Thursday, July 25, 2013

James Cameron, John Sayles, and John-Boy? It Must be "Battle Beyond the Stars"

Hoping to capitalize on the enormous popularity of 1977's Stars Wars, producer Roger Corman turned to John Sayles to craft an outer space adventure about another young man destined to become an unlikely hero. Sayles was on the verge of achieving critical success for his reunion comedy-drama Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979), the unofficial inspiration for The Big Chill. In the meantime, though, he paid the bills by writing witty screenplays for Corman and other budget-minded producers. His writing credits during this period include Piranha, Alligator, and The Howling.

Richard Thomas as John-Boy...I mean, Shad.
Battle Beyond the Stars is one of Sayles' lesser efforts. His intent seems clever enough: Transplant the premise of Akira Kurosawa's epic Seven Samurai (remade as the 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven) to a science fiction adventure. To that end, Richard Thomas stars as Shad, a young lad whose planet is under siege by the evil Sador (John Saxon). After inflicting some random killings, Sador promises: "I will return in seven risings. You are mine."

Not wanting to be "his," the village elders send Shad on a mission to find some mercenaries ("To fight creatures of violence, you must use creatures of violence"). Aboard his talking, smart-aleck ship Nell, Shad scours the galaxy and returns with six companions--only one of which could be described as a mercenary. Still, they prove to be a formidable force when Sador and his army return.

They are Nestor.
The first hour of this galactic hodgepodge has its share of amusing moments, such as the five beings that share a single conscience.

NESTOR: We are Nestor...these five facets. Four of us are required to operate the shop.

SHAD: What about the fifth?

NESTOR: We always carry a spare.

Alas, once Sador returns for the big showdown, Battle Beyond the Stars drops into a black hole. The spaceship battles drag on for over 20 minutes, leaving plenty of time to realize that special effects aren't special when you're working on a tight budget. Many of the effects were devised by a young crew member named James Cameron (and, yes, it is that James Cameron). Don't expect any amazing, innovative special effects, though. It's apparent that Cameron was a novice and had much to learn before developing the stunning visuals in Avatar (and, of course, benefiting from an exponential  budget increase and three decades of technological advances).

Cult fan favorite Sybil Danning.
Richard Thomas is adequate in the lead role, though John-Boy Walton still looks out of place on a spaceship. Robert Vaughn, who played one of the mercenaries in The Magnificent Seven, pays homage to his earlier film (though, oddly enough, Vaughn's role this time around shares many similarities with Charles Bronon's in Magnificent Seven). George Peppard seems bored with his part as the rascally gun-runner Cowboy (think Han Solo). Sybil Danning looks physically imposing, as always, but has nothing to do. Ditto for Marta Kristen, which is sure to disappoint her Lost in Space fans.

It's easy to dismiss Battle Beyond the Stars as a routine Star Wars rip-off. Indeed, that may be an apt description, but it's still worth viewing as a training ground for Cameron, Sayles (who later earned two Oscar nominations for screenwriting), and composer James Horner (who teamed up with Cameron on Titanic and Avatar).

2 comments:

  1. THE MAGNIFICENT 7 in space is a great high concept and I remember loving it when it came out, not least for the fabulous James Horner score which really put him on the map - and as for Sybil Danning's outfit, truly the stuff that teenage dreams are made of!

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  2. One of these day I'm gonna watch all three of these in a row - Seven Samurai, Magnificent Seven and this.

    Battle Beyond the Stars has a lot of great moments - one Nestor eating a hotdog, and all five chewing, Robert Vaughn playing his character from Magnificent Seven almost verbatim.

    "Live fast, fight well, and have a beautiful ending." That's make a great tattoo.

    I was quite happy to see that when they ran Magnificent Seven on TCM's Essentials Jr, they gave a shout out to not only BBtS, but A Bug's Life, which also owes a debt to Kurosawa's classic.

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