Saturday, April 7, 2012

The “Seven” in Space

There have been countless re-workings of Akira Kurasowa’s Seven Samurai (1954), including the classic western The Magnificent Seven (1960). In 1980, master B-movie producer Roger Corman (hoping to cash in on the success of the Star Wars films) served up a science-fiction version of the tale entitled Battle Beyond The Stars. As the film opens, Sador (John Saxon, veteran of a galaxy full of genre movies, including Enter The Dragon and the original Nightmare on Elm Street) is a ruthless warlord who shows up in orbit above the planet Akir (named as an homage to Kurasowa), whose peace-loving people are farmers. He threatens to use his ultimate weapon, a “Stellar Converter” on the planet, unless the people surrender to him, and turn over their crops. He leaves a small ship in orbit of the planet to guard them, and promises to return to pick up his tribute in a few days.

What can they do? Shad (Richard Thomas: that’s right, John-Boy of The Waltons) volunteers to recruit mercenaries to help them fight. He fires up an old ship and heads into space, where he meets up with Nanelia, the daughter of an old ally of his people. He also encounters an intergalactic trucker from Earth nicknamed “Space Cowboy” played by George Peppard (The A Team) and Robert Vaughn (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) as Gelt, who’s on the run and tired of his life as an assassin. A few aliens join the fight; Sybil Danning (in quite the form-fitting costume) as the warrior St. Exmin of the Valkyrie; the group consciousness known as Nestor, and the reptilian Cayman of the Lambda Zone, who has a score to settle with Sador.

Then it’s back to Akir, where they prepare for a showdown with Sador and his forces. Can the villain be defeated? Who will survive the battle? Will St. Exmin pop out of her costume, to the delight of teenage boys (and their Dads) everywhere? We’re not talking classic drama here, folks, but this is enjoyable Saturday matinee moviemaking. Director Jimmy T. Murakami keeps things moving at a brisk pace, and does a lot with the small budget to make the movie look like it had a bigger one. Thomas is a little bland at times in the lead, but the supporting actors enjoy their roles (and indulge in a bit of scenery chewing) including Vaughn in a virtual reprise of his character from The Magnificent Seven. Trivia fans take note: look for Jeff Corey, who appeared in an episode of the original Star Trek series, “The Cloud Minders,” in a small role as Zed, Marta Kristen (Judy of Lost in Space fame) as Lux, who takes a shine to Peppard’s character, and a brief cameo by Julia Duffy (pre-Newhart) as an ill-fated woman captured by Sador’s forces.

The film has some interesting talent behind the scenes. Producer Corman is well known for giving a lot of actors, directors and other crew members their first jobs, and Battle Beyond The Stars is no exception. When the original art director on the project was fired, a young model maker named James Cameron was promoted to work on the special effects & production design for the film. That’s right, James Cameron of The Terminator, Aliens, Titanic and Avatar fame.  The rousing music is by James Horner, who later scored Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Apollo 13 and Braveheart, among many others. The screenplay is by Oscar nominated writer/director John Sayles (Eight Men Out, Passion Fish, Lone Star) who used the money he made writing scripts for Corman to help fund his own first feature, Return of the Secaucus 7.

Corman would later re-use some of the effects sequences & music from this film in some of his other productions, including Space Raiders (1983) and Sorceress (1982), so even if you haven’t seen the movie before, you may feel like you have. Battle Beyond The Stars is a decent popcorn film that you'll enjoy a bit more if you’re a sci-fi fan, or are familiar with its influences. I have to admit, I saw this at the local drive-in during its original release (with my younger sister in tow, thanks to my Mom), and it's always been kind of a guilty pleasure favorite for me. The film is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD, with a decent assortment of extras, including an audio commentary by Corman and Sayles, and an interview with Richard Thomas.

Here's a link to an ad for the DVD & Blu-ray release of the film, featuring the original trailer. And remember, like St. Exmin says "Live fast, fight well, and have a beautiful ending."

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