The writ­ing was on the wall when Steven Spielberg took mate­ri­al that would be con­sid­ered dri­ve-in fod­der and craft­ed it into a main­stream block­buster called Jaws.  However, the real coup-de-grace came between 1977 and 1979 when 20th Century Fox released two mon­ster hits, Star Wars and Alien.  Like Jaws, both took b-movie  sto­ry­li­nes and applied the devel­op­ment skills and big bud­gets of main­stream film­mak­ing to them.  Once audi­ences saw b-movie mate­ri­al get the a-movie treat­ment, they would have a hard time main­tain­ing an enthu­si­asm for the quick & cheap joys of exploita­tion film­mak­ing. Simply put, the major stu­dio killed the dri­ve-in star.

However, the exploita­tion stu­dios were scrap­py by nature and wouldn’t take this kind of sit­u­a­tion lying down.  Many of them tried to har­vest a few quick bucks from the pock­ets of space-daz­zled view­ers look­ing for their next inter­stel­lar fix.  The best low-bud­get space raider to aim its laser can­nons at Planet Lucasfilm was prob­a­bly Battle Beyond The Stars.  It was pro­duced by the can­ni­est of b-movie moguls, Roger Corman, had a clev­er take on the space opera con­cept and, best of all, pro­vid­ed a first oppor­tu­ni­ty for some note­wor­thy gen­re tal­ent behind the sce­nes.

The plot of Battle Beyond The Stars is an object lesson in the “steal from the best” school of sto­ry­telling.  Not only does it bold­ly ape Star Wars, it also lifts its cen­tral sto­ry con­cept from The Seven Samurai (its remake The Magnificent Seven is also raid­ed for a few choice char­ac­ters and con­cepts).  It all begins with a round of laser zaps as vil­lain­ous space dic­ta­tor Sador (John Saxon) attacks the paci­fist plan­et Akir and tells them they must sur­ren­der or be killed.  They real­ize they need help to fight off Sador and his min­ions and use their deci­sion time to gath­er help.

Shad (Richard Thomas) vol­un­teers to seek out the­se fight­ers and rounds up a gen­uine rogue’s gallery: among the fight­ers are a hard-drink­ing freight dri­ver named Cowboy (George Peppard), an aspir­ing female war­rior named St. Exmin (Sybil Danning) and Gelt (Robert Vaughn), an ace mer­ce­nary who has grown weary of hav­ing no home.  After a brief respite in which the war­riors enjoy being part of the Akir com­mu­ni­ty, Sador comes call­ing.  He unleash­es the full force of his war­ship and the sev­en war­riors put their skills to the ulti­mate test to pro­tect their new home.

As you might expect, try­ing to pro­duce an a-movie on a b-bud­get results in some rough edges to Battle Beyond The Stars.  The amount of mon­ey spent on visu­al effects and tal­ent ensure that cor­ners are cut, some­times dras­ti­cal­ly, in oth­er areas.  The sets are incon­sis­tent in qual­i­ty: the inte­ri­or of Sador’s ship looks good but the Akir sets look like rejects from a Buck Rogers episode.  Costumes have a sim­i­lar prob­lem and the hair­styles betray the film’s ‘turn of the 1980’s” vin­tage at every turn.

However, the big­ger prob­lem is the direc­tion of ani­ma­tor-turned-film­mak­er Jimmy T. Murakami.  It’s not that his work here is bad: he main­tains a solid pace and gets good per­for­mances from his cast.  The prob­lem is that his direc­tion lacks excite­ment.  A pop­corn-movie enter­prise like this needs a gee-whiz style full of kinet­ic touch­es and play­ful­ness.  More specif­i­cal­ly, the main job for a direc­tor in an effects-heavy film like this is to inject ener­gy into the non-effects sce­nes — and Murakami unfor­tu­nate­ly takes the kind of pedes­tri­an approach one usu­al­ly asso­ciates with a t.v. direc­tor.  His work is nev­er less than com­pe­tent but he relies on the script, effects and per­for­mances to do most of the heavy lift­ing.

Thankfully, the ele­ments Murakami relies on car­ry the film nice­ly.  Sayles’ script applies imag­i­na­tion to the story’s pulpy con­ceits, adding nov­el touch­es like a race of peo­ple who share the same mind and sens­es as if they were cells in an organ­ism.  More impor­tant­ly, he brings a cer­tain amount of sly humor and a human­i­ty that flesh­es out the char­ac­ter­i­za­tions.

The actors do a fine job bring­ing Sayles’ larg­er-than-life char­ac­ters into cel­lu­loid real­i­ty.  As you might expect, the war­riors get the flashiest roles.  Peppard is great fun as the rogue-ish but kind Cowboy, devel­op­ing a per­sona that would pay div­i­dends a few years lat­er in The A-Team.  Vaughn replays his Magnificent Seven role with style as Gelt, adding a dark­ly-shad­ed grav­i­tas to the pro­ceed­ings that off­sets the pulp hero­ics nice­ly, and Danning’s spirit­ed, estro­gen-macho take on St. Exmin fits the Corman movie tough-chick mold per­fect­ly.  That said, it’s Thomas that holds the film togeth­er as its young hero.  He makes an easy-to-like audi­ence iden­ti­fi­ca­tion fig­ure and also shows a sub­tle sense of comedic tim­ing that sells humor­ous moments with­out over­do­ing them.

There’s also a less obvi­ous com­po­nent to the suc­cess of Battle Beyond The Stars — a fan­tas­tic orches­tral score from a young James Horner.  It has a rich­ly-arranged grandeur wor­thy of John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith and its majes­tic strains go a long way towards mak­ing the audi­ence feel like they’re watch­ing some­thing more expen­sive.

Finally, it’s the visu­al effects that car­ry the day in Battle Beyond The Stars.  Virtually every major play­er behind the space­ship sequences here would go on to play a major role in the effects-dri­ven films of the next few decades, begin­ning with minia­ture design­er and future mega-direc­tor James Cameron.  The work they offer in this film is invest­ed with a grand, some­times quirky sense of cre­ativ­i­ty (note the unique­ly ‘fem­i­nine’ design of the moth­er­ship Richard Thomas flies) and the results often look like a sci-fi pulp illus­tra­tion brought to life.  Sci-fi fans of a cer­tain age will glo­ri­fy in all the mod­els, mat­tes and rear pro­jec­tion tech­niques used here and the FX cre­ators give them a real smörgås­bord to sink their teeth into, big­ger in com­plex­i­ty and num­ber than any­one else could have wrung from such a tiny bud­get.

In short, Battle Beyond The Stars retains its rank­ing as the best of the Star Wars knock­offs because it embod­ies the Corman house style: beneath the rip-off man­date and the rough edges, there’s a lot of tal­ent, ener­gy and even some warmth on dis­play here.  It might not have been able to ward off the Darth Vaders of the stu­dio-block­buster world but it sure as hell put up a spirit­ed fight.

Battle Beyond The Stars (DVD)

Battle Beyond The Stars (DVD)

As our gift to you, we’re offer­ing an iron-on of the orig­i­nal Battle Beyond The Stars the­atri­cal key art exclu­sive­ly from ShoutFactory.com when you pur­chase either the DVD or BD.Only avail­able here while sup­plies last!Click To Enlarge30th Anniversary Special Collector’s Edition!Seven mer­ce­nar­ies are recruit­ed from through­out the galaxy to save a peace­ful plan­et from the threat of an evil tyrant bent on dom­i­nat­ing the entire uni­verse. Among them are a lizard-like humanoid, a space cow­boy, a female war­rior and a brood­ing killer-for-hire.Also avail­able on Blu-ray.






Battle Beyond The Stars (Blu-ray)

Battle Beyond The Stars (Blu-ray)

As our gift to you, we’re offer­ing an iron-on of the orig­i­nal Battle Beyond The Stars the­atri­cal key art exclu­sive­ly from ShoutFactory.com when you pur­chase either the DVD or BD.Only avail­able here while sup­plies last!Click To Enlarge30th Anniversary Special Collector’s Edition!Seven mer­ce­nar­ies are recruit­ed from through­out the galaxy to save a peace­ful plan­et from the threat of an evil tyrant bent on dom­i­nat­ing the entire uni­verse. Among them are a lizard-like humanoid, a space cow­boy, a female war­rior and a brood­ing killer-for-hire.Also avail­able on DVD.