Some of the best movies that came out of Roger Corman’s proper B-Movie talent farm were the ones where the legendary producer enabled rogue artists like Monte Hellman (whose Cockfighter may be the strongest movie Corman ever produced) with a little bit of cash and a whole lot of freedom. Sometimes, Corman didn’t necessarily get what he paid for (as evidenced by the Born to Kill re-edit of Hellman’s microcosmic classic), yet cinematic history was bestowed a rare, idiosyncratic gift that lived on beyond its initial drive-in run. However, the New World pictures that were the most fun undoubtedly belonged to the blatant cash-ins Corman bankrolled, many helmed by visionary filmmakers (like Joe Dante’s Jaws riff, Piranha) who retained a “we’re in it for the money” sense of chintziness despite noble creative intentions. These films were the perfect balance of art meeting commerce halfway, all while Corman ensured (usually in the editing bay) that those who bought tickets were treated to lo-fi goofball spectacle.
Battle Beyond the Stars is one of the better examples of Corman’s cash grab junk, sporting a John Sayles script, a James Horner score, and enough bizarro Star Wars noodling to fill ten films. Director Jimmy Murakami vibes on the Seven Samurai and Magnificent Seven grooves Sayles injects into the script, straining to go as big as the $2 million budget* will let him. The results are a mixed bag – always slightly ‘off’, occasionally a little slow, yet possessing enough eccentric attitude to never become boring. Battle Beyond the Stars recognizes it’s playing dress up at the big kids’ party, but knows it still belongs there, unafraid to let it all hang out as the proceedings get stranger and stranger.
The setup is rudimentary for anyone who’s watched a space opera, samurai film or Western: Sador (John Saxon) and his evil armada of mutant killers set their sights upon peaceful planet, Akir, swearing that if the Akira (ahem…) do not bow down before them, their world will be obliterated. Without any home grown means of defense, the Akira nominate a young farm boy named Shad (Richard Thomas, doing Luke Skywalker Lite) to take a sailor-mouthed ship (voiced by early Cassavetes collaborator, Lynn Carlin), and hire mercenaries to help defend their world. Among the ragamuffins he recruits are freighter pilot Space Cowboy (George Peppard), beautiful robotics expert Nanelia (action goddess Darlanne Fluegel), skilled warrior woman Saint-Exmin (Sybil Danning, igniting loins across the galaxy), and bounty hunter Gelt (Robert Vaughn – reprising essentially the same role he portrayed in The Magnificent Seven). This rough and tumble group aid the Akira in readying themselves for invasion, and for the first time in history, they’re going to be ready for battle.
Out of everyone involved, Sayles is most certainly giving the story his all. One of the most distinct voices to come out of the New World factory, his early scripts often played with genre conventions and focused on crafting colorful characters to populate these warped worlds. His screenplay for Battle Beyond the Stars is no different – funny, irreverent, and stuffed to the outer limits with memorable oddballs. Peppard’s Space Cowboy is the most striking – a relic of 50s Westerns somehow shot into space, he roasts hot dogs, plays the harmonica and swigs whiskey from his belt buckle. Coming in at a close second is Nestor – a “hive mind” portrayed by multiple actors (including future Terminator slime Earl Boen) in bright white pancake makeup, each with glowing white third eyes on their foreheads. Even Saxon’s big bad has a sneering dynamism about him; a rogue militant looking to exert raw naked force over the cowering cosmos. He pillages, harvesting organs and body parts in order to try and extend his lifespan. Sayles embraces the inherent corniness of these characters, but breathes life into them through peculiarity.
Also instantly identifiable is the rather lush, elaborate art direction provided by James Cameron. It’s pretty easy to understand why Cameron and future producing partner Gale Anne Hurd (whom the Aliens director met on the BBTS set) became a consummate creative force afterward. They discovered a DIY mindset while working to build an entire sprawling galaxy for these misfits to play in. The rear projection and garish, eye-popping sets combine to create a real sense of place; even if none of it feels remotely lived-in. This genre staginess brings to mind classic space adventure serials – creating an even greater sense of sci-fi connective tissue. Once Horner’s theme-heavy score is laid overtop, it’s hard not to get completely swept up in the B-Movie bravado of it all.
Though it doesn’t precisely adhere to the “Corman Rule” of containing some sort of sex or violence every ten minutes, Battle Beyond the Stars certainly abides by another one of the mega-producer’s mantras. “The audience is never wrong,” Corman says, and this pulp confection is certainly playing toward the tastes that turned The Empire Strikes Back into a $210 million grossing blockbuster the very same year. Battle Beyond the Stars is hitting familiar beats, and hitting them really hard. Yet like a pop star riding the musical trend of their time, there’re enough tweaks on each of the notes to become its own filmic earworm. While it’s certainly not some kind of cinematic landmark or divergent piece of outsider art, Battle Beyond the Stars was never really intended to be much more than a momentary diversion, intent on beaming you to another world for just long enough to whet an escapist appetite.
*Thanks to the salaries of Robert Vaughn and George Peppard, BBTS became Corman’s most expensive movie to date.