Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) – Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami – Starring Richard Thomas, Robert Vaughn, George Peppard, John Saxon, Darlanne Fluegel, Sybil Danning, Sam Jaffe, Jeff Corey, and Julia Duffy.
Is there any B-movie with a more celebrated cast and crew than BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS?
George Peppard, Robert Vaughn, John Saxon, Sybil Danning, Sam Jaffe, and John Boy all have prominent roles, and Julia Duffy is knocking around in a small role. Behind the camera, not only is BATTLE a Roger Corman film, but future A-list talent James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd, and James Horner all had a hand in the production. Even better, BATTLE was written by John Sayles. That’s major talent wrapped up in a movie designed to be an interstellar update of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
So, obviously, BATTLE is the greatest B-movie ever, yes?
This is not to say that BATTLE is without value; I watched it as a kid and it must have made some kind of impression on me because I remember their crazy-ass ship that looks like a giant slug mated with a giant hammerhead shark that produced a giant ship with two big boobs out front. I remember that George Peppard was in it, too, because when I was a kid there was little cooler than The A-Team. I’m willing to concede that, perhaps, with all of this talent assembled, my expectations are raised too high.
But I don’t think so.
There are a few problems that derail BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS. The first is the script. Told in a simple three part structure – Shad (Richard Thomas) recruits whomever he can find to help his planet defend himself against the evil Sador (John Saxon), the mercenaries hang out on Akir and get to know the locals, and then the big final space battle – the script feels so desperate to pastiche Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven that it has no soul of its own. There is a story here and there is a character arc for Shad, as he goes from being a normal member of a non-aggressive, agrarian society to its new leader, a man willing to fight to protect his home world, but its clumsily told and forced.
As Shad gets into the banana slugged hammerhead with boobs ship and goes out into the stars to look for help, he runs across some zany characters and has the briefest of interludes with them before they agree to sign up. There’s Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel), the daughter of a crazy old cyborg who wants to trap Shad on his spaceship so he can mate with his daughter.
Creepiest dad ever? Yup.
Shad escapes and Nanelia follows along in a different ship. She gets captured by Cayman (Morgan Woodward), a lizard man slaver who agrees to join the cause because he hates Sador. Shad goes on to recruit Space Cowboy (Peppard), a, um, space cowboy who’s name is, literally, “Space Cowboy,” Gelt (Vaughn), the universe’s most deadly assassin who’s made enemies everywhere, five clones who wear white clothes and paint their faces white, and Saint Exim (Danning), a Valkyrie warrior.
Each of these recruitment scenes is over in a flash, and that could work to the film’s advantage if it had any kind of stylistic visual flair, but it doesn’t. Sayles’ script gets a few good lines in here and there, but BATTLE is a film that simply goes from scene to scene, telling its tale with straightforward, flat storytelling.
Another problem is that the film doesn’t take advantage of its actors. It’s sort of amazing to me that Corman could get Peppard, Vaughn, and Saxon to show up for BATTLE but then not take advantage of any of them. Peppard’s job is to look at the ground when he’s talking, take off his hat, and sound like he doesn’t want to do what he’s doing. Vaughn’s job is to sit there in a silly black costume and look like Robert Vaughn. Saxon’s job is to wear silly make-up and make threats. And Danning’s job is to have big boobs and talk about how she loves to fight. If any of this was directed with some skill, it could work, but it doesn’t.
BATTLE gets labeled a Star Wars knock-off because it came out three years after Star Wars, but there’s honestly not a whole lot of Lucas’ film here. (At least not in that sense of the “mockbusters” that a come out around the time of “blockbusters” to capitalize on their popularity; clearly the film is aware of Star Wars.) The strongest link between the two film is in the main characters, as Richard Thomas’ Shad and Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker are both farm boys who head out into the stars and have wacky adventures with crazy-looking aliens. Like Hamill, Thomas is far from the most charismatic actor in the shop, but unlike Hamill, Thomas isn’t in a movie that uses this to its advantage. Luke gets carried along for much of Star Wars – yeah, he wants to go to space, but he’s largely a passenger on that journey who slowly becomes a more confident and more active character. In BATTLE, however, Shad is the most active character right from the start, which requires more personality than Thomas can deliver.
At the end of the day, though, BATTLE knows that it’s a B-movie and as such, just wants to be an entertaining. It’s one of those movies that you’re unlikely to want to watch five or six times, but you should probably see it once. As I said, there’s a lot of talent here and the film’s decision to win you over by constantly throwing everything at the screen is admirable, in its own way. There are some good moments here, too, both silly (like when Space Cowboy makes himself a drink by pouring his scotch and soda out of containers on his utility belt) and real (like when Gelt explains to two kids why he’s a bad man). Horner’s music and Cameron’s special effects are both solid.
I wish BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS was better and that it properly took advantage of its assembled talent. Peppard delivers his lines like he knows they’re stupid, Vaughn delivers his like he’s doing a favor for his untalented nephew’s first film, and Saxon delivers his like he he knows its a Saturday morning cartoon come to life. The most damning thing I can say about BATTLE is that it never really feels like a movie; it just feels like a product and while it could have turned out a lot worse, it could also have been a lot better. Not quite good enough to be mediocre, BATTLE is nonetheless a film every sci-fi fan should probably see once. If nothing else, the assemblage of talent and the throw-everything-against-the-wall nature of the narrative should get you through one sitting.