Our review of Battle Beyond the Stars (Blu-ray), published June 20th, 2011, is also available.
Rebels. Outlaws. Mercenaries. Seven magnificent warriors join to fight the…Battle Beyond the Stars.
In a filmmaking career that extends for almost fifty years, Roger Corman has proven himself the king of the low budget, quickly produced, and above all profitable minor feature film. He is the master of the B pictures. He has worked as a writer, director, and producer of over 300 movies. His films have often been tacky and occasionally sleazy and/or exploitative. However, over the course of his career he has developed a legendary ability to do more with his miniscule budgets than anyone would have thought possible, making entertaining movies on the cheap. To keep his costs low, he has often used props and sets left over from bigger, more expensive productions. He is also the undisputed champion of shooting on a tight schedule; he holds the record of two days and a night for his 1960 version of The Little Shop of Horrors.
Corman is also recognized as a great discoverer of new talent. His ability to locate, and then provide a training ground for young filmmakers has produced an impressive roster of directors and performers. Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Dennis Hopper and Charles Bronson are just a few of the big names that got their start working for Corman.
Corman has shown a remarkable ability to "strike while the iron is hot," capitalizing on major Hollywood trends. In 1993 he produced Carnosaur, an unabashedly gory and exploitative dinosaur film which actually hit theaters a few weeks before Jurassic Park. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, there was another trend-setting genre picture to rip off, a little space opera which, um, "borrowed" heavily from a film by the great Akira Kurosawa. Hollywood had been pilfering Kurosawa's ideas for years, and it was inevitable that Corman would eventually follow suit, creating a movie that he calls "Seven Samurai in space."
Facts of the Case
The planet Akir is under attack by the evil tyrant Sador (John Saxon, the Nightmare on Elm Street series, From Dusk Till Dawn). The people of Akir, known as the Akira, are a gentle, pacifistic people with no way of protecting themselves against such a foe. Sador intends to harvest the Akira for spare body parts, so that he can repair his own deteriorating form and live forever. With the fate of the entire planet at stake, the Akira send a farm boy named Shad (Richard Thomas, known to all as John Boy from TV's The Waltons) to recruit a band of mercenaries to defend Akir from Sador. Shad sets out in a spaceship with a distinctly female form and an artificial intelligence system with a real attitude.
And what a mixed bag of mercenaries he finds! He is first joined by Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel, To Live and Die in L.A.). An attractive young woman, Nanelia has spent her whole life on a space station inhabited only by androids and the disembodied head of her father. While she has much to learn about human interactions, she is a technical and scientific whiz. They are soon joined by Cowboy (George Peppard, Breakfast at Tiffany's, The A-Team), a wisecracking, hard-drinking interstellar trucker/arms smuggler who comes from a distant planet called Earth, which no one has ever heard of. Their membership swells as they encounter Saint-Exmin of the Valkyrie (Sybil Danning, Chained Heat, Amazon Women on the Moon, Das Mädchen mit der heißen Masche), who is either terribly underdressed or overdressed, depending on one's point of view. Cayman of the Lambda Zone (Morgan Woodward, Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Dallas) joins the fight; he and his crew hunt interstellar creatures and aside from a really badly-articulated lizard mask are not far removed from Captain Ahab and the crew of the Pequod in Moby Dick. The team is rounded out by Nestor, a collection of five "facets" all sharing the same consciousness, and Gelt (Robert Vaughn, The Magnificent Seven, The Towering Inferno, Superman III), a quiet, mysterious man haunted by an evil past.
Battle Beyond the Stars was made for $2 million—the highest budget of any Corman picture up to that time—and grossed $1.7 million in its opening weekend. (In comparison, Star Wars had a budget of $11.5 million.) As usual, Corman and his crew were able to make a virtue of necessity, and created a movie with over 200 special effects shots on this tight budget. True to form, many of the models and effects sequences in Battle Beyond the Stars would later be reused in several other Corman productions. The effects are actually pretty well done and convincing; simply put, they don't look nearly as cheap as they must have been. The look of most of the models and sets is equally impressive. This is the result of a lot of hard work by a young James Cameron (yes, the "King of the World" himself), who started out as the head model maker on the picture, but found himself suddenly promoted to art director in the midst of the production when it was discovered that the previous art director had failed to build any of the necessary sets. Cameron's sets and designs are unique and believable, and show a great deal of the ingenuity required to make a successful movie on a shoestring budget.
John Sayles (The Brother from Another Planet, Eight Men Out) states in his commentary track with Corman that he felt that science fiction literature of the time was far more advanced than science fiction cinema, and he wanted to include in his script some of the fascinating elements that might be found in novels or short stories. To that end he included some very strange and interesting characters, such as the multifaceted Nestor and the Kelvins, a race of people who are mute but communicate through changes in temperature. Make no mistake: Battle Beyond the Stars is nowhere near being a "hard" science fiction story, but Sayles did try to incorporate some interesting concepts. Also, he wanted his characters to be somewhat realistic individuals, even though they came from fantastic backgrounds. He spent a lot of time thinking about the attributes of each character, and how each of the different species of mercenary would live and die. In the end the script, while not great literature and not great cinema, manages to be a bit more literate, a bit more thoughtful, and a bit more intelligent than one would expect from a grade B science fiction movie. It makes for an entertaining and mostly satisfying story; of course, one would expect no less when stealing from Kurosawa. If there is a flaw it is in pacing; Shad's search for mercenaries and the preparations to fight Sador and the Malmori take so long that the climactic showdown between the forces of good and evil seems a bit rushed at times. There is a great sense of humor in the script as well, with some clever one-liners and other nice touches that add to an overall sense of fun and adventure. The movie knows better than to take itself completely seriously, but never crosses the line into overt camp.
The acting performances are also better than expected for this type of movie. Richard Thomas is very believable as Shad. His John-Boy earnestness and naïveté serves him well in this role. Darlanne Fluegel is also good if somewhat forgettable in her role as Nanelia. George Peppard shows some decent comedic ability as the Cowboy. However, the two biggest assets among the cast are Robert Vaughn as the fatalistic, somber Gelt and John Saxon as the evil Sador. Vaughn's role is essentially a reprise of the role he played in The Magnificent Seven, right down to a couple of key speeches which are lifted almost wholesale from the earlier film. He plays the role with a mixture of sadness and self-assurance that makes his character the most memorable in the picture. Saxon obviously had a lot of fun with his role. He plays his scenes to the hilt with a sense of relish that only a larger than life villain can bring.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the musical score by James Horner. In my recent Krull review I lambasted Mr. Horner for merely recycling his score from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Interestingly enough, major elements of this music evidently first appeared here, in Battle Beyond the Stars. Here, as in Star Trek II and unlike Krull, the music works very well and captures the sense of adventure and wonder that a good space opera needs.
For this DVD release the audio was remixed into a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. It is surprisingly good, given the age and pedigree of the source material. The rear surrounds are put to good use with the musical score, and there are a number of surprisingly well-done directional effects. The audio is clear, with no noticeable hiss or other distortion, and dialogue is easily understood. The one major downfall in the audio track is an apparent lack of response in the bass end of the register.
The quantity and quality of the extra content on this DVD is amazing for a low-budget, mostly forgotten Corman cheapie. There is a nicely done section of cast and crew biographical information. A theatrical trailer is provided full frame, and actually looks to be in better condition overall than much of the movie used for this disc. There are also four "Preview Attractions" trailers, for Saint Jack, Piranha, Fire on the Amazon, and Suburbia. There is a fun little trivia game, which gives access to a photo gallery if you answer all the questions correctly. This photo gallery has 51 pictures, but two of them appear to be from Space Raiders, another Corman sci-fi flick that recycled a lot of effects footage from Battle Beyond the Stars.
Finally, we are treated to two whole feature-length commentary tracks. The first features Gale Anne Hurd, who got her start as an assistant to Corman on this picture and went on to become a successful producer of such movies as The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Aliens, and The Abyss. [Editor's Note: And might I mention that she is one of several ex-Mrs. James Camerons.] Her commentary starts a little slow, and has a few too many gaps for my taste, but is well done overall and gives a lot of interesting information about the movie and the process of making it. She provides a number of interesting anecdotes about Cameron, Peppard, Corman, and other participants.
The real jewel on this DVD is the commentary featuring the master himself, Roger Corman. As alluded to earlier, he teams up with screenwriter John Sayles for this track. It is a jackpot of background information about making quality low-budget movies, from set construction to special effects to shooting schedules and just about anything else one might want to know. Most importantly, it provides some insight into the personality and career of Roger Corman, one of the most interesting people in the movies.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The video presentation on this DVD leaves a lot to be desired. However, as far as I can tell, most of the defects are problems with the source print, with only a few questionable digital flaws. The print used for this transfer was badly nicked and scratched in several places, and in places still shows the "cigarette burns" used to indicate reel changes. Darker scenes are often quite grainy, and blacks generally only reach a sort of charcoal grey. Colors are often faded, and Caucasian flesh tones tend to run a bit to the pink side. Overall the sharpness is quite good, with no discernible edge enhancement. Shadows are a mixed bag, again dependent on flaws in the original cinematography. However, some scenes look very good; as an example, there are some shots of a space station early in the movie that are stunning in their amount of shadow detail and overall clarity. This can probably be attributed to James Cameron's work as special effects cameraman. In summary, this seems to be an excessively faithful transfer of a flawed source print. Battle Beyond the Stars is unfortunately non-anamorphic, but probably looks better than it has in the last twenty years.
There were a few details about the DVD itself that were not to my liking. First of all, the menu structure is a bit unwieldy. For example, after choosing an item from the "Special Features" submenu, the only exit option is to return to the main menu. This would not be so bad if New Concorde had not jumped on the annoying "sound and motion" menus bandwagon. A larger criticism is the lack of any subtitles on the disc. I don't need eight different languages, but English would be nice at the very least.
This cheesy but endearing Star Wars clone is probably one of the better movies associated with Roger Corman's long career. Battle Beyond the Stars is a flawed but mostly entertaining movie, and is great fun to watch. It is a reminder that not every movie has to have a price tag equal to the GNP of Lithuania in order to be a satisfying way to spend a couple of hours. It's not great art but it is good clean fun. Genre fans should seriously consider buying this or at least renting it; it would be perfect as the second half of a twin bill with the original Star Wars.
Producer Roger Corman and the cast and crew of Battle Beyond the Stars are acquitted, and are to be commended for making a watchable, enjoyable movie on a budget that wouldn't cover the catering bill for most productions.
New Concorde Home Video is another matter. The amount of work that went into the audio and special features is great, but the video leaves a lot to be desired. Granted, they are presumably just reproducing the print they were given to work with, but it would have been nice to see some care taken, and perhaps some cleanup work done.
We stand adjourned. Live fast, fight well and have a beautiful ending!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Concorde
• Commentary by Roger Corman and John Sayles
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