Thursday, November 20, 2008

Battle Beyond the Stars

Directed by
  Jimmy T. Murakami
Story by Anne Dyer and John Sayles; Screenplay by Sayles
Starring Richard Thomas, Robert Vaughn, George Peppard, John Saxon, Sybil Danning

When a movie is a smash hit, other filmmakers rush to copy it. Usually the result is dire, since the people ripping off the film don't really understand (or care) what made it a hit in the first place.  Occasionally, though, there is something that stands out on its own.

Battle Beyond the Stars is a prime example.

The movie was produced by the legendary schlockmeister Roger Corman. In his long career, Corman produced almost 400 films, nearly all of them cheap knockoffs of the latest trend.  So when Star Wars started making hatfuls of money, he jumped on the bandwagon.  And why not?  Corman had made quite a few other science fiction films (like the original Little Shop of Horrors). 

Corman was also famous for using (and underpaying) young talent. His films were always a way to break into films and a surprising number of his actors, directors, and writers went on to successful careers.

In this case, he chose John Sayles. Sayles has written a couple of moderately successful novels, but was more interested in movies.  He first got Corman's attention with the script for Piranha, and Corman hired him again to turn his attention to a Star Wars clone. 

At the time, Sayles was working on his first directing effort, the superb Return of the Secaucus Seven, and probably some of his check from Coreman was used to pay for the film.  Perhaps because he was busy, Sayles took the easy way out. 

He stole his plot from The Magnificent Seven (and its Japanese inspiration, The Seven Samurai)The farming world of Akir* is threatened by the space tyrant Sador** (John Saxon) so Shad (Richard "John Boy" Thomas) sets out to find people willing to help with the defense.  He recruits Gelt (Robert Vaughn) and Cowboy (George Peppard) and five others in order to defeat Sador and save the world.

The film doesn't hide its origins.  Robert Vaughn was in The Magnificent Seven and Gelt has many of the same lines of dialog.  But what really makes the film work is Sayles's script, which is witty, and satirical, but also shows a love of the genre.  I saw it as the second feature at a drive-in, and I must say that was really the right element for it.

The film was one of Corman's most expensive. It was unusual for him to cast so many established actors, and the special effects budget was first class (unusual for Corman).  It seems to have been something of a success, but the budget was probably too rich for Corman's taste, so he returned to low-budget quickies.

Like many Corman films, this started a few major careers.  John Sayles, of course, went on to be a major name in independent films.***  Jimmy T. Murakami has directed occasionally, but this was his one major film.  James Horner, whom composed the score, has been very successful as a film composer, even winning an Oscar for his score for Titanic.  And why was he chosen to write that one?  Possibly on the recommendation of the film's art director (and creator of the spaceship models), a young man named James Cameron.

*A reference to Akira Kurosawa, director of The Seven Samauri.

** There was no need for subtlety, was there?

***And in Schenectady, his home town (or, at lease, my adopted one), where they named their arts magnet high school after him.

1 comment:

Kim Kinnison said...

I saw this again recently on TV, and whilst it was still pretty cheesy, it wasn't nearly as bad as I remembered it.

Definitly more than just a passing resemblance to The Magnificent Seven, and the music, composed by James Horner, is incredibly similar to his score for Star Trek II - The Wrath of Khan, but the thing that you spend most of the film wondering about is "why does John Boy's spaceship have such a magnificent pair of breasts!?!"