Saturday 18 April 2020

I Blame Society #7: Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

When I was a kid, there was a certain sort of movie that would be shown in the mornings during school holidays, and often these movies would be oddly affecting, and would haunt me for years. one of the morning screenings of the 80s dub of Hayao Miyazaki's Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Tenkū no Shiro Laputa, 1986) would haunt me for a decade or more until I realised what I had seen; likewise, René Laloux's existentially bleak Moebius-designed and Moebius-strip-plot space opera Time Masters (Les Maîtres du Temps, 1982) absolutely traumatised me, as well it might. And then there's Watership Down (1979). I don't need to tell you about Watership Down.

Some movies seemed to be on every holiday. I don't know if this is really the case. In the words of 80s Doctor Who producer John Nathan Turner, “The memory cheats.” I mean, all it probably took for me to recall a movie being on “all the time” was two screenings, the one being burned on my memory and the second reinforcing that. I know for sure, for example, that I saw Jim Dale-starring “science makes a cuddly mutt colossal” comedy Digby: The Biggest Dog in the World (1973) at least twice. But it feels like more. The same goes for insanely harrowing and inexplicably U-rated kid-against-the-wilderness thriller Lost in the Desert (actually Dirkie, 1969), and it most definitely goes for Battle Beyond the Stars.

I recall the recognition, the “Oh, hey, it's Battle Beyond the Stars! I love this movie!” moment, that feeling of settling down to watch it because it was on. But I wonder now if my memory of having seen it more than twice is in fact down to some of the peculiar circumstances that came from it being one of the vast number of movies produced by Roger Corman. To explain, Corman's entire ethos for more than 400 movies has been to make the best movie you possibly can for the smallest amount of money. And so it was that the excellent musical score (by Titanic composer James Horner no less) and more than decent starship sequences in Battle Beyond the Stars were re-used more than once, and one of those times was in the vastly inferior Space Raiders (1985), which was also broadcast on a school holiday morning in the late 80s or early 90s, when I was at least old enough to go, “Hang on a minute, I've seen that spaceship.”

Nell, the affably maternal (mother?)ship central to the action (the ship’s computer is voiced by Lynn Carlin) is a pretty memorable design, organically styled and inescapably feminine, uterine even, as if the early-career James Cameron who designed it had intended it to look like a woman's torso from one direction and a womb from another. No one watching the kids' movie slot on a Summer holiday morning in the 80s expected to see a starship with nipples, that's for sure, but having said that, Nell is a genuinely great ship. She's supposed to be impractical, to signify a bygone age, when things were made to be beautiful, and to contrast with the blockish, brutal starships of the marauding, deformed Malmori, which are all made of rivets and conduits.
The Malmori arrive at the peaceful planet Akir and inform the inhabitants that they will be coming to either occupy or blow up the planet in a few days. Performing a theatrically pointless massacre, they head off to blow up some other planet, presumably because they've only got the one planet busting starship, which only underlines the cut-price nature of this whole thing. The title itself signifies exactly what this film is, a somewhat less expensive Star Wars knock-off, not a whole war, a battle, but still beyond, smaller but maybe a little (whisper it) better. It doesn't pretend to be huge. The “baddies only have the one big spaceship” thing serves as a plot element later on. And the cut-rate bad guys themselves are signified as cut-rate, all deformed and unkempt with ugly, functional starships, not a galactic empire so much as a barbarian horde. Their leader, Sador (B-movie legend John Saxon) has a certain rakish dignity, but again the film calls that out as ersatz, the result of an only variably successful course of plastic surgery, which again serves later as a plot point.

The film ends and begins with Akir, or should I say Akir(a Kurosawa), because like Star Wars (the original 1977 Star Wars, the best Star Wars, and not strictly Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, which, after two rounds of redesignation and adulteration, and years of existing in the context of a series, is no longer really the same film) Battle Beyond the Stars rips off the plot of a Kurosawa movie. Whereas Star Wars largely nicks the plot of The Hidden Fortress (1958), Battle Beyond the Stars traverses the somewhat more familiar ground of The Seven Samurai (1954). And The Seven Samurai had already been remade, of course, as The Magnificent Seven (1960), which, unsurprisingly, given many more people in the West have seen it, Battle Beyond the Stars directly references, even having Robert Vaughan's Gelt be more or less the same character Vaughan plays in the legendary Western.
The direct Star Wars ripoffs are in full flood, too. We start with an enormous battleship; we have a planet blown up before our heroes can reach it; we have a critical weak point in the enemy behemoth’s defences (although, crucially, this critical weak point makes a whole lot more logical sense than the one in the Death Star, and turns out to be a red herring). The goodies have their own zen-influenced Space Religion, the Varda (and again, it’s one that makes a whole lot more sense than the one in Star Wars).

The protagonist of Battle Beyond the Stars is Shad (Richard Thomas, known to a generation, namely my generation, as John-Boy Walton), the wet-behind-the-ears youth who volunteers to seek out defenders for the planet. He flies off in Nell, a starship from a more civilised time, which belonged to retired Space Corsair Zed (Jeff Corey), who himself is a bit too old for gallivanting. And on the way he picks up a motley group, each of whom has their own reason for joining. The earthman, Space Cowboy (George Peppard) joins because he’s got a shipment of weapons heading for the defence of a planet that Sador just went and blew up, and he’s been paid up front and a job’s a job. Reptilian cannibal Cayman (Morgan Woodward) signs up for revenge – he’s the last survivor of his race, genocided by Sador. Several representatives of Nestor, an alien race who share a single consciousness, sign up because Nestor is a bit lonely and bored. Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel) tags along pretty much because her dad (Sam Jaffe) is a mad scientist and having an adventure is probably less weird than her home life (and she's also interested in knowing what Shad's people “do for procreation”, right). Gelt is here because he just wants a place to hide out.
And then we have the oversexed space Valkyrie Saint Exmin (Sybil Danning), who begs to come along because she wants to die in glory and she hasn’t proved herself yet (and her arc is pretty much like that of Chico in The Magnificent Seven – she starts by following the group and won't go away until Shad lets her join up).

If Battle Beyond the Stars gets mentioned still in online listicles, it’s mostly because of Sybil Danning’s costumes, which are something to behold. It’s interesting that despite being signified as a Horny Space Amazon, Saint Exmin has no real interest in being a sex object as such – in fact, any idea that a romantic triangle might emerge between Shad, Good Girl Nanelia and Bad Girl Saint Exmin is neatly headed off with an exchange where the Amazon basically tells Nanelia to just get in there and take that action. She’s generous, a good fighter, sex-positive, and… yeah… OK... wears costumes that she literally had to be fixed into with double-sided sticky tape to maintain the family-friendly tone of the movie.

That tension between solid ideas, good shorthand characterisation and cheesy space opera clichés is one reason, I think, why Battle Beyond the Stars gets remembered. Fascinating science fiction concepts get chucked in here and there: Nestor might be a silly looking costume, but the whole hive race thing gets to be used in the plot in interestingly dark ways; Cayman has a couple of crew members from a race who communicate by exuding heat and light; the reasons why Sador is so much better looking than the rest of his people gets explored in entertainingly nasty directions.
Richard Thomas, Robert Vaughan, George Peppard, John Saxon and Sybil Danning are all as great as they should be. The score is hummable enough to be remembered decades down the line and it’s no surprise that the ship sequences got re-used. And yes, it’s cheap, and in places that cheapness is manifest, but everyone is getting every penny of value they can out of this movie. No one is giving less than a hundred and ten per cent, and it shows. It is not pretending to be more than it is – a knock off of Kurosawa by way of Star Wars and The Magnificent Seven, a whole three levels of derivative – and yet somehow it manages to be better than that.

Battle Beyond the Stars is humane, and funny, and thrilling, and sad, and if it ends abruptly, if you can see where the third eyes have been glued on the Nestors’ foreheads, if the sets and props are tinfoil, plywood and expanded polystyrene, if hokey stuff like Sybil Danning’s costume and the whole idea of the Space Cowboy haven’t aged all that well, there’s still so much genuine talent here, and talent in weird places. James Cameron worked in art direction, and only a couple of years later he’d be making The Terminator (1982) and a bit after that he’d give us Aliens (which is in my opinion the best Alien movie, fight me). The director, Jimmy T Murakami, is probably best known as a great animator: he directed British Christmas staple The Snowman (1982) and traumatising Raymond Briggs adaptation When the Wind Blows (1986), for example, and Battle Beyond the Stars, a rare live action entry, has an odd texture to it, something imperceptibly off-kilter. Is that an accident? Is that the eye of an animator? I don’t know.

This film is by no means a nailed-on classic, but it’s a whole lot better than it needs to be. It’s good because everyone involved really cared about it being good, even though they didn’t have to (compare to Space Raiders, which just recycles footage and music and has factory floors stand in for alien planets, and which is sort of wretched as a result of all that not caring). And it’s the fact they didn’t have to care but clearly did anyway, that makes Battle Beyond the Stars still a thing worth remembering.