Battle Beyond The Stars

 

Director: Jimmy T. Murakami

USA - 1980

How many ripoffs of Seven Samurai can there be?  Thereís The Magnificent Seven, which spawned sequels and a TV series (which I have, mercifulHeed the head of John Saxon!ly, never seen), thereís episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, there was even a brief, two-issue storyline early in the Marvel Comics run of Star Wars that had Han Solo and Chewie recruiting spacers on some backwater world to fight some bandits riding air motorcycles.  And then there was Battle Beyond the Stars.

Donít get me wrong, Battle Beyond the Stars (or BBTS, for brevity) (I know, I know, brevity should be a foreign concept to me) is a fun little movie, and it allowed many fine actors to pay their rent that month.  It also generated spaceship footage that Roger Corman is still recycling and re-cutting into any production he can.  But itís hard to really call it ďqualityĒ entertainment, in the same way that some of its precursors can be so named.  It canít escape its essential cheapness, which is always the hobgoblin of little Corman films.  It tries to compensate with originality, and almost succeeds, but in the end, itís a cheap attempt to exploit the popularity of Star Wars in a time-honored ensemble format.  In that, itís hardly a singular film.

It is, however, a veritable buffet of famous faces.  In compiling the research for this particular film, I discovered some of the hardest working actors in show business, based on the number of productions and TV guest appearances listed on the IMDB.  Take a look at this table of the main actors:

 

Actor (Role)

Productions

Guest Spots

Richard Thomas (Shad)

72

21

Robert Vaughn (Gelt)

128

97

John Saxon (Sador)

125

77

George Peppard (Cowboy)

45

14

Darlanne Fluegel (Nanelia)

25

4

Sybil Danning (Saint-Exmin)

59

9

Sam Jaffe (Dr. Hephaestus)

36

35

Jeff Corey (Zed)

139

71

Morgan Woodward (Cayman of the Lambda Zone)

42

134

Marta Kristen (Lux)

13

22

Earl Boen (Nestor 1)

114

107

Lynn Carlin (Nellís Voice)

24

30

 

 

 

AVERAGES

68.5

51.75

Now, even just by the numbers, thatís a lot of star power!  And thatís just in front of the camera.  The director, Jimmy T. Murakami, also did Humanoids from the Deep, for what itís worth.  Okay, thatís not a good example.  But one of the screenwriters was John Sayles, who has done 28 other major films, including The Brother From Another Planet, Lone Star, and, of course, Piranha!  It was produced by the (in)famous Roger Corman, as one of his first 150 projects (heís up to 342, now), and it featured starship models created by none other than Titanicís James Cameron.  The score was composed by James Horner, who provided the excellent music in Krull, several Star Trek films, and most of the Land Before Time movies.  Mind you, it all starts to sound reminiscent of each other, but thatís okay, because it rather sets the scene, doesnít it?  I mean, it still provides the right quasi-martial action-movie mood, so I think it works.

So many of the people here had either done, or were on their way to, great things.  Or mediocre things.  Well, okay, many things of varying quality.  Point is, they were hard-working professionals, all pulling together for what was, no doubt, expected to be a quickie moneymaker that would fade almost immediately.  Which it did, of course, but it had enough juice and originalitAnyone that moves gets one in the crotch!y to linger in the minds of people such as us, and thatís why itís so interesting to see these days (as opposed to Carnosaur, for example)

Richard Thomas is, of course, famous for playing John Boy on The Waltons for a whole bunch of years.  He is playing, appropriately enough, a space farmer named John Boy.  No, actually, the characterís name is Shad, but as Mr. Thomas has been so thoroughly identified with the character of John Boy Walton, itís hard not to think of that name when you see him.

John Boy is a dreamer, the only young man on his peaceful, bucolic home planetoid of Akir (represented by an obvious matte painting and a few bulbous buildings) who still looks fondly upon the adventuresome stories of the communityís only other rebellious type, the aged, blind, former space pirate, Zed (the late Jeff Corey, an old Western mainstay, and also the Grand Vizier in Conan the Destroyer).  Thatís why, when the planetoid is menaced by the evil Sador (the always-solid John Saxon, who was in far too many films of this quality to pick only a few favorites) and Sadorís super-starship full of deteriorating mutants (the Malmori, though itís more like the Mal-formed-i), John Boy is the one who has to fly o"Separation anxiety" takes on a whole new meaning! *rimshot*ut on Zedís old starship, Nell, and get some help before Sador comes back to take the yearís harvest and whatever slaves he feels a fancy toward.  Mind you, violence is forbidden by the Varda, the scriptures that the natives of Akir live by, but when youíve only got seven risings of the planetís star in which to comply, that motivates a lot of understanding from Varda scholars.

Itís standard to have representatives from the village go out to find help, just as itís standard for the villagers to eventually arm up and help defend their own homes.  Whatís not quite so standard is the thorough participation of the village representative, who eventually becomes as much of a warrior as any of them.  John Boy is such a central character, not only in the beginning but throughout the film, that he canít help but become a full participant in what is to come.  It also saves with having to hire another actor, as John Boy can be counted as one of the seven.

The only starship in the film with any personality, Nell (whose computer voice is provided by Lynn Carlin, who previously worked with John Boy as a guest star on The Waltons) is a flying rack.  By that, I mean she has two rounded, roughly co"We're going to watch some movies, Alex."nical projections jutting out from the bow.  Yes, folks, flying breasts.  Whee!  In any case, Nell doesnít think too highly of young John Boy; heís got a lot to prove, it heís going to live up to Zedís example.

Nellís also a good teacher in the value of practicality over pure theory, as the movie progresses (ďDamn stupid rule,Ē she says at one point).  In your own little ivory tower, or whatever metaphor suits your personal intellectual enclave, itís easy to cling to rigid codes of behavior and thought, but out in the wild wooliness of reality, your little preconceived notions may not fit with the needs of survival.  Itís all well and good to believe in the inherent goodness of all beings (or ďformsĒ as the movie calls them, presumably an abbreviation of ďlife-formsĒ), but someoneís deeply buried core of goodness does you no good when youíre faced with the surrounding layers of brutal evil brandishing a weapon at you.  Verses from whatever scripture you follow may give you a plan for your life, but they canít cover every conceivable situation, and sometimes what they tell you is true simply isnít, in the real world.  Itís a sad fact of life that John Boy has to confront, and Nell makes sure he gets the point.

Maybe thatís the point of growing up: youíre supposed to realize the world is infinitely complex, and your version of truth and goodness is just one among many.  In an ideal world, people would get to that point, and try to figure out a way to coexist with other points of view.  In the actual world, however, it seems like many folks see this truth, then eKevin Spacey IS Thomas Dolby in BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS!mbark on a campaign to convert all other points of view to their own.  Which, to my mind, seems not only an impossible task, but one more likely to incite more than its fair share of stress, discord, and violence.  And even if you succeed, you end up with a dull, monotonous intellectual landscape, which will fly to pieces as soon as one person gets a new idea.   But thatís for the philosophy text, not for the movie review.

It takes a little bit of evasion to get past the one fighter that Sador has left behind to watch the planet, but they manage it.  Then itís open space and free-wheeling fun.  Zed gives John Boy one lead: Dr. Hephaestus, an old ally from back in the day.  The good Dr. is played by Sam Jaffe, who probably couldnít help but compare this role to his turn as Professor Jacob Barnhardt in The Day the Earth Stood Still.  He has more charisma in the limited time we get to see him than some of the leads have in this whole movie.  Thatís professionalism.

Anyway, Hephaestus lives on an almost-abandoned space station, tended by his androids, which are, for obvious reasons, completely human-like.  He also has a daughter, Nanelia, who, upon meeting John Boy, attempts to diI ain't gettin' in no plane, Hannibal!sassemble him.  It turns out John Boy is the first form, other than her father, sheís ever met.  Which is easy to say, but what kind of personality would that produce?  Particularly when her father is willing to lock down the Space-Breasts and keep John Boy prisoner for breeding purposes.  With his daughter, naturally; apparently their forms are genetically compatible.  Frankly, it seems like most ďformsĒ are pretty simplistic; there was not much of an effort put forth to make the aliens actually alien, but thatís okay.  Thatís not why weíre here, anyway.

Defying all sense and logic, Nanelia decides to release John Boy.  Despite growing up the way she did, and using an android torso as some kind of boom-box, of all things, she somehow still has a desire to see the universe.  Somehow, her spirit has not been crushed by her oppressive living standards.  Which is, of course, the real science fiction here.  But I digress.  She and John Boy flee her father, though she canít bring anything better than a high-tech Game-boyô, and then split up in order to find warriors to help John Boyís planet.  Technically, Nanelia is just supposed to meet him in the Lambda Zone, but we all know how that sort of thing turns out, donít we? "Sir!  We're apparently under attack by something from Spencer's Gifts!"

Then we meet the Space Cowboy (George Peppard, also known as The A-Teamís Hannibal Smith) in his space machine, as heís under attack by ďjackers.Ē  Heís a long-distance cargo hauler from Earth with an unhealthy fascination with the Ancient West, and some call him the doctor of love (if they donít call him Maurice).  This places the story firmly in the future, in our galaxy, whereas avoiding any mention of our planet would have left the whole thing open.  Anyway, they wanted a cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking realist, who happened to have on hand a bunch of weapons (seems his clients get themselves all blowed up by Sador, which not only demonstrates his weapon, but also provides arms for an unarmed planetó10,000 laser Mac-10s, and 40,000 charge slots).  In order to unload his otherwise profitless cargo, he agrees to go to John Boyís planet and help train the people to defend themselves.  Who do you want to bet is going to find a cause to care about?  Or at the very least, heís going to have a plan he loves when it comes together.

At this stage, I should point out Morgan Woodward in his role as Cayman of the Lambda Zone, last survivor of his species, the Lazuli, thanks to Sador.  Woodward played Boss Godfrey in Cool Hand Luke, and had some guest roles on X-Files and Millennium, but youíll never recognize him under all the Cayman makeup.  One of Caymanís significant points is that not only does he provide one of the seven starships, but he travels with assistants, a big burly guy with a pole-arm (Kophim?  Coophim?) and two members of the Kelvin species, who radiate intense heat.  Thereís a fun little moment, later in the film, when the Kelvins are sitting back to back, with everyone else circled around them, and Cowboy is roasting hot-dogs near them.  Everyone makes a contribution to the fight, which is properly heroic of them, even if the main motivation is revenge.

Possibly the lightest of the mercenary characters is Nestor, a group-mind being with a number of humanoid bodies, who joins for the sheer adventure of it.  The primary interface of Nestor is played by Earl Boen, who is much more recognizable as the psychologist Dr. Peter Silberman, who makes appearances in the various Terminator movies.  For one thing, heís not under quite so much white pancake makeup in any of those films as he has to play under here in BBTS.  Or maybe his face is naturally pasty white, and they have to doctor him up for his non-Nestor film roles.  That might explain why he does so much voice-only work, particularly for videogames.  Then again, maybe itís just easy money.

I can only imagine that a modern remake would simply use CGI to map the same face, or even body, onto all Nestor.  They could even make that third eye blink, once in a while.  Hey, Corman did what he could with what he had available at the time, no faulting that, but I could see what he was attempting to create, and modern technology wWhen you think Corman, think EPIC!ould simply allow him to create it even better.  Thatís assuming there would be a remake, which I wouldnít put it past Hollywood Ö

Now, to provide a little break between two John Boy scenes, you have to cut to something else.  In this case, itís a little scene with the two left behind to guard the planet.  I swear one of them, probably Kalo, is Wallace Shawn (well known as Vizzini from The Princess Bride) acting under a pseudonym, but thatís a question for later.  Anyway, they use a transporter to beam up John Boyís sister, Mol, who is played by Julia Duffy (well known as playing Stephanie Vanderkellen on The Bob Newhart Show), for their obscene pleasure.  Mind you, this brings up a question later on, but hey, thatís for later.  You have to wonder, however, exactly how big these fighters are: they seem to have a huge control area and a whole suite of back rooms.  Odd, that.

Going to a wretched hive of scum and villany to look for more recruits (hey, it worked for Obi-Wan), John Boy finds that the whole place has gone downhill since the days Zed and Nell knew it.  He has the opportunity to try some vices, but decides against it.  Not counting a creepy ďdial-a-dateĒ machine, thereís only one resident: the intensely skilled mercenary Gelt (pronounced like the German word for ďmoney,Ē appropriately enough), who is played by Robert Vaughan. Robert Vaughn gets his big break!

Robert Vaughan.  Itís difficult to do a Seven Samurai remake without Vaughan .  He even had a recurring role in the Magnificent Seven TV show; the only reason he wasnít in the DS9 episode was because he was too tall to play a Ferengi (and they kind of made up for it by casting Iggy Pop in a role, which has nothing to do with anything else here).  The point is, heís defined the kind of character you need in one of these films, the professional whoís seen too much, has too much past, and is therefore too haunted to enjoy what heís earned.  The archetype is supposed to show how evil and killing can wear on a personís soul, regardless of wealth, and either you deaden yourself to it (like the villains) or you suffer for it (like the heroes).  And few people show it quite like Robert Vaughan (largely because few people have had as much practice at it).  Vaughan is also one of the hardest-working spies in show business, having parleyed Napoleon Solo into 12 separate credits on his resume, and that still counts the 4 years of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. series as one.

In any case, this ďRobert VaughanĒ kind of character also plays with one of my favorite concepts: the passage of time and what it does to a hero.  Or villain, for that matter.  When youíre young and vital and can change the world, what happens forty years later, when your sequin-studded butt has that middle-age spread and youíre basically rehashing your former glory before your appointed date with an aneurysm on the toilet?  I loved it in The Dark Knight Returns (though not so much in The Dark Knight Strikes Again), and the idea crops up in everything from DS9, to Bubba Ho-Tep, to The Shootist, to, naturally, most of the Seven Samurai remakes in existence.  Actually, BBTS is unusual, in that the impermanence of youth and fame, the sense of loss and age and acceptance, is dealt with not only through Robert Vaughan, but also through Zed, the boob-ship, the Cowboy... heck, even Sador is constantly getting transplanted organs and limbs in an effort to forestall age and death (a fact which becomes a plot point later on).  Many would think this leads to a darker, more depressing film; I think it simply adds a bit of realism and foresight that is missing in most action/adventure SF. EPIC!

Anyway.  Gelt settles disputes.  Very quickly.  Heís very good at it.  And he doesnít care who he works with.

John Boy has a bit of trouble with this.  ďYou kill for money?Ē

ďI have no home, no family, no principlesÖ what else would I kill for?Ē

ďPleasure?Ē

ďNo.  Itís strictly business with me.Ē  This is pretty much the only thing that separates him from Sador and the Malmori.  Well, that, and heís calmer, and actually competent.  And not slowly warping.

Gelt comes along for the price of a good meal and a place to hide.  Heís quite effective, but they reuse the shots of his minimalist professionalism, flying his spacecraft, way too much.  A little bit is cool, but after you start to recognize the flick of the eyes, it gets old.  But hey, itís a Corman film; count the different explosions, and youíll only take half a dozen drinks, because they re-use them over and over again.  Itís expected.

Every group of samurai has to have that one hanger-on, the one who they really donít want around, but who proves themselves useful and eventually earns the honor.  In the original Seven, that was Toshiro Mifuneís plum role.  In Magnificent Seven, it was Hilario, ďthe kid,Ē played the late Mexican star Jorge Martinez de Hoyos as the son of a peasant who also carries the love story (mixing up some of the standard Seven qualities that seem to appear in most adaptations).  In BBTS, itís the glamorous Saint-Exmin, member of a warrior race, the Valkyrie (geez, want to come up with some original names, there?), who must prove themselves in battle to earn adulthood.  She starts by ďcounting coupĒ on Nell, earning John Boyís entirely uncharacteristic ire (I mean, really, you need all the help you can get, including annoying help), and she eventually just hangs around enough that she becomes part of the group.  Saint-Exmin is played by Sybil Danning at the height of her lusciousness, well after The Four Musketeers but before Chained Heat.  While itís always, always good to have a leggy beauty in a silver lame underpants-based costume, particularly with costume elements that draw such attention to her ample bosom, Iím not sure how intimidating it makes her as a combatant.  Of course, the intimidation factor is also offset by the reclining cleavage-enhancing, spread-legged position of her flight chair.  Pretty as she is, looking up her nostrils is not as flattering as you might think.

Okay, so, the warriors gather to plan and prepare.  Thereís going to be space battles, but also ground action, and everybody, including the farmers, has to train and get ready.  Sador takes an inordinately long time to decide to simply blow up the blasted planet; maybe he thought he could still get the ďtributeĒ he demanded if he crushed their resistance early on, but then again, he seemed willing to blow up another planet for trivial resistance; why wouldnít he do the same here?  But weíre all here for the battle sequences, which are not too badly done, considering their source.  I mean, sure, we get tired of seeing the same old explosion every few seconds, but explosions were expensive back then.  So itís more a matter of getting the best value for your dollar, which Corman has done, considering heís re-used all that model footage for pretty much every space project heís developed since 1980.  I once owned a copy of Space Raiders, and I wondered why all the battle scenes looked so familiarÖ

Thereís a certain degree of ďwhy the hell did they do that, thatís just stupid and suicidal,Ē and thereís a couple of points where they break some of the rules they established early on (not unlike saying vampires canít stand daylight, then having them walk around in the afternoon sun), but overall, they manage to keep some tension and let things move along at a good clip. "What are you doing, Dave?"

Of course, I wonder why Sador would need to invade on the ground, anyway.  With his huge ship, with its snipers of proven effectiveness, and heck, even with a few strafing runs from the fighters, you could do a lot more damage than those ground forces did, without risking a single mutant soldier.  Also, why did they have to drop the troops so far away?  The planet doesnít have any ground-based forces, so if youíre going to get people past the rag-tag army of ships, anyway, you might as well put down right in the central square, forget all those suspicious-looking trenches.  And youíve already demonstrated that you have transporters, so why do you have to land people, anyway, when you can transport them wherever you like?  Some muddy planning on Sadorís part, I think.  But I suppose that kind of tactical thinking has no place in the distant future.  Neither does ergonomic design, as who in their right mind would make a combat fighter where you had to reach across your body to tap the one key to fire your weapons?  Isnít that what they build triggers into control sticks for?  Man, I tell you, move one normal person several thousand years in the future, by movie rules, and youíd absolutely rule!

Hereís one little thing I noticed while researching the movie.  Besides the folks listed at the start, many of these people have very few, if any, other credits.  Yago, Sadorís chief lieutenant?  Played by Dick Carlos?  No other credits under that name.  The two mooks left behind in the fighter to guard the planet, Kalo and Tembo, played by Robert Pearce and Larry Broyles?  Only Robert has a previous credit (one), and neither ever worked again.  The two actors credited as the characters both named Pez, Daniel Carlin and Doug Carlsson?  No other credits.  Wok as played by Ansley Carlson (not to be confused with Wok as played by Galen Thompson, a real actor and writer)óonly credit, just like Quopeg as played by Steve Says (again, not to be confused with Quepeg played by Steve Davis, another real actor).  Thereís the actress Kimberly Sommer, playing Kintwarna, and Dallas Clarke, playing Askew, who only have this as their credit, and I donít even remember those characters appearing in the finished film.

Hereís another thing: in the quotes on the IMDB, they list Sador as introducing his third officer, Frojo (though, when watching the film, I thought it sounded like Dokko, and I donít remember the third officer so much as surgeon).  However, in the complete credits, thereís no such name, Frojo or Dokko.  Weird.

Thereís one notable actor that I havenít mentioned yet, in the stellar role as Garóone Terrence E. McNally, who not only co-wrote the Julie Brown song ďHomecoming Queenís Got A GunĒ with Charlie Coffey, but also co-wrote (with Coffey), produced, and played a role in Earth Girls Are Easy, which had Julie Brown in a prominent supporting role.  Julie was his wife, at the time, though that has since ended.

Anyway.  All in all, itís pretty dated and cheesy, but itís fun, and thereís a whole lot worse out there, particularly from Sayles and Corman.  A lot of these people turn in excellent performances for no discernable reason.  If youíre a film buff, you can spend a lot of time comparing and contrasting different versions of the story.  And itís much shorter than the original Kurosawa film.

 

Thereís something to be said about having a giant holographic John Saxon head address the crowd.  I mean, if youíre going to intimidate a large group of people, I think John Saxon might work as well as anyone else.  Except maybe Ming the Mercilessís head; thatís about all I can think of to top it.

Rule of Science Fiction: Never trust any strange remote-controlled sleds.  Works for BBTS, also for Disneyís The Black Hole.  Word to the wise.

Thereís an exchange with quasi-lesbian overtones between Nanelia and Saint-Exmin, which just seems tacked on, much like the love-story between Nanelia and John Boy.  Will they never learn?  If a love story isnít integral to the development of the characters, donít bother with it!  I know thereís a perceived need for it, but perception is not reality.  On the other hand, itís hard to argue with quasi-lesbian overtones, which is why theyíre so popular even today (witness the Erotic Tai-Chiô sequence in the second half of the Mutant X pilot).

I love Space Cowboyís belt-bar.  Not the most variety in drinks, but if you know what you like, more power to you.

I also love the campfire sequence.  Itís small, itís entirely character-driven, and it has just about nothing to do with the overall plot besides letting you get to know the participants.  Thatís why I love it.

Though itís not particularly funny, I do enjoy the scene between Gelt and the children, when they ask if heís a bad man (with Vaughn taking the Charles Bronson moment for himself, for a change), is touching and honest, in its way.  Itís also true in a general philosophical sense, but thatís getting a bit simplistic.

Caymanís battle cry: La-zu-liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!  I use that all the time, now, particularly when merging onto the highway.


 

 

-- Copyright 2005, E. M. S. Mitchell(!)