Since 1954, Roger Corman has served as producer on over 410 movies, as of the time of this writing. For those unwilling to do the math, that’s over six movies a year – and bear in mind, he also directed 56 of those movies. To call him a powerhouse would be to sell the man short just a bit. His filmography consists almost entirely of low-budget productions that he financed out of his own pocket, and he’s been called the King of the B-Movies, as well as the ultimate schlockmeister, yet Corman has remained in business for decades while other moguls have come and gone. Why? Part of it is his notoriously thrifty ways, honed over years (yes, odds are if you watch enough Corman movies you’ll notice a few sets, locations and props make return appearances), but there’s something more to it than just Corman knowing how to save a buck. There’s something special about a Roger Corman movie, an earnestness and sense of effort that makes up for their lack of polish. Nobody half-asses it on a Roger Corman movie, and that drive and work ethic are what has kept his career going strong.
Corman’s always kept with the times, producing whatever was popular at the moment, and in the wake of Star Wars that meant he had to get into the Space Opera game. Corman’s first entry in the handful of Space Operas he’d eventually produce was 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars, an entry in his canon often regarded with special fondness by Corman fans.
Battle Beyond the Stars begins when Sador, a ruthless space tyrant, announces to the people of the peaceful planet Akir that he’ll conquer their world within a week. Desperate to save his people, a young farmer then sets out into space to recruit some mercenaries, and he eventually comes back with seven ships manned by a ragtag group of misfits to fight back against Sador. And yes…that is the exact plot of The Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai, only in space. Depsite the planet Akir (get it? Akir….a Kurosawa?), the film makes more references to Magnificent Seven than its own predecessor – even going so far as to feature a space cowboy named Space Cowboy – but you can still count Battle Beyond the Stars in the unsurprisingly long history of Kurosawa remakes.
Battle Beyond the Stars inhabits a strange gray area between having a surprising amount of thought put into it and having too much thought put into it. Sprinkled into the fairly wrote space opera shenanigans and pew-pew space battles are a number of surprisingly high-concept ideas. Two supporting cast members, a pair of mute Star Trek escapees, communicate through controlled heat emissions; also on board are a group of aliens whose species shares a single consciousness, a space Valkyrie probably transplanted from Corman’s last swords-and-sorcery epic, and Robert Vaughan as a near carbon copy of his character from Magnificent Seven, a tired old killer at the end of his rope. Obviously none of the film’s concepts will blow your mind, but once in a while you come across an odd but interesting notion dropped into the script for flavor. If you’re a fan of these kinds of neat little ideas, moments like these will put a smile on your face.
Then there’s the weird stuff. The main character, Shad, flies around in a ship controlled by a female-voiced AI named Nell. We’re meant to see Nell as a maternal figure to Shad, who is a callow youth very firmly in the Luke Skywalker mold, and apparently to make absolutely sure that we pick up on the “mother” part of this mother ship, it bears an uncanny resemblance to a uterus with a pair of breasts attached. And no, that’s not the analysis of a film major desperately trying to validate his degree by reading too deeply into everything; the ship was nicknamed “the flying uterus” by the crew. Because look at the darn thing! It should also be noted that the ship, like all of the special effects on the film, was created by a young James Cameron, so we can probably put to rest the idea that Avatar is Cameron’s most blatant use of symbolism.
Despite its budget (which was actually two million dollars, though much of this went to the salaries of stars George Peppard and Robert Vaughn), Battle Beyond the Stars doesn’t feel as cheap as you’d expect it to. Obviously this isn’t going to be a spectacle on the scale of The Empire Strikes Back, which opened just months earlier, but you may still be surprised at how striking some of the visual effects are. Where the budget honestly shows the most is in how little time much of the main cast spend onscreen together. This was doubtlessly an intentional move in order to keep everyone’s time on set (and thereby on the payroll) to a minimum – especially the more expensive members of the ensemble.
For the most part, Battle Beyond the Stars feels overall classier and more upscale than you may expect, owing partly to those effects, partly to the adequate acting, and partly to the score by James Horner (in one of his earliest gigs). Of course, once in a while something like Sybil Danning’s completely ridiculous outfit will come along and remind you what you’re watching, but in an odd sort of way that’s the charm. Where Star Wars felt eager to escape its pulpy roots, Battle Beyond the Stars keeps them within easy reach. If the story gets too heavy, like in the recurring subplot of Shad’s break from his people’s pacifist ways, the film is all too happy to trot out a B-movie sexpot in an outfit she had to be taped into, or to let John Saxon chew the scenery like an absolute champ. It takes the naked cheese of the B-movie and marries it to the grandiose Space Opera drama of the Star Wars era.
Battle Beyond the Stars wouldn’t be Corman’s only foray into Star Wars-inspired Space Operas, but a film this silly and fun would be a hard act to follow for any future efforts.