After “Star Wars” hit it big in 1977, sci-fi was in again, and studios scrambled to get outer space adventure films into the pipeline. Of course, Roger Corman was one of them. 1980’s “Battle Beyond the Stars” was his biggest production to date, but it was a familiar story. Screenwriter John Sayles turned to Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” for inspiration, which, of course, had already been remade as a western, “The Magnificent Seven,” by John Sturges. This version set the story in space…and even featured one of the stars of “The Magnificent Seven.”
The story concerns the peaceful residents of the planet Akir (supposedly named after Akira Kurosawa) who are being threatened by the evil Sador (John Saxon) and his scared-face baddies, the Malmori. Sador is threatening the planet with his Stellar Converter, a weapon which turns a planet into a star. After making his threat, Sador leaves the Akir to think things over, vowing to return in several days. This gives the young Shad (Richard Thomas) time to gather mercenaries to help defend the planet. An old man named Zed (Jeff Corey), gives Shad his ship for the journey. The ship is called Nell, it has a computer with a female voice and, I swear, has a unique design that resembles a female form…breasts and all.
Shad first tries to get help from Dr. Hephaestus (Sam Jaffe), who lives in a space station with his daughter, Nanelia (Darlane Fluegel), and a bunch of androids. Oh, yeah, and he’s just a head on life support! Since there are no other humans around, the doctor decides Shad would make a good mate for his daughter. But Shad manages to escape, with Nanelia following in her own ship. The two then head off in different directions to find more help
Soon, a rag-tag assortment of characters, all anxious to take on Sador, is gathered. This includes: an outer space trucker known as Space Cowboy (George Peppard), a crew of five aliens called Nestor who all share the same mind (sound a little like the Borg, anyone), a lizard-man named Cayman (Morgan Woodward) who has his own crew of unusual aliens, Saint Exim (Sybil Danning) a woman from a warrior race whose clothing has a hard time containing her, and Gelt (Robert Vaughn) a long-time assassin with a price on his head looking to hide. Vaughn is essentially playing the same part that he played in “The Magnificent Seven.”
As the seven ships arrive at Akir, they encounter one of Sador’s ships that was left behind to monitor the planet. They engage in battle, quickly destroying the enemy ship. The mercenaries are welcomed by the citizens of the planet, and Cowboy begins to train them in the use of weapons. When Sador returns, full-scale war breaks out. Sador loses many ships, but also succeeds in shooting down Gelt, and capturing one of the Nestor. This leads to a fun scene where Sador, having lost an arm, has his surgeon remove one of the Nestor’s arms and fuse it to Sador’s body. But the rest of the Nestor, on the planet below, can still control the arm, and they almost manage to get Sador to commit suicide with it.
Soon, it all comes down to one more giant space battle. Like the other versions of this story, few of our heroes survive…but it’s up to Shad to bring about the final blow against Sador.
Roger Corman is known for starting the careers of many filmmakers, and “Battle Beyond the Stars” is a great example of that. The movie was written by John Sayles, who went on to write and direct films like “Eight Men Out” and “City of Hope.” The screenplay is certainly one of the highlights. It’s clever, funny, has some sly double entendres, and is a great tribute to both Kurosawa’s and Sturge’s films. Another filmmaker who got a big break on this film was James Cameron, who was responsible for much of the set designs and special effects. Now, compared to something like “The Empire Strikes Back” (released the same year), this still looks pretty cheap. But we’re talking a Roger Corman movie here…for the tight-fisted Corman, these effects are spectacular. This was also an early effort for composer James Horner, and the resulting score is very good. Completely unexpected for a Corman film.
The cast is just plain fun! Oddly enough, lead Richard Thomas, though decent, may be the weakest link. Most of the cast turn in wonderfully colorful performances. Vaughn infuses his performance with sly nods to his Magnificent Seven role, Peppard gives his character a great laid-back confidence that you’d expect from the man who later played Hannibal Smith, and Saxon is lovably twisted. But, surprisingly, I think one of my favorite performances may have been Sybil Danning’s over-confident warrior woman. This is essentially the Horst Bucholz role from “The Magnificent Seven” and screenwriter Sayles clearly had a lot of fun with the character.
I love all the little nods to the other two movies. In one scene, the villains break up a wedding, the people of Akir get chewed out for hiding when the heroes first arrive, a couple of kids chat with Robert Vaughn’s character about whether he’s a “bad man.” These are all carried over from the other films. Seeing the other versions is not required for watching this films, but I admit, it does enhance the experience a bit.
Though the film is based on a story told twice already, there is a lot of originality in “Battle Beyond the Stars.” It is much more than a “Star Wars” rip-off.