Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Random Movie Report #101: Battle Beyond the Stars

Battle Beyond the Stars cover art and Amazon link

My weakness for the glitzy space operas of the late 70s and early 80s is tempered by my understanding that, Star Wars aside, most of them weren't very good. It's a genre that's harder to do well than it looks, and it's both significant and surprising that one of the most artistically successful attempts to ape the 1977 blockbuster is from Roger Corman. Battle Beyond the Stars attempts to do on a shoestring what Lucas did on thirteen million dollars, and manages at least a decent part of it. For a low-budget movie we get plenty of model spaceships whizzing around and shooting lasers at each other (you know, the fundamentals), wrapped in a particularly fast and bouncy take on The Seven Samurai. It gets that space opera is supposed to be fun, wondrous, and that it doesn't have to take itself too seriously.

John Saxon is Sador, a brutal warlord who travels from planet to planet, subjugating them all with the threat of his stellar converter, a gun capable of destroying entire planets. He sets his sites on the peaceful colony of Alkir, which basically consists of one village surrounded by a lot of desert. Shad (Richard Thomas, the apparent prototype for Chris Colfer), a young pilot, volunteers to search the galaxy for mercenaries to battle Sador. And quite an assortment he runs into: there's Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel), daughter of a mad roboticist; Cowboy (George Peppard), an arms dealer from old Earth who watches a lot of westerns; Nestor (Earl Boen and John Gowans and a couple of others), a hive mind; Saint-Exmin (Sybil Danning), a fanatical and sexy Valkiri warrior with a costume held in place solely by the force of the film's PG rating; Cayman (Morgaon Woodward), a reptilian outlaw with a personal grudge against Sador; and Gelt (Robert Vaughn), a grim assassin who can no longer show his face on any civilized world. They're a wild and inventive bunch, but they're up against the biggest war machine in the galaxy, and it's clear that not everyone's making it out alive.

John Sayles wrote the screenplay for this one (from a story by him and Anne Dyer), and as is common for his work for Corman, he has a bit of fun with it. Most of the first half of the movie is a semi-comic odyssey, with Shad encountering various weird aliens and outlaws, everyone with their own culture and reason for wanting to fight the big bad guy. It's naturally episodic and a little rushed, since there are so many people to introduce, but eventually the picture settles down into a more epic space opera groove.

This was the most expensive film Corman had made up to that point, costing a cool milion. He gets a lot out of it; you can tell a few corners were cut here and there (a "resort planet" Shad travels to turns out to be deserted, for example), but for the most part it all looks appealing in a cheesy way. The art direction is partly by future megablockbuster director and deep sea explorer James Cameron, and he and Charles Breen follow the traditional 80s model-kits-and-blinkenlights aesthetic with some skill and a few interesting flourishes. (I'm not sure who to credit/blame for the fact that Shad's ship seems to have breasts.)

What's surprising about the picture is that it does manage a good level of suspense in the final act. We don't doubt that the bad guy will eventually be defeated, but there are a number of prominent deaths, and a "horror of war" theme gets brought up, and contrasted with the peaceful religion of the settlers. None of this gets explored in too much detail, but it's enough to add some spice to the proceedings.

Even if the story stops and starts in some odd places, and the flying model ships don't steer that well, Battle Beyond the Stars has a playful enough attitude that it seems almost rude to dwell on the rough patches. There are a lot of neat little imaginative moments, like the Alkirians setting up a system of trenches solely that everyone can run around in them like in a proper battle scene, or the Cowboy grilling hotdogs over a "campfire" created by two tiny aliens who have the ability to radiate intense heat. It's often a silly film, but it never goes so far that we cease to care about the outcome. It doesn't stir the soul but it does tickle the imagination, and that's something a lot of these films don't manage.

Story by John Sayles and Anne Dyer
Screenplay by John Sayles
Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami

Grade: B+

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