Last time we had our first meeting with B-movie mogul extraordinaire Roger Corman, as well as a look at his first try at a Star Wars-style Space Opera, fondly-remembered Battle Beyond the Stars. This time we’re looking at another Corman-produced tale of adventure in the depths of space, but while Battle Beyond the Stars exemplified what a fun, imaginative b-movie can be, 1983’s Space Raiders exemplifies something else: how far Roger Corman is willing to go to save a buck. Corman is well known for almost never losing money on a film, and while a large part of that comes from the hard work and dedication he demands of his crews, an equally (if not greater) part of his success comes from his penchant for cutting corners. Space Raiders is a good example of that tendency, borrowing effects, music, and more from other films, most notable Battle Beyond the Stars. It’s just a shame that in between being a prime example of the famous Corman thriftiness, it doesn’t find the time to be all that fun.
Space Raiders begins when a group of outer space bandits – your basic Firefly-style crew of misfit outlaws – raid a facility and steal a ship. Unfortunately, a young boy named Peter hid in the ship during the battle, and now the crew have to figure out what to do with him. Before long, Peter bonds with the crew, particularly the hard-chewed captain Hawk, and joins them in a series of misadventures as part of their search for the next payday. Meanwhile, Peter’s father (a higher-up in “The Company,” the huge corporate entity that controls most of the universe) is desperate to find his son, and The Company’s security director programs a colossal robot battleship to track Peter down (because clearly the best way to find a missing child in this universe is with a Star Destroyer being controlled by a Terminator).
Space Raiders had a significantly smaller budget than Battle Beyond the Stars’ whopping two million, and anyone who saw Battle will realize how Corman saved money this time around right away. Almost all of the film’s space sequences, the ship battles, chases, etc., are ripped directly from Battle, right down to the sound effects. The Flying Uterus makes a return as Hawk’s ship, though this time free of any kind of awkward maternal symbolism. The giant robot battleship pursuing Peter will quickly be recognized as Sador’s ship from Battle, and virtually every ship and station from that film shows up at one point. For someone who’s never seen Battle Beyond the Stars, this shouldn’t present much of a problem, but if you know where all those effects shots are from, Space Raiders feels somewhere between a remix and a re-hash.
That sense of cheapness and re-use unfortunately isn’t exclusive to the space sequences. Though there are some nicely-made prosthetic heads for the non-human character to wear, you’d be surprised how strangely normal almost everyone else looks. Apparently in the far distant future, flannel, buckskin jackets, and green coveralls are still very much en vogue for the galaxy’s scruffy ne’er do wells. Now yes, Battle Beyond the Stars featured a literal Space Cowboy, and Space Raiders is definitely on that Firefly wavelength of frontier outlaw types in space, but it’s clear pretty quickly that most of Space Raiders‘ wardrobe department was scavenged from the Corman backlot and put into service with no alteration. When your extras could just as easily be on the studio lot shooting a sci-fi adventure or Smokey Bites the Dust, something is amiss.
The film also takes place in a lot of industrial facilities, with only a handful of original sets amidst a whole lot of scenes taking place in warehouses or hydroelectric plants, making things feel even more mundane that they should. It even shares a soundtrack with Battle, reusing much of James Horner’s score (which also features a lot of material that Horner would further re-use for several Star Trek movies).
So it’s cheap, because of course it’s cheap – it’s a Roger Corman movie. However, there’s a way for a cheap movie to not feel cheap, and that ability sadly eludes the makers of Space Raiders. While Battle Beyond the Stars felt like a cut above a lot of B-movies for its production values, Space Raiders feels more in line with what you’d expect of this kind of movie, especially if you’re not seeing the effects sequences for the first time.
It should be noted, though, that none of the above is what really kills Space Raiders and keeps it from being a fun, standout B-movie. No, what does that is that it’s often just plain boring. While Battle Beyond the Stars felt almost overstuffed with interesting sci-fi ideas, Space Raiders suffers for its lack of interesting concepts and characters. The motley crew of space rogues that we’re meant to like are composed of Hawk, a telepathic alien named Flightplan, and three to four sets of beige coveralls with underdeveloped characters inside them. There’s Amanda, whose character unfortunately begins and ends with her being “the girl,” Ace, whose only character beat is the scene where he repeatedly exclaims his hatred for rocks, and a final crewmember with so little presence or personality that you’ll forget he exists half the time. Plot-wise, the film takes us from one mostly uninteresting set-piece to another, without even the benefit of being based on a much better movie to help guide the pacing.
In the end, it feels like exactly what it is: a film made up almost entirely of leftovers, bits and pieces of previous movies stitched together into something that isn’t even as interesting as a Frankenstein monster. If you haven’t seen Battle Beyond the Stars, there should be some fun to be had in Space Raiders, if only in the space scenes, but ultimately the film is the rule rather than the exception when it comes to low-budget Space Opera. There’s nothing to really set it apart from its peers, or at least nothing that can’t be seen elsewhere in better movies.