This week my regular obsession with the way we used to see the future takes me to the peaceful planet of Akir, under siege from a vicious warlord and in need of a few heroes in Battle Beyond the Stars. You’ll get a meal and a place to hide with the latest installment in GFR’s ongoing series, Futures Past.
Set far enough in the future that humans have become space truckers, Battle Beyond the Stars follows a farm boy named Shad, sent out into the cosmos on a search for warriors who can defend his home planet against the space tyrant Sador and his Malmori army of mutants. He goes forth in the planet’s only space vessel, a Corsair Star Cruiser which has a fussy personality and goes by the oddly chosen name of Nell.
For Shad and Nell it’s a race against time to find the help they need before Sador returns with his Stellar Convertor and turns their entire planet into a mini-sun. Or rather it should be a race against time, truth be told the movie never actually does a very good job of making it feel all that urgent. Battle Beyond the Stars is far from perfect.
Follow me through a few scenes from the film below and get a refresher in just what Battle Beyond the Stars was all about, back when it debuted at the box office in the still disco crazy late-summer of 1980.
We’ll start with the film’s opening sequence, complete with a fairly tremendous score from composer James Horner…
What you should notice, right off the bat, is that Battle doesn’t even try to hide the fact that it’s a blatant Star Wars ripoff. The flyby of the massive starship at the end of the credits is a total copycat of the beginning of Star Wars. Perhaps even worse, the ship itself is kind of a mishmash of the two ships seen in that opening Star Wars shot. The front half of the ship looks like the Tantive IV on which Princess Leia attempts her escape and the back half looks exactly like the back half of the Imperial Star destroyer pursuing her.
It’s not the best beginning, but it gets better. Battle Beyond the Stars took a page from The Magnificent Seven and attempts to repurpose Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai into a story set in outer space. The planet Akir’s name is, in theory, even supposed to be a tribute to Akira Kurosawa. Somehow I doubt he’d feel very tributed. Repurposing Kurosawa doesn’t work out nearly as well for Battle Beyond as it did for Magnificent Seven. It probably didn’t help that this film’s creation was chiefly motivated by greed. Battle was one of schlock producer Roger Corman’s many attempts to cash in on the fervor of the Star Wars craze. Thanks to a script from John Sayles, this one came closest to working.
At least, for Roger Corman, he didn’t try to do it on the cheap. At the time it was the most expensive movie ever produced by Corman. The budget was reportedly near $2 million, unfortunately word is that most of that went towards paying actors George Peppard and Rober Vaughn. That didn’t leave much for special effects, but luckily they had James Cameron. That’s right, James Cameron. More on that in a minute.
First let’s jump ahead into the film and find Shad making his daring escape from Akir in Nell, as they try to leave the planet in search of help…
If you liked any of what you saw there, you can thank James Cameron. He handled production design and art direction on Battle Beyond the Stars, under the direction of helmer Jimmy T. Murakami. By the end of the film he was doing most of the special effects. It was Cameron’s first significant gig and he did it working on a typically shoestringy Corman budget. No matter that he didn’t have the money he needed, Cameron seems to have taken it seriously, and improvised using what most would consider garbage. Those ships corridors you saw in the above clip? Made out of painted McDonalds containers. I wonder if the set smelled like Big Macs?
Set in a distant future Battle took a fairly vague stance on the potential path that might be taken by humanity. The best of us is, I suppose, supposed to be embodied by an Earth character named Cowboy, played by George Peppard. He shows up for the first time in the next sequence. Watch…
Cowboy’s your obligatory Han Solo knockoff character, but Han Solo taken to ridiculous extremes. He’s more like Sean Connery’s James Bond combined with Burt Reynold’s bandit. He even has a scotch dispenser in his belt. That’s right, I said a scotch dispenser. Fast forward the following video to the 5 minute and 51 second mark and you’ll discover what may may be the best thing you’ll ever see…
As demonstrated by Cowboy Battle Beyond the Stars’ view of humanity’s far off future is one of cartoonish extremes. And yes, I’m also talking about Sybil Danning’s boobs…
The Akir, who we’ll assume are human because they look it and the movie never says they’re not, seem to be what would happen if Nixon had found a way to fire all the hippies off into space. There’s a lot of talk about their wealth being in their culture, but there’s no real evidence in the film of a culture that’s worth anything. Mostly the Akir stand around and talk about not wanting to do anything a lot. Yep, total hippies.
Cowboy on the other hand is the lone representative of the people left on Earth, a place which judging by him hasn’t really changed very much, aside from the ability to make totally portable, instantly drinkable scotch. Come to think of it, that’s a world I want to live in. Scotch belts for everyone.
Though as a people humanity has stayed much the same, in the future of Beyond the Stars our technology has undergone a massive overhaul. For some reason humans have decided things would be better if our vehicles were sassier, and Nell’s attitude was I suppose a precursor of things to come in science fiction. Flight of the Navigator, with a little help from the voice of PeeWee Herman, eventually did it better.
Maybe space will never become the wild west frontier Battle Beyond the Stars struggles to turn it into, but I’d like to think that some day I’ll be able to hop in my mouthy corsair and find myself in a battle beyond the stars, which actually happens in the stars, but which I’ll call “beyond the stars” because it sounds bigger and better than Star Wars. Take that George Lucas.
Check out previous installments in our Futures Past series right here.