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Monday, July 28, 2014

Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

Story by John Sayles & Anne Dyer
Screenplay by John Sayles
Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami

Richard Thomas:  Shad
Robert Vaughn:  Gelt
John Saxon:  Sador
Sybil Danning:  St. Exmin
George Peppard:  Cowboy

Back before the studios took over making B movies and threw hundred-million-dollar budgets at grindhouse ideas, there was room for the little guy to steal a little thunder and some box office money from larger prestige pictures. Sometimes it was an homage to a film that a director or screenwriter wanted to pay tribute to (Body Double is a Hitchcock-style "wrong guy" thriller on steroids, Viagra and cocaine); sometimes it was a bare-faced ripoff (Great White got yanked from American theaters when Universal sued its makers for copying the plot note-for-note and courts sided with the big studio; at least the people who made Grizzly, Alligator, Deadly Eyes, and The Car made sure to use a bear, a mutated sewer alligator, a swarm of giant rats and a devil car as the monsters in their Jaws ripoffs).

If I had to choose, I'd say that Spielberg's game-changing killer shark movie might be the most ripped-off plotline in the last half-century of motion picture production (although Halloween might be the champion; either way, whichever one of those two movies didn't get the gold medal for Most Ripoffs it had to have gotten the silver). All the parts are there for an intimate story of a man summoning up his courage to fight a seemingly unstoppable monster--throw in a greedy official, a scene where someone tries to cover up the existence of the killer whatever-it-is, and a plot point where a smaller killer whatever-it-is gets captured or killed by the heroes (setting up a false sense of confidence and a second-string character getting their ticket punched) and you've got the story beats for whatever Jaws ripoff you're constructing. Leave one out, double up on another, or change the order of the scenes and you can set your killer animal film apart from the pack, at least a little bit. And if audiences are fooled into thinking they haven't seen all the pieces of your movie before you can ride a bigger movie's coat tails far enough to make a significant profit.

And Jaws wasn't the only out-of-nowhere movie of the late 70s that got moviemakers to hastily write up plans for a similar project. In 1977 George Lucas made his own massively successful science-fiction film out of pieces taken from Flash Gordon serials, Kurosawa samurai dramas (most specifically The Hidden Fortress), the "Lensmen" pulp science fiction stories about intergalactic peacekeepers with mystic powers, Joseph Campbell's universal hero myth and The Dam Busters' story of a low-altitude raid to destroy a Nazi dam with a single well-placed torpedo bomb (if your movie makes over a hundred million at the box office, it's officially an homage to its various sources, not a ripoff). Oh, and while I'm talking about the origins of various recognizable things in Star Wars, there's a beeping robot whose head looks a hell of a lot like a communications satellite that someone named a cult movie blog after.

Anyway, the massive runaway success of the Star Wars franchise made imitation a foregone conclusion. My favorite joke about moviemaking is that everyone wants to be the second one to do something original, and at the end of the seventies that meant big spaceships, laser swords, comic-relief robots and usually someone in an alien costume that spoke in howls or grunts. What makes the movies worthwhile is what the filmmakers do with their inspirations. Star Crash had Caroline Munro in a series of revealing spacesuits and a cheap re-enactment of Ray Harryhausen's Talos scene from Jason and the Argonauts; Hawk the Slayer puts the ragtag-rebels-against-an-evil-empire plot in a Tolkien ripoff fantasy world. And today's movie aims as high as a small-budgeted drive-in movie can aim; it's a simultaneous homage to Star Wars and The Magnificent Seven (itself a credited remake of the Kurosawa masterpiece The Seven Samurai); it also wound up in theaters the same year as the official sequel to Lucas' film in an attempt to stay firmly planted on those coat tails I mentioned earlier.

Stop me if you've heard this one:  An agrarian community incapable of defending itself from outside attack is overrun by pillagers bent on taking their harvest away. In order to defend themselves, a peasant from the community goes out into the wider world to locate mercenaries that can to the community's fighting for them. A disparate group of combatants come together and defend the farmers with their lethal skills; at a high cost, the bandits are killed and the agricultural community can live in peace again, the pacifists determined to remember the high cost paid by their mercenary defenders. (I can remember blowing a friend's mind when I pointed out that A Bug's Life has this exact same plot, though I don't recall such a high mortality rate among the Magnificent Insecta in that retelling of the story.)

All right, stop me if you've heard this one as well:  A gigantic mobile space platform has a weapon capable of destroying an entire planet. The leader of the evil forces threatens destruction on an innocent galaxy, smashing all resistance. A young farm boy, guided by an aged mentor figure, learns his own capabilities for war as he becomes part of a ragtag group of starship pilots that make a suicidally brave run on the planet-killing battle station, destroying it at the last moment and freeing the galaxy from tyranny--or at least this particular source of tyranny.

See what I mean? At this point in his production career, even Corman's ripoffs were aiming high. And this was the most expensive movie he'd produced, since he knew that you have to spend a little bit of cash on production values if you're making an epic. In keeping with his reputation as Hollywood's greatest talent scout, Corman also had a secret weapon--a young James Cameron used this film as his foot in the door to moviemaking; he was hired to build model spaceships and wound up more or less singlehandedly building all the spaceship sets and effects sequences (some of the other model makers on this movie have gone on to work for Cameron on his massive-budget spectacles; more Corman alumni working in A pictures).

On the planet Akir (its inhabitants are called the Akira, and I'm embarrassed to say I didn't notice that was a reference to Kurosawa the first three times I saw this movie), the peaceful farmers who till the only fertile soil on the globe get a hell of a shock when their manned weather-monitoring satellite is vaporized by a gigantic warship and a huge blue hologram of John Saxon's head gives them an ultimatum:  Join his planetary empire (he needs food for his troops, and Akir has crops) or he'll use a stellar converter to turn Akir into a dwarf sun--which would kill every living thing on the planet, down to and including bacteria. Sador, the tyrant, says he'll give them a week to think it over and laser-blasts a few Akira from orbit to show that they don't have a chance. He takes his gigantic spaceship and leaves for another planet that he's gonna go bully.

On Akir, a desperate plan is hatched. They have one spaceship, owned by the only Akira to have ever fought in a war--an old man named Zed who is too old and blind to pilot it any more. Shad, a farmboy turning into a farm man, says the AI that runs the ship's systems trusts him and that he's flown it before. He can go out into the universe and find warriors capable of putting up resistance against Sador's fleet and save Akir (and every other planet in Sador's nascent empire, while he's at it). The debate about what to do is guided by references to "the Varda", a collection of pacifist and Eastern-sounding philosophical commands. They eventually decide that capitulation is unacceptable and Shad will go find violent lifeforms to fight for them, hoping that when the present crisis has been resolved, their planet hasn't been turned into plasma and the mercenaries can be persuaded to leave (or, if they're going to stay, not to turn their violent natures on the Akira).

Shad has a brief talk with "Nell", the computer that controls Zed's ship, and they come to terms with the fact that Shad's young and inexperienced. He seems resolute when he mentions that if they don't make it, nobody else is going to either. At least he knows how high the stakes are, even if he's never done anything remotely like this before. We get one of those "the ship takes off for the first time as the soundtrack swells" moments, and the highly mockable design of Shad's borrowed spacecraft shows up for the first time, but not the last.

Inevitable joke:  You could call it the mother ship.

Sador left a patrol ship parked in orbit around Akir, and the dull-witted brutes piloting it decide to destroy Nell as a precaution--they don't have any orders, but on the other hand they don't want any of the Akira escaping the planet before Sador comes back. It turns out that being raised a lifelong pacifist makes for a terrible fighter pilot; Shad can't bring himself to shoot down the attacking ship. Luckily for him, he's a much better pilot than gunner so he avoids getting shot down himself. Also, it turns out that Sador's A team isn't the one that gets stuck on planetary guard duty. Nell flies off as Sador's goons decide not to pursue--they'd rather explain to their overlord that they lost the ship but obeyed orders to stay at Akir than go after Shad and risk a painful disciplinary lesson if they get found out.

Shad's first stop is a space station run by Doctor Hephaestus; it's a forbidding mass of spheres and tubes that's eerily silent and unresponsive as Shad pilots Nell into a docking bay. Zed knew Hephaestus back in his younger days and says he's a genius weapons designer. That's a good thing to have on your side when fighting a space tyrant, all right.

The station is crewed by robots, one of which is being repaired (and used as a tape deck) by Hephaestus' daughter Nanelia. A misunderstanding with a travel car and the fact that Nanelia didn't know there was another living creature on the station almost gets Shad disassembled, but thankfully Nanelia notices he's a living form before any of the welding tools get called into play. It turns out that she's the only living person on the station (which is one reason she assumed Shad was a busted robot), and that Hephaestus has about as many factory-original parts left as RoboCop did (he's immobilized in some kind of life-support cage full of Gilliam-esque tubing).

The aged Hephaestus isn't willing to supply weapons to the resistance on Akir, believing in his old age that might makes right. The Varda teach the Akira otherwise, and they don't hassle anyone. Hephaestus thinks they're up shit creek, then. He's also planning to set Shad up with his daughter so they can repopulate the station themselves. It turns out that he didn't ask Shad about this ahead of time, or Nanelia, either (which is even less forgivable). This leads to the universe's most awkward first date (although Shad isn't a jerk or anything; it's just that Nanelia has never lived anywhere else but the station and Shad has a lot of other things on his mind). Also, let me just say I love that the sound effect used on this space station whenever the doors open or close is someone breathing through a SCUBA respirator, which is also what got used for Darth Vader's life-support mechanism. It's a cheeky salute from the filmmakers to one of their inspirations. Shad bails on the "get kept forever as Nanelia's husband" plan; she follows him a moment after. They didn't get any weapons, but she's got an analytical computer that might help with the planning of Akir's defense.

Meanwhile, Sador's got the response from another planet that he gave the "surrender or die" ultimatum to--they powdered his diplomatic officer and returned him in a Crown Royal bag. Sador takes this pretty badly, all things considered, and decides to incinerate the entire planet, erasing it and its civilization from the cosmos completely. Maybe the diplomatic officer owed him money.

Shad and Nell come across a spaceship that's the equivalent of a long-haul cargo semi (complete with a fucking Confederate flag bumper sticker on the cab!); it's Cowboy the cowboy from an obscure planet called Earth. He's broadcasting an SOS because he's got four space-pirate skyjackers on his tail. Shad makes pretty short work of the reavers once he gets over his aversion to shooting them in the back--ethics in a dogfight will get you killed pretty quickly. And the movie addresses the trauma that Shad feels at taking life; he isn't instantly turned into a Charles Bronson character because he won a space dogfight. Cowboy doesn't think picking a fight with Sador is a winning proposition, or even a survivable one. But he was ferrying a load of weapons to the planet that decided not to submit to him, and now that it's a mass of incandescent gas instead of a ball of rock with living forms on it, he's got a load of weapons that Akir can have free gratis that are already paid for, and which he doesn't have the fuel to haul anywhere else. He says he'll take charge of the ground defenses and train the Akira in using the beam rifles, but his ship is a cargo hauler, not a Spitfire.

Time for another "meanwhile"; Nanelia's ship gets attacked by a space-cloud creature, which gets destroyed by a conveniently arriving ship. The pilot of the rescue ship is a lizardman named Cayman (get it?), who plans to sell Nanelia to the highest bidder, either as a slave or to be cooked and eaten. It turns out that Cayman is the last of his species (who pissed Sador off one way or another), and is willing to sign on to defend Akir if it means getting a decent shot at the genocidal maniac that wiped out his species. He also has a pair of "Kelvin", bald mute creatures that communicate through giving off heat, in his crew. Looks like the motley band of ragtag rebels is getting a few aliens to go along with the human and human-looking members.

And hey, Shad gets tractor-beamed into a ship run by The Nestor, a race of three-eyed telepathic hiveminded clones. It turns out that they're looking for new experiences (if The Nestor isn't stimulated, its hive mind could literally be bored to death) and joining up on an attack on Sador's flagship would certainly be interesting, no matter what else it is. They also take a quick peek inside Shad's head without him noticing; they know he's not a violent person even if he tries to front as one.

The next place Shade winds up on is a tiny planetoid with a storm-wracked atmosphere, the home to uber-mercenary Gelt. Gelt, as it turns out, is one of the deadliest space-fighters in the universe. He's fought for or against every species there is and always came out on top. He's been paid hundreds of millions of currency units for his talents, and is so despised as a killer that there isn't a single planet he can spend any of that money on without someone shanking him. He's been in exile on Angry Blue Clouds World for years, and winds up joining Shad's team for the simple promise of a place to live where he doesn't have to be afraid of retaliation. The supreme killer volunteers for life on a planet of pacifists. Full points to John Sayles for that part of the plot, and full points to Robert Vaughn for revisiting his star-making turn in The Magnificent Seven for a quarter-century-later ripoff funded by Roger Corman. He's a real trouper, giving the movie a full-tilt performance. After all, mercenaries do a job for pay. And so do actors.

On the way back to Akir after securing Gelt's services, a fast and incredibly maneuverable ship engages Shad and Nell in a dogfight; they lose but the mystery ship hits them with the laser-blast equivalent of a blank round, showing that they would have lost if it was for real. Then Shad gets a call from the quick fighter; it's Saint Exmin of the Valkyrie race (and yet another significant name for a new character--we get it, John, we get it). Exmin is the hotshot kid character, the gunfighter who wants to prove that they're as good as anyone else. Shad tells her to get lost, possibly because the picture-phone in his ship didn't show the absoludicrous outfit that Sybil Danning wears in this scene.

The clones, Cowboy, Gelt and Shad head to the Lambda zone to rendezvous with the rest of their forces (and there's a neat little bit of business here--Shad asks Gelt over a private comline if he wants his name announced to the others in their makeshift fleet; he's a polite guy, and trying to respect the wishes of the fighter that wants obscurity and safety more than anything else). They meet up with Cayman, Nanelia and St. Exmin (who follows them to Akir, ignoring the kiss-off that she got from Shad earlier). It's neat to see all the different model ships flying along in formation--there's thought that went into the construction of each ship, planning that lets the audience know about the various characters. The Valkyrie's ship looks rather like a dragonfly and darts around; Nestor's got a slow glowing flying saucer and Gelt's ship is designed so he can run all the systems himself; he only trusts himself with his life, whether or not he's temporarily on a team.

Gelt makes very short work of the patrol ship that Sador's forces parked in orbit and the seven ships land on Akir in order to start working on Planetary Defense 101. The Akira are hiding when the mercenaries show up, and Zed the outsider is fittingly enough the first one to welcome them to the planet. Everyone else makes an appearance, and one of the Akira apologizes for making such a bad first impression on their rescuers. And, yes, this is one of the obligatory scenes if you're gonna be telling this story again. It's vital that the fighters have their feelings hurt by the people they're planning to defend, and vital that the people who need help swallow their pride and get over their trepidation in order to welcome the mercenaries to their village / planet / ant colony.

Nanelia sets up the computer she took from Hephaestus station and shows everyone the weak point on Sador's ship--like all the fighting craft, it needs to drop its shields in order to set off its weapons. When Sador is warming up the stellar converter it will be possible--but far from easy--to get a small craft up close and take out the flagship of his armada. But Sador only ever uses the stellar converter after all attacking ships have been destroyed, so the five combat-capable ships will have to destroy his entire fleet by themselves so that he has no choice but to use the planet-killing weapon in retaliation.

Cowboy multitasks (planning the ground defense on Akir as well as mixing drinks from his scotch-and-soda dispenser belt) and Nanelia tries to put the moves on Shad (interrupting a couple times to talk about other species' mating rituals while Shad tries to get his smoove on). Later that night Cowboy serenades everyone with a harmonica and they cook hot dogs on the radiant heat provided by the Kelvin (I am not making this up). Sybil Danning shows off another, even crazier outfit than her previous one. It's the moment of calm before the storm. We also get a moment where two Akira children talk to Gelt about whether or not he's a bad man. ("How do you feel?" "I don't."), and then the perimeter alarm goes off and it's go time.

The big space battle commences, and this is where the film's budget and rushed production schedule really becomes apparent. The ships all look neat and there's stuff blowing up and lasers going FREEM! and everything, but there's just about no geography established in the shots. We know there's the flagship, the planet, Sador's fighters and the ragtag rebels, but mostly it's just shots of those things going towards the camera by themselves, not in the same space as other craft and there's not really any way to tell how the battle is going with a series of closeups of spaceship models and stone-faced reaction shots from an actor or two. Especially considering the huge battle scenes at the end of The Empire Strikes Back (remember, it was released the same year as this movie), this one tends to disappoint. And that's really too bad, because even with the inexpensive sets and props, there was a lot of charm to be found in the script and performances.

There's not a heck of a lot I can say about the big end fight; the rebels get whittled down piece by piece in the sky, while the ground assault on Akir gets foiled when Sador's forces use a "sonic tank" against the rebels, but the Kelvin--who cannot perceive sound--heat it with their own bodily emanations till it breaks. Cayman makes a suicide run on Sador's flagship and damages it at the cost of his own life. Gelt is eventually shot down (and buried with honor, with an offering of food--Shad makes sure he gets his meal and a place to rest at last). Saint Exmin manages a beautiful death in battle, and a damaged Nell sets her own self-destruct and parks next to the stellar converter, destroying Sador's ship and empire as her final act.

And back on Akir, Shad has grown through his experiences in the wider universe. I'm guessing that he'll be boss of the settlement on his planet, and that he'll actually do a really good job now that he's seen a little bit of the wider verse out there and knows the value of the forms out there. It's the science-fictional equivalent of "and they all lived happily ever after", perhaps, but with Sador gone from the universe they've got a better chance at actually achieving that ending now.

What makes the Roger Corman-produced ripoffs so much more entertaining than the current B avatars like the inevitable Asylum Pictures mockbusters? Well, in a nutshell, Corman gave a damn. I'm not saying that the distribution channels in 1960, 1980 and 2010 are all the same (those would be, roughly, the eras of the drive-in, the VCR and Netflix) but even when there wasn't any money or time, Corman's proteges tried to make sure that every penny they could pry from his grip got spent to make an entertaining movie. Battle Beyond the Stars can't really compete with the A list space adventures in the Star Wars or Star Trek franchises, but you can tell they were trying. The name actor in this flick is someone who had a decades-long career in film and television, and is almost reprising his role from The Magnificent Seven to boot. That's quite a higher mark than getting a former sitcom actor or 80s pop singer to take on the Sharknado or Transmorphers. They did the best they could with what they had, rather than just filling up time between commercial breaks with a crappy movie that people will watch out of ironic non-enjoyment.

I miss the good old days when you could see something like this in an actual theater.

This review is part of the "Sincerest Form of Fraudulence" roundtable that my fellow celluloid zeroes are taking a shot at. We're not the B Masters' Cabal, but...well, they do review roundabouts all the time and we thought we'd do our own little homage to their group efforts. Or, since our reputations are hopefully grimy enough, we could perhaps be comfortable calling a ripoff a ripoff. Just this once.

The Terrible Claw Reviews gets in a scrap with the Corman-produced Carnosaur 2.

Cinemasochist Apocalypse...I can't think of a pun that won't make Bryan want to punch me. He's reviewing Inseminoid.

Tomb of Anubis gets into gear with Death Racers.

Micro-Brewed Reviews will plug in to Cyberjack.

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