Monday, July 6, 2020

Space 1979: The one that remade Magnificent Seven in outer space with a star of the Magnificent Seven

Title: Battle Beyond The Stars
What Year?: 1980
Classification: Knockoff
Rating: Downright Decent!

In recent years, plenty has been written about Blockbuster and the role it once had in how people received pop culture, either in celebration or mockery. I have never been drawn into nostalgia for the old video stores, though I have plenty of memories around them. (Hollywood Video was my go-to.) However, I do have a special place in my memory for movies aired on network TV back in the 1980s and 1990s. At any given date and time back in the day, you could turn on the television and probably find a movie on. I can remember seeing major (and completely inappropriate) movies like Robocop, older action/ adventure movies like Dirty Harry and Black Sunday, any number of Westerns, and plenty of semi-obscure science fiction/ fantasy films. The really fun part was that there was a good chance of tuning in in the middle or at the end, and if you didn't catch the station identification or check the TV guide, you might spend years or even decades trying to figure out what the Hell you had watched. With this review, I've finally gotten to one of those movies, an odd little movie titled Battle Beyond The Stars.

This one starts promisingly with a giant warship arriving in orbit around a planet called Akir. The evil overlord announces to the pacifist inhabitants that he will destroy their world if they do not serve him. The ruling elders agree to send a young pilot named Shad into the wider galaxy to look for warriors to aid them. He shortly meets up with a cyborg inventor's naïve daughter and a smuggler named Cowboy whose client was blown up by the warlord. As their misadventures continue, they must escape ambushes from the warlord and various outlaws and renegades, several of whom join up with their band. As the final deadline approaches, the Cowboy tries to arm and train the Akira for surface combat while the rest of the allies meet the warlord's warship in space. And for once, things go about as badly as could be expected.

The most noteworthy thing about this movie is that it was produced by none other than Roger Corman, with effects and production design by one James Cameron. It was unapologetically conceived as an answer to Star Wars,  but the timeframe of the production belies a rushed cash grab. Whether out of respect or legal concerns, the production pointedly drew on The Seven Samurai and its earlier American counterpart The Magnificent Seven, to the point of putting a good part of the budget into casting Robert Vaughn as a mercenary  named Gelt who joins in the adventure. Other cast and characters included George Peppard as The Cowboy, John Saxon as the warlord Sador, and Earl Boen (Dr. Silverman in the Terminator franchise) as a group of hive-mind aliens called Nestor.

Unfortunately, the end result is a well-made film more disappointing than many outright bad ones. I can very clearly recall watching this in the 1990s or very early 2000s (I know I had already heard of it), and being struck by an odd lack of energy. That remained my strongest reaction when I watched it for this review, and I quickly recognized that many of the problems rise from uneven character development.  Peppard, at that time in a rough patch between 1960s film stardom and renewed fame on The A Team, gives a nuanced and vulnerable performance that impressed me then and now. A few other characters gave a pleasant surprise on new viewing, especially Nestor. Others, however, remained just as forgettable, and that definitely includes Vaughn. The script gives him limited screen time, and he delivers most of his dialogue in a near monotone (in hindsight not much different than his performance in Magnificent Seven). The bottom line is that the film continually strains to make us care what happens to anyone in it.

Any redeeming features of the film come from its quite good models and effects and surprising level of world-building. The various ships are superbly built and shot, with variations that hint at differences in the cultures and personalities of their owners. The settings are even more impressive, particularly a space station where the cyborg lives with his robot creations and an abandoned city-state where Shad discovers Gelt. What is most interesting is that there is no sign of an equivalent to Star Wars' Empire or Star Trek's Federation governing the various planets. As a result, the warlord and the rogues who oppose him appear to be on something like equal terms apart from pure firepower. It makes for an effective nod to the feudal setting of The Seven Samurai, and an oddly convincing scenario of what a functioning interstellar civilization might be like.

That brings us to the "one scene", and I had to make a hard choice. I was ready to go with a scene where the Nestor is forced to endure the torture and death of one of his members at the warlord's hands, and this time I will give an honorable mention. But then I took a closer look at the scene in the abandoned city. On arrival, the explicitly religious Shad examines a vending machine for drugs, but discards a single pill that it dispenses. He then sees a machine that clearly offers "adult" entertainment, complete with life-sized images of a selection of companions. He chooses one, and the camera pans upward from the floor as a door opens, revealing one of the most horrifying "practical" effects I have ever seen.

For the postscript, the movie reached theatres in late 1980, a few months after Empire Strikes Back. It gave a reasonable return at the box office, and would have the further distinction of being optioned for cable television. The movie received a further afterlife through Corman's characteristic recycling of footage, notably the Alien ripoff Forbidden World (certainly due for its own installment) and its 1991 remake Dead Space. Because nothing could stop Roger Corman, and judging from the vend-a-woman machine, that might include death.

For links, see my new introduction to Space 1979.

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