Sunday, March 11, 2012

Battle beyond the Stars (1980)



NetFlix 2.9/5
IMDB 5.1/10
My Rating: 5/10

A young hero must voyage into the galaxy with his talking organic space ship to recruit mercenaries who can save his peaceful planet from the war-mongering armadas of Sador.

Back in 1980, we were still basking in the warm afterglow of the Millenium Falcon, in the heady days when Star Wars was THE coolest space franchise in existence and George Lucas was a trusted god to young lads all over America as the distiller of our dreams.  Star Wars ripoffs were being rushed to the drive-ins as fast as they got back from the Fotomat, and it seemed like every weekend had some new Space/Star/Blasters/Quest film running at the dollar matinee.  Into this mix came Battle beyond the Stars, from none other than B movie legend Roger Corman.  I'll probably be lynched by nostalgia-soaked fans of Shad and Nell, but I have to be honest - I thought it was a pretty incredibly goofy movie at age 14 and time has not been kind to it.  That said, it is still a hoot to watch for its pure insanity and I guarantee you won't go away unhappy, at least.

The basic plot is thus - Intergalactic bad man Sador (Hammed to the hammiest by a gloating John Saxon) comes to innocent, hippy-esque planet Akir to demand that they surrender or die.  The natives of Akir have no weapons and live by some sort of nonviolent code so it's a wonder they aren't invaded every week, but there you go...  We don't spend a lot of time on Akir, which is a shame because every panorama of the planet looks like a 70's album cover and I kept wanting to flip the TV screen open so I could read the cosmic lyrics and wonder at all the mystical new harmonies and coded meanings in the songs, man.

Alas, right off the bat we're visited by the floating Blue Head of Death, otherwise known as John Saxon, and there's some random killing and chaos just to ensure no one laughs at the giant head in the sky.  Sador gives everyone time to surrender before he destroys the planet, and an emergency council convenes to send idealistic young Frodo, err, Shad, off on an adventure to save the world!

Shad's quest will take him all over the universe in search of skilled mercenaries to defend his planet, but let's pause for a moment and bump right up on the movie's weirdest casting, hero Shad, otherwise (and inescapably) known as John-Boy Walton.  Like William Shatner and Captain Kirk, Richard Thomas was John-Boy, the naive but well-meaning writer/countryboy from Waltons' Mountain.  Modern generations have likely never even seen the Waltons so it won't be a problem for them, but for those of us in the theaters in 1980, it was like casting Ernest T. Bass as Ben Kenobi...  Just one long, open-jawed, "What were they thinking?"  The unknown Mark Hamill could embody every young lad's aspirations, but Shad was...  John-Boy.

Stepping past that, Shad ventures forth in a talking spaceship named Nell to have his adventure.  Nell is a female ship.  Nell is a very female ship.  I'd love to have been present in the design stages of this to hear whose idea it was to, hey, "Try sticking some breasts on that space ship, and maybe make the rest of it look like a skinned rabbit".  Nell may possibly be the most unusual looking spaceship in film history.

Shad explores the galaxy in his skinless talking space organ and this is the meat of the movie, pardon the pun...  It's Magnificent Seven in space, as he recruits badass after badass to come save Akir.  Robert Vaughn, Sybil Danning, George Peppard, and various actors in rubber alien masks all sign up for the cause.  Robert Vaughn gets special credit for his portrayal of world-weary mercenary Gelt, who has the wealth of planets but no safe place he can relax over a meal.  Sybil Danning, by contrast, gets notice for managing to keep her marginal clothes attached for the entire movie, and how she accomplishes this magnificent feat is anyone's guess (IMDB says lots of hidden sticky tape was involved).  Her character is loads of fun - A fearsome space Valkyrie out to prove herself, and I suspect a lot of young lads had their first case of lust/crush when she appeared back in 1980.

Once the crew is assembled it's non-stop action to the end as all and sundry take on the imperial fleet of Sador.  Star Wars, it is not, but for a $2 million dollar budget, it's an amazing accomplishment.  The space battles are fun, the alien makeup is wonderfully cheesy, and the whole thing is infused with that sense of, "Well, why not throw in a talking alligator?" that made so many of the 70's drive-in films so deliriously enjoyable.  Battle beyond the Stars might not have been the next Star Wars (It had the dire misfortune of coming out in the same year as Empire Strikes Back), but as late night TV entertainment, it's definitely worth seeing.