Ironically, Lucas later sued the makers of the TV series Battlestar Galactica (1978) for undertaking roughly the same endeavor: re-shuffling the creative card deck (with elements of Star Wars, Star Trek, Space:1999, etc.) and coming up with something new and fresh in the process.
The Black Hole (1979) featured some familiar ingredients from the Jules Verne Captain Nemo story, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Glen Larson’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979) combined elements of the popular James Bond film franchise, previous space operas, and even a bit of the 1970s Burt Reynolds persona.
When these impressive qualities are combined with the heightened, almost mythic nature of the re-vamped Kurosawa story, the result is pure sci-fi nirvana, and Battle Beyond the Stars remains a perfect, if light-weight, space opera for the silver screen.
Aboard Nell, Shad takes off for nearby Hephaestus Station, seeking weaponry and assistance, but is forced to escape from the mad, cybernetic Professor Hephaestus (Sam Jaffe) with no such equipment. Instead, he teams up with Hephasteus’s brilliant and lovely daughter, Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel). She has never been around other organic creatures before, and decides to help Shad plot a strategy of defense against Sador.
In Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, the peace-lovers are simple farmers or the inhabitants of a border town, and the invaders are marauders or bandits. In Kurosawa’s film, the mercenaries are ronin (samurai without masters), and in the western film, they are gunslingers for hire.
All these character types have been transplanted, of course, to a more “cosmic” scale for Corman’s production. The Akir must not defend a simple village, but a planet itself. Sador is not just a leader of roving bandits, but a warlord capable of destroying whole worlds if they don’t bend to his whim. And the mercenaries are a motley crew of alien races, each with memorable and unique physical characteristics; each as colorful and dynamic as Chewbacca, Han Solo, Greedo or C-3P0
Soon, the attitudes change, however, and in some incarnations of the tale, a romance even blossoms between a mercenary and a villager. In The Magnificent Seven, Vic (Steve McQueen) and Petra (Rosenda Monteros) become romantically involved, and in Battle Beyond the Stars, Cowboy and Lux commence a similar relationship.
In the many iterations of this story, the wise-man or elder among the villagers – Zed, here – also meets his maker before the action has been completed Like Obi Wan Kenobi’s death in Star Wars, it’s a generational passing of the torch; a necessary step in the young hero’s journey to maturity.
Perhaps the biggest change evident in the template of Battle Beyond the Stars involves the apparently upbeat nature of the ending. Sador is destroyed and Akir remains free. And the dead but heroic mercenaries now become part of the planet’s collective memory, gaining a sort of immortality. In the Kurosawa and Sturges films, however, though some warriors survive the climax there is nonetheless a more melancholy feeling following the final battle. Specifically, there is acknowledgment from the samurai/gunfighters that they did not actually win the war. Rather the farmers/villagers won…because their homes are saved and their lives can continue as before. Without such a place to call home, the warriors are not the real winners, for they still must wander the landscape and seek employment, not to mention real human connection.
In a very real sense, then, Battle Beyond the Stars effectively “preys” on the earlier incarnations of the Kurosawa story and Star Wars, down to many important details. We get the set-up of Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven and the unclouded happy ending of the Lucas film. I should add, as well, that the film opens with the famous Star Wars shot: a gigantic spaceship passing in front of the camera for what seems an eternity. In this case, however, the Malmori warship cruises towards us, and then banks sharply, as if taking a hard turn.
Casting is another arena in which we can see Sayles, Corman and Murakami “preying” on previous movie forms. Robert Vaughn, playing Gelt, virtually reprises his famous role as Lee in The Magnificent Seven: that of a world-weary and lonely soldier of fortune who just wants a good night’s sleep and a hot meal. His performance is actually my favorite in Battle Beyond the Stars because it so clearly and blatantly harks back to one of the space opera’s earthbound models.
If the character of Gelt and Vaughn’s presence serve as a direct reflection of one movie tradition that gave rise to Battle Beyond the Stars, then Cowboy (Peppard) is the audience’s other point of easy identification. Not only is he a native of Earth, but a movie fan himself. He offers to show Shad some old movies (Westerns) at one point, and during what seems a hopeless battle even croaks “Remember the Alamo!” Again, these are highly self-reflexive touches. In a space movie based on a Western (based on Kurosawa’s film…), we actually meet a cowboy who is a movie lover and who knows all the genre’s rules and details. That’s important, since he finds himself living a Western transplanted to the final frontier.
The “forms must prey on other forms to survive” conceit here is also ingrained in the actual text of the film. Not just in “meta” or post-modern references to earlier cinematic incarnations of the tale or in clever casting decisions, either, but in bedrock character traits.
For instance, Sador and the Malmori clearly prey on other forms to survive, both in terms of literal strategy and personal choices. Sador’s hammerhead warship travels from solar system to solar system, taking what the Malmori want and need. And on an individual level, Sador actually steals replacement body parts from other forms to prolong his physical existence. Late in Battle Beyond the Stars, we see him undergo replacement surgery in which he gets a new arm; one that formerly belonged to one of the Nestor. Clearly then, Sador believes in “preying” on others to survive.
So, story wise Battle Beyond the Stars preys on the movies of the past (Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven and Star Wars) in order to cobble together– Frankenstein-like — a new and fresh original. The movie never feels like an incoherent hodgepodge, however, for two critical reasons.
First, and perhaps most importantly, the film’s production design is both impressive and distinctive. Every world and alien race in the film merits its own individual look and lighting scheme. This visual facet lends Battle Beyond the Stars a veneer of verisimilitude, or at least cohesion.
In many films made today, we absolutely expect different worlds to bear different and distinctive looks, but we must remember that this is a low budget film of the year 1980.
To see how it could have been done – and poorly at that – one need only gaze at such contemporaries to Battle Beyond the Stars as the equally star-spanning Galaxina (1980). That movie featured Western elements and otherworldly components, but came off as a cheap space western stranded on a studio back lot.
Not so here. For instance, Sador’s colossal control room is eternally bathed in a palette of cold blue light, perfectly befitting his callous, monstrous nature. And the Malmori ships have the grotesque, monstrous look of space lizards…frogs, perhaps. There’s a real icy, reptilian feel to the Malmori in Battle Beyond the Stars, and it’s a result of how the characters are lit; and the way their technology is designed and presented.
On the planet Akir, we see something else. The villagers all dress in muted shades of Earth-tones, and their homes seem to have grown right out of the ground as if terrestrial trees, or perhaps shells. The visual take-away is that the Akir are literally “grounded” people; ones who derive their strength and power from their sense of community and nature. Everything they have originates with their lifestyle, which is a strength in terms of spirituality but a weakness in terms of practical self-defense. Again, think of the villagers or townspeople — salt of the Earth-types — in the earlier films. The matte-paintings and visualizations of Akir suggest the same thing of this alien race.
The Nestor are another fine example of this high concept production/art design approach. They are highly advanced creatures who share one consciousness. Everything from the Nestor costuming to their control panels is white-on-white perfection, a kind of immaculate look for an immaculate, advanced mind, and one which, incidentally, also allows for the makers of the film to create a little Close Encounters-styled action, since the Nestor ship looks like a radiant white flying saucer or UFO.
You can apply this sense of cohesion of approach even as far as Hephaestus Station. This is a virtually abandoned world in which machines have been forced to cannibalize themselves over the years to continue functioning. Nanelia’s job, actually, is one of constant repair…but without fresh resources. The station miniature itself, as well Dr. Hephaestus’s “costume,” successfully evoke the idea of a world of no spare parts; one where every scrap of metal and circuitry is harnessed to keep the machines “living.”
The spaceship designs in Battle Beyond the Stars are truly wonderful and original too. Sador commands that vast “hammerhead” warship, and a hammer is a perfect symbol for this villain. His approach is literally to smash or bludgeon his opponents into submission. The frog fighters and Nestor ships I mentioned above, but Gelt too flies a wicked looking, sleek fighter that reflects his direct, no-frills approach to combat. Cowboy’s spaceship is also wonderful a kind of space-going junk-heap or pick-up truck with a Confederate flag decorating one side of the hull. Exactly what you’d expect from a space-going loner and throwback.
The most unique and awesome spaceship design in the film, however, belongs to Nell. She’s the former property of Zed, and one of the few starships in motion picture history to actually feature breasts and nipples as hull formations.
In Star Trek, the Enterprise is frequently referred to as a “she” or as “her,” but Nell makes the connection to the feminine…well, literal. Nell is clearly a woman in spirit and mind, so the film goes one more step and makes her a female in form or body too, equipping her with large breasts as well as two familiar, up swept nacelles.
Without going too much into as dry a subject as sex roles in Battle Beyond the Stars, it is very intriguing that so many of the most exciting characters in the film are women. Nanelia is a brilliant thinker, St. Exmin a warrior for the history books, and Nell a loyal and devoted friend and also shelter. They each form a critical part of Akir’s defense along with the steadfast Lux, and in this fashion Corman’s pastiche does “evolve” beyond the men-as-warrior stereotypes of the earlier films. This is an equal opportunity battle, and so much the better.
The second critical reason that Battle Beyond the Stars doesn’t feel like a hodgepodge but rather a unified vision involves the characters’ frequent and dramatic recitation of “The Varda,” the Akiran’s spiritual guide. In our culture, many of us would say something like, “the Bible tells us that…,” but in the future world of this film, it is “The Varda” that instructs and offers many insights and words of wisdom. “To fight creatures of violence, you must use creatures of violence. “The Varda says we can take life to save life.” “That which is not organic must not harm that which is,” and so forth.
What the Varda gives the film, impressively, is a strong sense of the Akiran people’s morality. They aren’t stupid peaceniks for the sake of dogmatic ideology, and they aren’t belligerent war mongers, either. They have simply found a way of life that works for them, and which answers for them the many questions of existence and “how to live” best.
In providing the people of Akir this philosophy or guide, Sayles’ script permits the audience to see how valuable the culture is, and what would be lost forever under Sador’s domination. Varda is akin to karma, or something like it, and it is the belief system that grounds and guides Shad through his adventures. We understand how the Varda concerns balance in all things, and helps one maintain composure in times of strife. The application of the philosophies of The Varda grant Battle Beyond the Stars a strong sense of heart. We understand, intrinsically, what powers the Akiran people; what they hold onto when times are difficult.
Another human, funny and oddly touching moment in Battle Beyond the Stars involves Sador’s realization that he has lost the war…and his life. He cries out – disappointed – that he will not “live forever.” It’s as though Sador has never given consideration to the fact that he could lose a battle. And given his history, as the movie describes it, we can’t blame him. Sador, it is said, never quits and never loses.
Well, all good things come to an end, and all bad things too. But Sador’s strangely innocent and petulant death cry makes the Malmori warlord oddly sympathetic and easy for us to relate to. Unlike the Akir and their Varda, Sador has no sense of balance or grounding except in conquest. He flies around space with his “hammer,” the Stellar Converter, and bends other worlds to his will. Why? Because he fears death — as all of us do — and constantly must take more from others so as to live more. He is a great villain, and the film’s spokesman for an anti-Varda philosophy, certainly.
Even back in 1980, it was clear that Battle Beyond the Stars special effects were a step down from what we saw in Star Wars three years earlier.
Many shots (particularly of the frog fighter ships) are repeated too frequently, and there isn’t as much ship-to-ship interaction in the battle sequences as one might prefer. The sound-effects are direct cribs from Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and if you are fans of those shows, you will find this element of the movie extremely distracting.
Yet the battles are aggressively edited, and the detailed miniatures are glorious examples of a bygone art form. What makes the action seem truly epic in the film, therefore, is the great, evocative score by Horner. The score – along with the general good humor of the film – carry the viewer away in a sense of excitement and fun when things occasionally get iffy.
One thing’s for certain: In the adventure-minded Battle Beyond the Stars, you’ll never suffer the fate that the Nestor fear so dramatically. You’ll never be “bored to death.”
Quite the opposite in fact. Watching this movie again today will likely bring out the kid in you, and make you wish for the Battle Beyond the Stars model kits, action figures and sequels that never arrived.