Roger Corman was absolutely shameless. There wasn’t an idea he wouldn’t steal, nor a corner he wouldn’t cut to save a buck, in any of the dozens of films in which he had a part. He is hailed as a pioneering and legendary filmmaker. He launched the careers of numerous, better filmmakers and is showered with credit for their talents. And he did all this, and more, while cranking out a relentless stream of awful films. Terrible, unwatchable, dreadful sins against the art of cinema. And sometimes, he managed to make a shitty movie that was worth a damn.
Battle Beyond the Stars, from 1980, is at once both a Star Wars ripoff and a remake of The Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven. It starts out with a gigantic spacecraft lumbering across the screen. I call this condition ‘Starwarsitis.’ It was a common affliction among sci-fi movies during the 1980s.
Soon after we learn that an evil lord by the name of Sador (veteran ‘that guy’ John Saxon) is arriving at a planet to announce to everyone that he will be back in one week to conquer the place. Seriously, that’s what he does. When he showed up for his little warning he caught everyone by surprise and brushed aside all planetary defenses like it was a swarm of gnats. Why wouldn’t he just finish the job right there and then?
One, because the script, by John Sayles of all people, is incredibly dumb. And two, it wouldn’t give Shad (Richard Thomas), a young man on the beleaguered planet, the chance to split and find a bunch of mercenaries willing to come back and defend the planet against invasion.
Shad flies off in a sapient spaceship with a sassy attitude named Nell (voiced by Lynn Carlin). The model for the ship must be some kind of joke, because from the front it looks like a scrotum, and from the side it looks like a hammerhead shark with tits. It’s completely distracting to the adult mind. No matter how hard one tries, all one will see when looking at Nell are sex organs and fish.
Shad and Nell fly around the galaxy recruiting samurai...excuse me, gunmen...excuse me, space mercenaries. Despite the borrowed nature of the plot, the heroes are a pretty diverse sci-fi bunch, much more so than the source material.
There’s Space Cowboy (George Peppard, and that really is his character’s name), who is exactly what you would expect a space cowboy played by Peppard to be like; Robert Vaughn as the same character he played in The Magnificent Seven; Sybil Danning as buxom warrior Saint-Exmin; and Morgan Woodward as Cayman of the Lambda Zone! Say that last name out loud. It’s worth it to actually hear the words. Cayman is a lizard man with a mouth like a giant tortoise’s. Finally there are the most interesting, and most ridiculously-costumed characters, in the movie — Nestor, a group of five men who communicate as a collective intelligence. Their spokesperson is Nestor 1, played by Earl Boen. For a shitty movie, the Nestors were pretty creative.
This motley group heads back to Shad’s homeworld to do battle with Sador and save Shad’s people. One can guess how this turns out if one has ever seen a movie. The only question is how many of Shad’s warriors survive the battle. Not as many as one would think. The good news is every hero that dies gets a nice, long, drawn out death scene.
This is an extraordinary piece of bargain basement sci-fi. Corman took a budget of two million bucks and, along with director Jimmy T. Murakami, let’s not forget to give credit where it’s due, crafted a shitty movie for the ages. This is right up there with Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. This is the type of ripoff all those Italian directors in the ’80s were trying to make, but couldn’t.
It’s not good. In fact, this is a terrible movie full of mailed in acting and jumpy pacing. Characters jump from spot to spot with zero transition. It’s all condensed like Corman insisted on ruthless cuts to the runtime.
One thing Corman nailed in this film was hiring James Horner to do the soundtrack. It’s a rousing score, much better than a film like this would normally get, or deserve. It elevates the quality of just about every scene of the movie. The best that most low budget films of the time could hope for was a guy with a mullet and a synthesizer, but Horner was a future Oscar winner. He probably didn’t get paid much, and Corman wasn’t shy about using this music in at least one other movie, but that’s okay since Horner repurposed so much of this music for his Star Trek gigs.
Despite the surprising amount to which this movie engages a viewer, it’s still a ripoff of much better movies. There’s a brief moment early on when Shad is walking down a very Death Star-like hallway wearing a very Luke Skywalker-ish outfit, and I swear, for a moment, I saw guilt on Richard Thomas’s face.
My favorite shitty filmmaking moment, however, comes when Shad’s love interest, Nanelia (Darlanne Fleugel) is strung up by her wrists. It’s clear she’s just holding onto a small bar. Another character feigns cutting her bonds and all she does is let go of the bar. That’s great. I love moments like that. I mean, viewers can see the bar. You don’t have to infer anything. It’s right out in the open.
From beginning to end, Battle Beyond the Stars is top-notch shitty. I recommend it to anyone with a bad movie jones. It’s not a better movie than Alien: Resurrection, but I had to think about it some. At least it doesn’t leave a viewer feeling icky after it’s all over.