Battle Beyond the Stars
Roger Corman probably wasn’t quick enough off the mark. If Battlestar Galactica could make it onto TV screens fifteen months after Star Wars, did Corman really need three years to unleash something so much cheaper and more cheerful (New World did distribute Italian cash-in Starcrash the year before, but that rather underlines the point)? It likely didn’t help any that this was also the summer of Lucas’s much-vaunted sequel. And it probably isn’t the best idea to headline one of the most readily recognisable young and butter-wouldn’t-melt TV stars around if you’re trying to suggest pure cinema (even pure schlock cinema). So Battle Beyond the Stars isn’t much cop, failing even to make the most of its “can’t miss” repurposing of the plot from Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven.
The production served James Cameron well, of course, since he met Gale Anne Hurd (and Bill Paxton), and oversaw the majority of the effects after the art director went south (Jimbo’s credited with “production design and art direction”). They’re actually pretty good, and Daniel Lacambre’s photography makes the most of the no-frills production values; I’d have been more interested to see what original directorial choice Richard Franklin would have made of this, though, rather than animator Jimmy T Murakami, since Battle Beyond the Stars begins spiritedly but quickly succumbs to an inertia in the telling.
One might point to the script as a problem, but John Sayles’ work – he’d earlier penned Piranha, also arriving three years after the movie that inspired it but proving both cheaper and more successful than Battle Beyond the Stars – was reputedly 160 pages, before Corman showed up one day and began tearing sheets out of it. So if subtleties and nuances are conspicuously absent, that would possibly be why. As it is, the trail of “this happens and this guy is met” feels too-too contrived on a galactic scale, in contrast to the better-known western one.
Sayles suggested “I basically was able to give it a kind of theme, which was all these different versions of death because I could go into other species and they could have different kinds of death”. Which I guess comes through, kinda – with Robert Vaughn’s assassin Gelt, Sybil Danning’s warrior Valkyrie and Earl Boen’s multiple (grey, hive-mind) clones Nestor – but much of it ends up seeming rather vanilla. That’s possibly because Sayles’ attempts to impress upon us differing mantras/ethics of his races are so thin/didactic, possibly because of all those missing pages.
There are the non-violent Akira (“We live by the Varda. The Varda is not to fight”). They somehow think it’s alright if others do their dirty work second-hand – “To fight creatures of violence, you must use creatures of violence” – and make convenient exceptions that “The Varda says we can take a life to save life”. They also appear to practice Asimov’s laws (when Lynn Carlin’s computer Nell destroys a ship, Richard Thomas’ Shad Thames suggests “That which is not organic must not…” harm that which is, to which she responds “I know, I know. It’s a damn stupid rule”. Which is quite refreshing, particularly as the ship doing the destroying resembles a space-bound uterus).
Elsewhere, Dr Hephaestus, who has embraced transhumanism in an effort to prolong his life, presenting a gloomy prognosis. Namely that “Forms must prey on other forms to survive” (“That’s not what the Vardas teach us” protests Shad). He tells Shad that Akira is doomed. Nestor, meanwhile, which at first glance seems to represent a Law of One-style group consciousness complex, is actually more of a singular entity (“We share identical consciousness. What one sees, all see”). Clearly advanced in this consciousness, with a conspicuously designed actual third eye and telepathic skillz, his motivation derives from such lofty perspectives being “very dull”; they wish to help in order to “avoid being bored to death”. One might take this as a jab at eastern mysticism, of studiously advancing one’s consciousness, or simply a jab at the kind of fare Corman demands (Sayles own work, after all, is far from uncontemplative).
Shad: Your torque bar. It’s slipped its groove.
Shad is very rude to Valkyrie throughout, possibly because he’s intimidated by her sheer front. Indeed, Danning’s performance – and costumery – is consistently amusing (“I could do wonders for that boy. I would recharge his capacitators… stimulate his solenoid… tingle dingle dangle prangle his transistors! You know… sex!”) She probably adjudicates the tone of the piece better than any of her more experienced – well, in acting, at any rate – co-stars.
Perhaps Corman would have made more money off Battle Beyond the Stars if he’d done a Humanoids of the Deep and inserted acres of gratuitous nudity and raping after the fact. As it is, there’s plenty of innuendo (Hephaestus wants to keep Shad for his daughter, Darlanne Fluegel’s Nanelia) that’s more suggestive of Barbarella than Star Wars (Nanelia’s ever-so keen to be on the receiving end of John Boy’s experience).
There’s also a frankly unseemly scene that shows the exploitation producer was brazenly out of touch when it came to family fare; Shad’s sister Mol (Julia Duffy) is abducted by a couple of stitched-together, pig-like Malmoria warriors with the express intention of raping her. It seems they succeeded in this, immediately after which, and after Mol messes with their ship’s controls, Gelt blows them up. As far as we can tell, Shad never spares her a thought (well, quite; he’ll be wholly preoccupied teaching sex to Nanelia).
There are other signs of something nasty too. Nukes are ten-a-penny in family fare, but bleeding ears induced by sonic weaponry? There’s also an extended sequence – probably the best in the movie, albeit that isn’t saying an awful lot – revolving around Sador (John Saxon, glowering but little else) capturing a Nestor. Sador unleashes his surgeon, who is “exceptional at inflicting pain”; “It is good to have skills” admits Nestor. Nestor, having no resistance to pain whatsoever, dies instantly. When Sador then hijacks its arm as a replacement for his, Nestor, being a gestalt of sorts, cunning attempts to assassinate him with it, so necessitating Sador having it hastily removed once more.
Gelt gets most of the best lines, even if he’s ultimately rather rudely excised from the proceedings: “I eat serpents seven times a week”; “I was born in space”; “Mister, were you bad when you were little?”: “I was never that little”. Peppard is a bit of a dodo as the Cowboy, since he’s never as charming as he ought to have been (perhaps George needed a cigar, although Shad, being from Waltons Mountain, objects to smoking). Cayman (Morgan Woodward) represents the movie’s reptilian alien, although not written as such by Sayles. While he’s a slaver, which would fit with classic Draco behaviour, and he’s surrounded by miniature minion Kelvins (Grey equivalents?), his passionate hatred of Sador makes him an ally by default.
I was curious to revisit the movie, in part because it warrants a reference in the Ra Material (in the channelling later collected in Book 5, from Session 23). Don Elkins asks Ra of the picture, “I don’t know if you are familiar with it or not. I guess you are. It just seemed to have what you are telling us included in the script. Is this correct?” Ra replies “This particular creation of your entities had some distortions of the Law of One and its scenario upon your physical plane. This is correct”. I’m unsure how much we should take away to Battle Beyond the Stars’ credit from this, though. Ra is basically saying the movie – imperfectly – extols the Service-to-Others over Service-to-Self ethos (all the mercenaries involved ultimately eschew personal reward for a higher cause). But if that’s the case, it’s also true of Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven.
For a contrast, one might suggest “The Varda says we can take a life to save life” (which is lucky for the reluctant John-Boy) isn’t exactly the Seth Material’s angle on the subject, where Seth attests “There is never any justification for violence… There is no justification for murder. Those who indulge in violence for whatever reason are themselves changed, and the purity of their purpose adulterated”.
James Horner’s in full effect throughout, with a score that would inform his later ones, as his later ones would inform his even later ones (most of them really good, but nevertheless). Corman would reuse Horner’s work here, along with the special effects, most notably in Space Raiders. Those positives aside, Battle Beyond the Stars has a good title, probably the best thing going for it, but it wasn’t much cop then, and it isn’t much cop now.