a pair of Kelvins that communicate in heat, and a barbarian looking man named Quopeg (Steve Davis). Meanwhile Shad meets, and saves, a long-haul space trucker named Cowboy (George Peppard) who is under attack. Cowboy is hauling weapons for Umateal, which no longer needs them and offers his wares and help to Shad.

Battle Beyond The Stars

Sador’s giant ship (The Hammerhead) appears in the sky above Akir’s only town.

Shad’s trips allow him to meet with Nestor (Earl Boen and others), a group of five clones, that share a hive mind who pilots a glowing saucer shaped craft, and Gelt (Robert Vaughn), a mercenary who is hiding on a deserted planet with his riches because his success has made him the most sought after criminal in the galaxy. On their way back to Akir, Nell is followed by another, smaller and annoying ship. It is piloted by St. Exmin of the Valkiri (Sybil Danning) who wants to join the mission, but Shad sends her away. She follows his group regardless.

Back on Akir, the Akira ready their planet for the coming of Sador, digging ditches with sonic vibrations and handing out weapons. Nanelia explains the weakness of Sador’s cruiser: mainly that his force field must be lowered in order to fire the weapon. She then approaches Shad to ask about mating and kissing, before they do (kiss, that is). The hired mercenaries take flight and begin attacking Zador and his Malmori ships individually. Shad is fired on by nuclear missiles and manages to trick them into flying into Sador’s engine while Gelt crash lands after being hit and dies shortly after.

One of the Nestor volunteers to be captured thinking they can get information from the hive mind. He is quickly killed while Sador’s army invades the planet killing Zed and others. One by one the other ships are destroyed by Sador (blowing up the Nestor ship) or on purpose, like St. Exmin luring fighters in close and blowing herself up. With Cowboy dead as well, Shad takes damage which cripples Nell. He navigates close to Sador’s ship so that Nell will be pulled in close, then he and Nanelia eject in a lifeboat just as Nell self-destructs, blowing up Sador’s ship.

While life exists, the possibilities are unlimited.” – Nestor

Battle Beyond The Stars

You can tell Sador is bad just by looking at him!

History in the Making

Battle Beyond the Stars is the most blatant reaction to the popularity of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, even more so than Battlestar Galactica, partially because nothing about the film is original. And originality is not just based on the space-opera aspects of the film, it goes much deeper than that. Anyone familiar with film history will instantly recognize the story of Battle Beyond the Stars as an adaptation of The Magnificent Seven, which itself is a western version of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, one of the most imitated and adapted films in all of cinema. It’s not that the plot is boring, as some adaptations of Seven Samurai can be fun and engaging (such as Pixar’s A Bug’s Life), but Battle Beyond the Stars is just so trite.

The most notable thing about the film, other than its cheesiness, is the number of Hollywood careers it helped launch. The film was written by a screenwriter that had worked with Roger Corman on both Piranha and The Lady in Red, John Sayles. Watching the film makes it hard to believe that Sayles would go on to become one of the best screenwriters of the 80s and 90s. His writing credits include an early draft of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, The Brother from Another Planet, Eight Men Out, and Passion Fish, plus numerous award nominations for his work. It’s obvious that Battle Beyond the Stars was just a job to Sayles, and not something he was passionate about.

But the biggest name to come from the production is future blockbuster director, James Cameron (The Terminator, Aliens, Avatar). Cameron was hired initially as a model maker, but being a low-budget Roger Corman production was soon put in charge of art direction, production design, and special effects supervision. Anyone knowing anything about Cameron’s work ethic immediately realizes that the special effects, the models, and the design of the sets are some of the best elements of the film, having a higher quality than might normally be associated with a production of this size and budget. This was also the film where Cameron met his future producing partner and wife, Gale Anne Hurd, who was an Assistant Production Manager.

Battle Beyond The Stars

Some of the exceptional model work by James Cameron and his team.

Genre-fication

In many instances Battle Beyond the Stars looks and acts like a sci-fi film, but doesn’t understand why it’s doing so. It has all the trappings of any other sci-fi space-opera from the time with space battles, laser fights, robots, aliens, and strange phrasings for English terms (“seven risings” instead of “seven days” and the like), but doesn’t integrate these elements cohesively into the larger film. The film takes the loose template of Seven Samurai and simply substitutes spaceships for horses, aliens for samurai, and laser pistols for swords without seemingly understanding why any of these elements work or matter.

Sayles’ script is also extremely overt and unapologetic in its nods and references. The planet is named Akir, and the people called the Akira–an obvious reference to Akira Kursosawa. The aliens that generate heat are called the Kelvin, after the temperature scale. The mercenary that loves money and treasure is named Gelt, which is the yiddish word for gold or money. And Cayman, a lizard looking creature, is named after the cayman, an alligator-like reptile. Just as observant viewers get done slapping their face for one of these references, another pops up, disconnecting them from the thin plot of the film. There truly seems like there was a checklist of gags and references that needed to be completed in order to ship this film. And the filmmakers put in every one.

Possibly one of the saving graces for any science fiction film of the time was the soundtrack, which could add a huge amount of cache to even a mediocre film. This score is obvious, in a good way, as one of James Horner’s early sci-fi compositions (so much so that Roger Corman reused the score for his 1985 film Wizards of the Lost Kingdom). Horner gained notoriety two years later with his score for Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan, as well as the music he composed for numerous James Cameron films including Aliens and the epic Titanic. Many of the notable cues of Horner’s music, specifically the french horns and brass section, is evident in the opening theme, and really give a spacey feel to the film before any action has occurred.

Battle Beyond The Stars

Nanelia is captured by Cayman and put in this precarious position.

Societal Commentary

Roger Corman films, and low-budget films in general, don’t often have elements that raise the film above a very superficial level. Battle Beyond the Stars toes that line as well, showcasing good versus evil, in as basic a context as Flash Gordon did. Sador is obviously evil because he does bad things, like blow up planets, while Shad is good because he refuses to indiscriminately kill ships that fire on him. The filmmakers also try to introduce a doctrine by which the Akira live by called the Varda, which appears to be an attempt at creating something like The Force from Star Wars. Unfortunately, there are various vague mentions of the Varda with no real cohesive framework. The only element mentioned twice, is the phrase that allows Shad to realize how to defeat Sador, by using “greater force against itself.”

And the other characters all teach basic lessons as well. Sador shows how hubris and just being a jerk can lead to getting vaporized just outside a planet’s atmosphere. Cowboy literally tells the audience that smoking is bad, while consuming a cigarette. Gelt shows that avarice, a thirst for killing, and having no principles can lead to a lonely and isolated life. St. Exmin depicts a needy character that wants to be greater than she is, but is finally able to succeed despite the criticism of others. While Cayman provides good on his promise of revenge after many years of hunting Sador. But all of this is all on a superficial level, which is about all you should expect from a film like this.

Battle Beyond The Stars

Shad, in his best Luke Skywalker on Bespin outfit, tries to figure out how to stop Sador and save his world.

The Science in The Fiction

The tropes of science-fiction, as mentioned earlier, are all used here superficially and poorly. While good sci-fi stories use real-world science to help enhance some of the more outlandish aspects of their plot, Battle Beyond the Stars just puts things together because they sound science-fictiony, and don’t require a lot of extra explanations. The stellar converter is the main conceit in this category. It’s probably safe to say that turning random planets into new stars is not a great idea, but there’s little cause for alarm in this universe. The film also sets up rules for the way things work (the nuclear missiles, as an example), only to change it up later. The missiles are mentioned by Nell, to be indestructible, but later Shad is seen shooting them with his lasers. Non-sciency fiction is fine in films as long as it’s consistent.

Battle Beyond The Stars

Cayman, the Nestors, and Cowboy (with his harmonica) all sit around the warmth of the Kelvin’s the night before the battle.

The Final Frontier

All in all, Battle Beyond the Stars is less exploitative than some other Star Wars wanna-be’s, like Galaxina or Starcrash.  But it still has its own level of exploitation. Sybil Danning’s provocative outfits are early examples of sexuality and exploitative elements showing up, as they often would in low-budget exploitative films. However, throughout the 80s these elements would find their way into more mainstream films such as Return of the Jedi, and Blade Runner. Another provocative element that seems more out of a soft-porn film like Flesh Gordon, is the “boob ship” Nell. Designed with two breast-like protuberances on the bottom of the ship, Cameron’s model is not not entirely subtle. Though the ship also bears some resemblance to a scorpion or pistol shrimp, these are not the first thing that many viewers think of when seeing the ship.

The film is also loaded with many actors that had many genre films under their belts, either in westerns or with sci-fi. Sam Jaffe appeared in the classic 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still. Marta Kristen, who was a love interest for Cowboy in this film, is better known as Judy Robinson from the TV series Lost in Space. Actors Morgan Woodward and Jeff Corey appeared on several episodes of the Star Trek TV series. The film was also an early film for Earl Bowen who was best known to sci-fi fans as Dr. Silberman in the Terminator films. And a young Julia Duffy plays the Akira that sacrifices herself on the Malmori ship in her first film role, and well before her roles on Newhart and Designing Women.

Of the main cast, all are notable character actors, with Richard Thomas being best known for The Waltons and the TV mini series, Stephen King’s It. Robert Vaughn actually appeared in the original The Magnificent Seven and numerous other films. John Saxon may be best known for his role in horror films like Black Christmas and A Nightmare on Elm Street. While George Peppard is best known for his role on The A-Team, but also appeared in Damnation Alley.

Battle Beyond the Stars endures because in many aspects, it’s so bad it’s good. The special effects definitely provide memorable and in many cases believable moments it’s not a wonder that they chose to focus on this aspect in the trailers. It’s actually one of the better Star Wars clones and provided an interesting start to several careers of filmmakers that will continue to be looked at on Sci-Fi Saturdays.

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