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Battle Beyond the Stars

Battle Beyond the Stars(1980)

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When Star Wars became the smash hit of 1977 by turning B-movie adventure into big-budget spectacle, drive-in mogul Roger Corman saw the writing across the stars. The producer and former director had made his share of drive-in science fiction and space adventures, but they had all been cobbled out of spare parts and imaginative art direction, with simple miniatures and animation providing the space ships. Now Hollywood was moving in on his brand of genre filmmaking and action fantasies with budgets he couldn't match and he needed to raise his game to meet them.

Battle Beyond the Stars was Corman's answer to the new Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster. The script is from John Sayles, whose screenwriting apprenticeship came from such Corman productions as Piranha and The Lady in Red, with a story credit shared with Anne Dyer, but the concept was from Corman himself: "The Seven Samurai in Space," with a few hints of Star Wars tossed in around the edges. Richard Thomas, fresh off six seasons of the folksy family TV drama The Waltons, plays the film's innocent, idealistic hero Shad. He's Luke Skywalker by way of John-Boy, a farmboy on a peaceful agrarian planet that looks like a counter-culture commune in ancient Greek garb. When the vicious warlord Sador (John Saxon) brings soldiers and his answer to the Death Star to their planet and gives them seven days to surrender, Shad sets out in a talking space ship (in the tradition of referring to vessels in the feminine, this one quite literally has a voluptuous pair of breasts protruding from the bow) to hire a fighting force of mercenaries to defend themselves from the invasion.

After a detour at a nearly abandoned space hub, where he manages to recruit the only single girl (Darlanne Fluegel) his age in the region, he starts putting together his team: a drawling smuggler who goes by the handle Space Cowboy (George Peppard, offering the film's answer to Han Solo), a lizard-like slaver with a grudge against Sador, a hive being of multiple clones in search of new sensations and experiences, a pair of heat-producing beings known as The Kelvin, a buxom Valkyrie warrior (Sybil Danning in a costume that barely covers her) in a mosquito of a fighting ship seeking battle glory, and in the film's inspired casting coup, Robert Vaughn as a jaded bounty hunter who joins their fight in exchange for "a meal and a place to hide." It's the same role he played in The Magnificent Seven, the original western remake of The Seven Samurai. Corman also casts a pair of respected Hollywood greats in small roles: Oscar nominated actor Sam Jaffe as a mad scientist who has wired himself directly into his space station and legendary acting teacher and character actor Jeff Corey as the blind tribal elder.

John Sayles manages to work some offbeat science-fiction ideas around the edges of an otherwise derivative plot and he even pays homage to the film's inspiration by naming the home planet Akir and its inhabitants Akira, a tribute to The Seven Samurai director Akira Kurosawa. But otherwise the script is a collection of clich├ęs leavened by Sayles' wit and understated humor, which gives Thomas a chance to undercut his character's earnest seriousness with good-natured quips and embarrassed smiles.

Jimmy T. Murakami, an animator directing his first and only live-action feature, isn't much of a hand with actors, who have a tendency to overplay shamelessly. Saxon in particular plays the marauding warlord as a cut-rate Darth Vader, snarling and sneering at his dim underlings while turning his victims into a spare-parts yard for his medical rejuvenation campaign. More problematic is the film's lethargy; there's no momentum to the film, which jumps from one static scene to another with an awkward choppiness, and Murakami's eye for dramatic composition is lazy at best. One of the few inspired visual gags, a multi-species campfire reprieve the night before battle set to the harmonica stylings of the garrulous Space Cowboy, is so awkwarrdly posed that it undercuts the surreal humor of the situation.

More interesting is the model work and production design, the latter courtesy of an ambitious young set designer named Jim Cameron working on his first feature. Battle Beyond the Stars was Corman's most expensive production to that time and he was building a studio and a special effects unit while the picture was being prepared. When the production manager was let go, Cameron took charge--with the blessing of the crew--and delivered the film's numerous sets, multiple space ships and huge number of special effects on a shoestring budget. While they look cheap by contemporary standards, with unimaginatively staged space spectacle, the rag tag fleet itself is a delight of imagination and creative solutions on a production short on time, money and crew members.

The film's liveliest contribution comes from it young composer James Horner, who created a rousing, sweeping score that (in the great Corman tradition) sounded much bigger than his resources suggest. While it brings up comparisons to John Williams' score for Star Wars, Horner is actually drawing inspiration from the same sources as Williams, notably the scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold on the great Warner swashbucklers, in particular the Errol Flynn adventures The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk. The bright, brassy themes give this space opera a nautical feel of epic battles on the high seas of space.

The new 30th Anniversary Edition is newly remastered for DVD and Blu-ray from the internegative and looks sharp if not always pristine; a couple of sequences show wear and minor damage. Both editions feature commentary by Roger Corman and John Sayles (from the 2002 DVD release), who apparently genuinely enjoy talking over the film and the old days of New World. Sayles explains his efforts to make each of the mercenaries a member of a different species with a different motivation and Corman is equally proud of the film's aesthetic triumphs ("The models were beautifully made," he observes) and the production's money-saving shortcuts. There is also a second solo commentary track by production manager Gale Anne Hurd.

The new half-hour featurette Shoestring Space Opera: The Making of Battle Beyond the Stars tells the behind-the-scenes story of the physical production from the perspective of the designers, special effects artists, model makers and editors in great detail. Richard Thomas offers an engaging reminiscence of the film and his career at the time in the 15-minute interview featurette "His Name Was Shad." Also features galleries of stills and posters, a radio spot and the trailer.

For more information about Battle Beyond the Stars, visit Shout Factory. To order Battle Beyond the Stars, go to TCM Shopping.

by Sean Axmaker