If you thought Guardians Of The Galaxy was a space opera that boasted some exceedingly eccentric characters, you really should take a gander at Battle Beyond The Stars – the Mount Everest of creaky, Star Wars rip-offs courtesy of the immortal producing machine us mere mortals know as Roger Corman. Never one to let an easy target lie, Corman not only hoped to hurl himself onto the Star Wars bandwagon, but he also had the front to shamelessly steal wholesale from other movies too, thus John (Piranha, Alligator) Sayles’ script heavily and shamelessly lent on The Magnificent Seven too, but as that movie is also a retelling of Seven Samurai, I guess we can let it off with a warning.
The result was a showcase of the best and worst Corman’s 80’s productions had to offer with primitive effects (supplied by none other than an embryonic James Cameron) rubbing shoulders with far-out concepts and B-list actors spouting utter bollocks. Needless to say – it’s a must watch.
The peaceful farmers of planet Akir find themselves well and truly boned when the tyrannical, Sador arrives with the entirety of the Malmori Empire and lays claim to their planet and their people seemingly under the pretext of “finders keepers”. Giving the Akira “seven risings” to prepare for his rule (I’m guessing that’s a week), young, plucky farmboy Shad hops into the only working ship the Akira have, a weirdly bosomy craft whose cantankerous AI is called Nell and streaks off across the universe in order to find help.
After the weapons-making cyborg, Dr Hephaestus proves to be a bust (by the looks of him, maybe Hepatitis might have been a more fitting name), Shad and the scientist’s absurdly naive daughter start racking up allies in the shape of a literal space cowboy whose name is actually Cowboy (really, guys? Really?!), a lizard man and his misshapen crew, an absurdly voluptuous space Valkyrie features boobs almost as big as Nell’s, five clones who form a hive-mind with their race and who all weirdly resemble a ghostly white F. Murray Abraham and a notorious space-gangster who has grown weary of years of hiding.
The fact that Shad, a boy who hasn’t even stepped off his own planet before, now has to marshal these disparate characters into a full scale assault against an intergalactic warlord, proves to be something of an iffy gambit, especially considering that the Akira’s religious beliefs rule out fighting unless under strict circumstances. Yet Shad persists and slowly manages to craft a fighting force out of this ragtag band of warriors that manages to repel the first couple of Sador’s attacks, but it soon becomes apparent than once the villain unleashes the full force of his might, Akir will be no more than sparkly space dust. Can this minimal force apply maximum effort to free the galaxy from this immortality-obsessed despot?
Cinematic historians throughout time will no doubt continue to be dumbfounded by the fact that there is a film that exists that features a spaceship that comes equipped with a noticably gigantic bossom that’s utterly impossible to ignore and that plays like someone spiked your drink with a particularly potent brand of LSD while watching Magnificent Seven on the telly. Simply put, this movie is fucking nuts; a perfect storm of random factors that come together to create a cinematic experience that’s easy to mock and yet impossible to ignore. The casting of Richard Thomas (aka. John-Boy Walton) as Shad is both incredibly distracting and a masterstroke, as is getting George Peppard to play Cowboy, Howling 2’s Sybil Danning to play the unrepentantly voluptuous St. Exmin and even B-movie king John Saxon to play the amputation-happy villain. On top of this, the addition of such a colourful selection of inhuman characters and roaring spacecraft is obviously way too much for the budget to handle and this results in an onslaught of cheese that will most likely kill anyone dead with an aversion of lactose. The sets and make up recall very early Star Trek, with the visuals shamelessly reusing the same shots over and over in a valiant attempt to save funds and it doesn’t help matters that the space-set dogfights are virtually impossible to make head or tale off.
And yet, there’s something about that script that remains defiantly fun despite those questionable production values. In fact, Battle Beyond The Stars plays far better as an unofficial (if incredibly radical) sequel to The Magnificent Seven than the actual sequels to follow in the wake of that legendary western – in fact, the filmmakers even gave the brass balls to hire someone who was actually in The Magnificent Seven (Robert Vaughn, take a bow) to play a major role. However, say what you will about the visuals, but the characters are cleanly sketched and each have their own motives and personalities that fit their outlandish appearances, even if some of the dialogue is deranged enough to cause a stroke – “Remember Lobo?” grunts a lumpy-headed henchman, “He disobeyed orders and now Sador is wearing his left foot.”
Virtually everything has dated horribly – especially a quickly discarded plot involving Shad’s sister getting captured for rape – but back then, you could scrape by with dodgy costumes rubbery aliens and aneurysm causing visual effects, but if your score didn’t fucking slap ridiculously hard you were dead in the water. Step forward James Horner who uses his talent to make anything epic (see: Krull) and delivers a score so bombastic, it instantly makes a lot of the weaker shit seem far better in comparison.
Another thing that helps the rickety project nail its ungainly landing is the fact that Sayles’ script and the direction by Jimmy T. Murakami (with some uncredited tinkering by Corman himself) chooses to go the Poseidon Adventure/Dirty Dozen/Magnificent Seven route of enthusiastically killing off as many of its weird-ass cast as it can, regardless of likability factor or fairness. Watching cast member after cast member hurl themselves into some honorable suicide run in order to save a bunch of black-eyed, pacifist farmers gives the flick a sense of nobility that all the goofy costumes and odd sexual innuendos often sabotages. Still, if nothing else, its worth it for the most gonzo assassination attempt I’ve seen on film (Sador has one of the Nestor’s arms grafted onto himself only for it to come alive and try to slit his throat) and Saxon’s dying lament that “I was supposed to live forever!”.
The impossibly busty St. Exmin reveals that her people have a saying that fits Battle Beyond The Stars like an awkward glove: Live fast, fight well and have a beautiful ending – well, two out of three ain’t bad, I suppose.