The Force is strong with Battle Beyond the Stars
As a new Magnificent Seven remake hits theatres, let's revisit one you really need to see — Roger Corman's Battle Beyond the Stars.
A blatant attempt by B-movie mastermind Roger Corman to cash in on the success of Star Wars, 1980's Battle Beyond the Stars essentially takes Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (which had, of course, already been remade for the West in The Magnificent Seven) and sets it in space.
The logic here is pretty simple — George Lucas had given Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress a sci-fi re-skin to great effect in Star Wars, so a sci-fi take on an even better Kurosawa film should work too, right?
Wrong, obviously, because Kurosawa's influence was only one part of what made Star Wars great — the genius of George Lucas is that he was able to take a vast array of inspirations and incorporate them into his own singular vision.
Battle Beyond the Stars, on the other hand, really is just The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven with a fresh coat of paint, executed with considerably less panache than either of those films.
But that's not to say Battle Beyond the Stars wasn't a relative success on its own terms (its $2 million budget, a career high for the notoriously thrifty Corman, was almost entirely recouped in its opening weekend), or that the film had nothing going for it.
In fact, there's plenty to recommend about Battle Beyond the Stars, which is why I've picked it as the first film for this new feature, The Force is strong with..., which will focus on non-Star Wars recommendations for Star Wars fans.
Released just a few months after The Empire Strikes Back, the actual sequel to Star Wars, Battle Beyond the Stars came at the tail end of Corman's prime, after his early discoveries like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich, Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro and Dennis Hopper had moved on to greener pastures.
But Corman did still have screenwriter John Sayles at his disposal, who had already had great success taking one massive '70s blockbuster (Jaws) and running it through the low-budget Corman filter to create Piranha. (For that reason, Piranha and Battle Beyond the Stars make for a pretty great '70s knock-off double feature.)
So Sayles was given the task of writing this tale of a pacificist planet — named Akir, and populated by the Akira, because this is not a film that trades in subtlety — under threat from an evil despot (played by Enter the Dragon's John Saxon) who wants to turn their planet into a sun using a 'stellar converter'.
Young Shad — played by Richard 'John-Boy' Thomas from The Waltons, who's clearly intended to remind audiences of Luke Skywalker but ends up coming off more like a proto-Wesley Crusher — is sent to recruit bounty hunters to lead the defence of Akir, encountering bizarre androids, telepathic alien clones and reptilian slavers along the way.
Eventually, Shad recruits six allies, including a 'space cowboy' from Earth (played by George Peppard, who later found fame as Hannibal in The A-Team), and Gelt, a deadly assassin with a price on his head who just sees Akir as a place he can lay low and live in peace.
Gelt is played by the great Robert Vaughan, who portrayed pretty much exactly the same character in The Magnificent Seven. (Or, hey, maybe Vaughan was cast because Corman wanted the guy who played Han Solo, and accidentally ended up with the guy who played Napoleon Solo.)
Somehow, Shad also recruits Saint-Exim, a Valkyrie warrior (played by B-movie starlet Sybil Danning) whose outfits make Carrie Fisher's Slave Leia bikini look demure, and who desperately wants to "do wonders" for Shad.
"I would recharge his capacitors, stimulate his solenoid, dingle, dangle, prangle his transistors. You know... sex," she explains, in a sequence that invented all sorts of new innuendo but probably didn't make it into Danning's demo reel.
The real stars of Battle Beyond the Stars, though, are two young upstarts named James Cameron and James Horner, who both use every trick available to them to make this seem like a far grander and more expensive film than it really is.
Cameron — who was hired after impressing Corman with his short film, Xenogenesis — does an incredible job with the limited resources available to him as the film's production designer and art director, creating distinctive and memorable space ships and sets that are far, far better than the film deserves.
The most enduring of those designs, if only for its sheer weirdness, is surely Shad's ship, which was referred to by the crew as "the flying uterus", and was specifically designed by Cameron to appeal to Corman's instincts as a maker of exploitation films after Corman had vetoed all his other proposals.
Horner, meanwhile, gifts the film with a score worthy of an epic sci-fi adventure film (luckily, thanks to Horner's tendency to revisit elements of his old work, parts of the score did end up in epic sci-fi adventure films like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Krull.) If you're a soundtrack buff, it's worth adding this one to your collection, even if you've got no interest in watching the film.
Cameron and Horner would eventually make classics like Aliens and the all-conquering Titanic together, but in 1980, on the set of Battle Beyond the Stars, those achievements were a long, long way away, and it's fun to see what the pair were able to accomplish on a DIY budget.
Corman, for his part, knew how to make the most of a good thing, and ended up recycling a lot of Cameron's work in another low-budget sci-fi effort, Space Raiders. Horner's score also became a Corman fixture — which seems fitting, given Horner's own tendency to dip into his back catalogue when working on new scores.
(Corman and George Lucas actually have something in common here, because Lucas himself had plans to re-use sets and props from Star Wars for a cheap, quickie sequel, Splinter of the Mind's Eye, if Star Wars hadn't hit big and justified the expense of Empire.)
The best efforts of Cameron and Horner are somewhat undermined, though, by the pedestrian direction of Jimmy T Murakami, an animation specialist who does a serviceable job here but fails to really leave an impression.
His action sequences fail to deliver, and by the time you hit the film's 10th virtually identical space battle, Battle Beyond the Stars starts to feel like the sort of movie that's more fun to talk about than it is to actually watch.
Still, Battle is more of an ambitious failure than a real bore, and as an attempt by a notorious producer to replicate the formula of Star Wars with the help of a couple of young legends in the making, it's absolutely a worthwhile watch for fans of George Lucas' saga.
If you live in the States or own a multi-region player, you can buy it on DVD or Blu-Ray through Shout! Factory. Otherwise, it's not exactly hard to find the full movie on YouTube.
For what its worth, Seven Samurai has been given a Star Wars makeover in at least two pieces of official Star Wars media. The first time was in issues 8 through to 10 of Marvel's original Star Wars comic, in which Han Solo and Chewie assembled a motley crew of space warriors (including Jaxxon, the infamous green space rabbit) to defend a village of peasant farmers.
This storyline, published in 1978, actually pre-dates Battle Beyond the Stars, so Corman wasn't even the first person to have the idea of crafting a fresh Star Wars story around a knock-off of this particular Akira Kurosawa film.
The second time was Bounty Hunters, a Season Two episode of The Clone Wars that was explicitly presented as a tribute to Kurosawa.
Funnily enough, that episode was immediately followed by the Zillo Beast arc, which was a tribute to Godzilla, a film that was in production by the same studio at the same time as Seven Samurai — but that's another story, for another time...