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.