(1980) Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami; Written by John Sayles; Story by Anne Dyer; Starring: Richard Thomas, Darlanne Fluegel, John Saxon, Robert Vaughn, George Peppard, Sybil Danning, Sam Jaffe and Morgan Woodward; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
This post is part of the Corman-verse Blogathon, hosted by Yours Truly and Gill Jacob from Realweegiemidget Reviews. Be sure to check out all the terrific posts from an esteemed bunch of participants!
“It not only got very good reviews but it was commercially successful in the United States and overseas, and I think to a large extent it was the characters, it was the differentiation, the individuality.” – Roger Corman (from DVD commentary with John Sayles)
“It was a playground, and Roger let us experiment.” – Alex Hajdu, Assistant Art Director (from “Shoestring Space Opera”)
A long time ago in a galaxy, far – hold the phone. Let’s back up a moment… A long time ago, in a land not too far away, Roger Corman assembled a group of unknown but talented young professionals to create a space opera on his own terms. Screenwriter /Corman-protégé John Sayles drew from the same well as Star Wars, particularly Seven Samurai (1954), as its inspiration, but The Wizard of Oz (1939) provided another template. Budgeted at $2 million (a paltry sum by Hollywood standards), Battle Beyond the Stars was Corman’s most expensive production to date. Penny-pinching Corman made sure he got a return on his investment, however, repurposing many elements in the film in other New World productions (obviously he was into recycling, long before it was in vogue). The informative Blu-ray commentary by producer Corman and writer Sayles is like a mini film school, providing us a lesson in low budget movie making.
Corman hired Jimmy T. Murakami* (who was looking to break into directing live-action features) to helm the picture. For the most part, Corman stayed out of the way, although he reportedly directed one scene, featuring many of the principal characters together. Although it took several months to get all the pieces in place, Battle Beyond the Stars was shot during a brisk five-week shooting schedule, using a converted lumberyard in Santa Monica, California for the studio. New sets were constructed as quickly as they were torn down, which required filming some scenes when the paint was still wet.
* Fun Fact #1: The Japanese/American animator is probably best known for directing the famous 1969 Tootsie Roll Pop commercial (originally known as “Mr. Cow”), featuring an owl that attempts to answer the age-old question, “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop?” Over half a century later, it still appears on TV from time to time, albeit in truncated form.
The list of behind-the-scenes crew members reads like a who’s who of Hollywood filmmakers. 20-something James Cameron, who was promoted to art director on the production, provided the intricately detailed models (according to Corman, Cameron could describe the purpose of every bump and nook on his spacecraft). His team included effects maestros Dennis and Robert Skotak, as well as Alec Gillis. Corman’s assistant production manager, Gale Anne Hurd went on to a hugely successful producing career. Young James Horner provided the score, and an uncredited Bill Paxton worked on set construction. It’s interesting to note that all of these individuals worked with Cameron in subsequent films.
Sayles wanted the ships to look distinct, so you could distinguish which character piloted them. Thanks to Cameron and his team, each space vehicle delivers on that requirement. According to Dennis Skotak (responsible for miniature design and construction, along with his brother Robert), each ship reflected the personality of the characters. He wanted a different look, compared to Star Wars, where he felt that “everything came from the same factory.” As anyone accustomed to New World’s stable of genre films can attest, many of the space battle scenes look awfully familiar, re-purposing models and effects footage.
The story opens on a familiar note, with the despotic Sador* (played with relish by John Saxon) delivering an ultimatum to the meek inhabitants of the planet Akir (an obvious nod to filmmaker Akira Kurosawa): join him or die. Sador (with a name like that, you just know he’s up to no good), ravages one civilization after another, reducing them to cinders with his interstellar convertor (basically a Death Star clone). He doesn’t want to raid their crops or take their food; true to his control-freak nature, he only wants to dominate them. Sure, it’s the sort of role that Saxon could probably do in his sleep, but he appears to be having a blast playing a tyrant, so who’s complaining? Why Sador chooses to go away (leaving a couple of incompetent stooges to guard the planet), so the Akir denizens have time to enlist a private army against him, we’ll never know. Shad (Richard Thomas) sets off in his curvy space ship (uh huh, it has boobs), along with sassy computer “Nell” (Lynn Carlin), in a desperate search for individuals* who will fight.
* Fun Fact #2: Sayles wanted the seven mercenaries Shad enlists to be from different species. Part of the script-writing process involved thinking about the various cultures and philosophies of the various alien races.
Among the first off-worlders Shad encounters is Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel). Bored with her life on a space station, with only her cyborg father Dr. Hephaestus (Sam Jaffe) and androids for companions, she’s eager to join him in his quest. Next in his encounters, is the affable Cowboy (George Peppard). His laid-back persona belies his willingness to fight in a pinch. (A Confederate flag on his spaceship is a bit over the top, though, even for this movie – the less said, the better). Of course, he’s empowered by a helping or two of liquid courage, with a handy belt-mounted gizmo that dispenses booze and ice (because whiskey flasks are so 20th century). Nanelia convinces the lizard-like Cayman (Morgan Woodward) to join the fight. He has an axe to grind against Sador, who wiped out his species, making the enemy of his enemy his friend.
The most enigmatic mercenary is Robert Vaughn as Gelt (the Yiddish word for “money”), a reprisal of sorts, of his role from the Seven Samurai remake The Magnificent Seven (1960). He laments that he has amassed a vast fortune, but has nowhere to spend it, so the prospect of a decent meal and place to sleep without watching his back seems inviting to him. In a movie full of black-and-white characters, he provides a healthy dose of ambiguity. As a gun for hire who works for the highest bidder, it’s implied that he’s worked for both sides of the fence.
St. Exmin (played by Sybil Danning, who’s known her way around several Corman films) belongs to a warlike race known as the Valkyrie. For her people, the thrill is in the fight. Her creed is to “live fast, fight well, and have a beautiful ending.” (a riff on John Derek’s famous quote from 1949’s Knock on Any Door, “Live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse.”).* St. Exmin’s eye-catching, gravity-defying costume** undoubtedly fueled many adolescent-male fantasies back in the day. Danning proves to be more than just eye candy, providing a spunky presence. While initially being an annoyance to Shad, she proves her worth in battle.***
* Fun Fact #3: According to Sayles, he based her character on the Native American Dog Soldiers, who found honor in death.
** Fun Fact #4: It should come as no surprise to anyone that the costumers had a difficult time keeping Danning’s (ahem) assets contained. According to co-star Thomas, her costume was prone to quite a few wardrobe malfunctions.
*** Fun Fact #5: Look for an oops(!) just before the hour-and-25-minute mark, inside St. Exmin’s ship. In the left corner of the frame, behind her seat, you can spot a member of the film crew crouching down.
Among the most unique species Shad encounters is Nestor, a collective intelligence comprised of multiple humanoid forms. Each body is a cell in a much larger organism, experiencing everything that each unit senses. Nestor’s deadpan sense of humor is a nice little touch. When one samples a hot dog that Cowboy is preparing, he (or more accurately, his spokesman) comments, “There’s no dog in this.”
* Fun Fact #6: If one of the Nestor (Nestors?) looks familiar, he’s played by prolific character actor Earl Boen, best known as the sleepy criminal psychologist in the first three Terminator movies.
James Horner’s marvelous, sweeping music score (one of his earliest) fits the subject matter perfectly. Think of this as his prototypical blockbuster score, which takes the film to a different level. Many elements and cues are recognizable in subsequent movies. The score elevates the visuals, to the point where any deficits are scarcely noticed. Ever-cost-conscious Corman, recognizing the value of what he heard, re-purposed the soundtrack for other New World trailers, and for at least one film, 1985’s Barbarian Queen, virtually recycled the entire score (Alas, Horner’s composition could only do so much for substandard material).
Corman and crew could only do so much with the budgetary restrictions, resulting in some obvious cost-cutting measures. The effects team avoided depictions of the ships landing and taking off, which would have required pricey effects. The camera people refrained from panning, which would reveal the size limitations of the sets (with one notable exception – the expansive control deck of Sador’s ship required an entire sound stage). Much like the original Star Trek series, the little community on Akir represents the entire planet’s civilization, thus requiring a healthy suspension of disbelief. In a scene depicting a ground battle with Sador’s army, the antagonists are conveniently channeled through one subterranean corridor so they can be ambushed.
Corman makes no apologies about jumping on the Star Wars train with his little space epic that could, Battle Beyond the Stars. The difference, however, is in the details, especially Sayles’ witty script, which never takes itself too seriously. Horner’s score and Cameron’s effects work also go a long way to make the most of things. It’s a popcorn movie, not in the derogatory sense, but in the best possible way. This isn’t meant to be a cerebral exercise like Solaris or 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s fun over substance, told in broad strokes, and sometimes that’s all you need.
Sources: Shout Factory Blu-ray commentary by Roger Corman and John Sayles; “His Name was Shad,” 2011 interview with Richard Thomas; “Shoestring Space Opera,” 2011 featurette; How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, by Roger Corman, with Jim Jerome; “How They Painted Samurai Jack Plus: the secret history of the Tootsie Pop commercial (and global animation news),” Animation Obsessive, Nov. 7, 2021