What's a small, peace loving planet to do when they're threatened with destruction by a group of malevolent mutants headed up by the most despicable villain? Why they enlist a sweet young boy to travel the galaxy in search of mercenaries to fend off the tyrant.
When the evil Sador the Conqueror (John Saxon) and his hideous Malmori army threaten the peaceful planet of Akir, the inhabitants, known as the Akira (in reference to Seven Samurai director Akira Kurosawa) sends young Shad (Richard Thomas of The Waltons) on an intergalactic journey to hire mercenaries to defend the planet. Piloting a sarcastic pre-LEXX talking female spaceship (with breasts!), Shad assembles a fleet of seven spaceships to fend off the bad guys.
There's love interest Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel), whose spaceship houses a sophisticated computer to help the cause; a scotch-drinking space cowboy from Earth (George Peppard of The A-Team); Gelt, an outlaw with a bounty on his head, played by Robert Vaughn in a role similar to the character Lee he played in The Magnificent Seven; the reptilian Cayman (Morgan Woodward), who has his own score to settle with Sador; Saint-Exmin of the Valkyrie (the voluptuous Sybil Danning), whose motto, "Live fast, fight well and have a beautiful ending" carries her into action; five clones with a collective consciousness known as the Nestor; and a pair of aliens who communicate by emanating heat from their bodies. The "magnificent seven" mercenary ships -- headed up by Shad and Nell -- travel back to Akir for the final conflict.
When an evil tyrant threatens a peaceful planet with dictatorial rule, what are its pacifist inhabitants supposed to do? Well, first thing they do is apparently rip off the plot of Akira Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai' and then fill the screen with a laser-light show that seems far too extravagant for such a low-budget feature. One of the short docs about the production, which is included on this Blu-ray release, calls this a "Space Opera on a Shoestring." Unfortunately, there's more shoestring in this Roger Corman cult classic than space opera, a clear reference to the producer's attempt to suck the 'Star Wars' craze completely dry.
On the other hand, director Jimmy Murakami, the talented artist of such animated favorites as 'When the Wind Blows' and 'The Snowman,' does an extraordinary job with the limited resources. 'Battle Beyond the Stars' is actually well-made and decently paced given its origins and purpose, often feeling like an overly-ambitious made-for-TV movie. There are even some moments of inspired filmmaking, like the evil emperor's massive ship flying menacingly through space. But they're ultimately fleeting touches to a recycled storyline in a purely made-for-profit production on a small sum of money, which at the time was greatly expensive for Corman.
This western in outer space was written — or should I say revised for the post-'Star Wars' era of filmmaking — by John Sayles, who later went on to have good success as an independent filmmaker. He makes no bones about what his script is doing, seeming very much like a humorous pastiche in several areas. He even names the planet Akir so that characters residing there can call themselves Akiras, a blatant wink-wink elbow-nudge to the legendary Japanese director. We also see elements of 'The Magnificent Seven' lingering about, especially when we have Robert Vaughn quite literally reprising his role from that John Sturges classic.
Here, Sayles has his Akira hero, Shad (Richard Thomas), scour the universe for a posse of outlaws to fight against his people's new oppressor, Sador (John Saxon). If you notice any similarities between Shad and Luke Skywalker, don't worry, it's not a coincidence. Both are young, innocent farm boys from a dry desert planet. It's a role that would have been even funnier had Corman put out more money to hire Mark Hamill. As for Saxon's malevolent despot, there's no relation to Darth Vader. But like all evildoers, he comes with some type of physical deformity, namely a nasty birthmark across his face and a rotting arm that's never explained.
After all that scouring, Shad returns with a strange collection of mercenaries to which even the Akiras seem too afraid to say hello. We have genetically-cloned, three-eyed telepathic aliens and a lizard-like humanoid named Cayman (Morgan Woodward) from the Lambda Lambda Lambdas. Just kidding; his full name is Cayman from the Lambda Zone, and he's joined by twins with high temperatures conveniently named Kelvin and some dude who could be easily mistaken for Conan's long-lost brother. George Peppard makes an absolutely winning appearance as a cowboy space trucker, followed by Vaughn's on-the-run assassin. Along the way, Shad even picks up a girlfriend in Darlanne Fluegel.
Despite this large assortment of personalities, there was one role I simply could not take my eyes off of. And that is the Viking-inspired warrior Saint-Exmin (Sybil Danning), whose tantalizingly scanty outfits quickly become a distraction to male viewers. Even worse, the underside of Shad's spaceship looks like a cross between a scrotum and a pair of breasts (complete with nipples). One thought keep coursing through my head: What was James Cameron thinking when he designed this? And one final thing. Why do many of these movies make the future look a lot like the 1970s with permed hair and thick mustaches on men? I'm not seriously looking for answers to these questions, but it's what makes 'Battle Beyond the Stars' an entertaining and funny watch — an ambitious production, badly made.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Shout! Factory brings 'Battle Beyond the Stars' to Blu-ray as a 30th Anniversary Edition under the Roger Corman's Cult Classics line. The Region A locked, BD25 disc comes in the standard blue keepcase and goes straight to the normal menu selection with full-motion clips and music.
'Battle Beyond the Stars' lands on Blu-ray with a very nice if only slightly troubled AVC-encoded picture.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the transfer often looks great with clearly-defined lines of the spaceships and various background objects, allowing viewers to fully appreciate James Cameron's detailed art design. Close-ups are particularly impressive as hair and clothing are quite distinct and facial complexions are surprisingly lifelike. The video also shows a rather moderate but stable contrast level with clean, brilliant whites while blacks remain fairly strong and attractive throughout. Colors appear bright and accurate though much of the emphasis is on the softer secondary hues.
Only noticeable issue which tends to distract is also likely the result of the print used. Understandably, the special effects don't hold up as well as the rest of the video, but they still look pretty good, all things considered. There were two instances of vertical lines suddenly running across the screen and a few specks of dirt creep up in some spots. These are some negligible concerns worth mentioning, but nothing that ultimately ruins the movie's enjoyment too much.
The 1981 sci-fi flick also arrives with an equally good DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack though it's entirely preserved in the front.
With clear, excellent separation between the channels, the lossless mix feels quite welcoming and open with a couple moments of persuasive off-screen effects. Dialogue is clean and precise, making every cheesy line and conversation perfectly audible throughout. The mid-range is incredibly flawless and expansive for a thirty-year-old movie originally recorded in mono, displaying a wonderfully wide imaging that's sharp and consistent. The musical score by James Horner takes advantage of this cleanliness, providing listeners with a full and wide soundstage. Unfortunately, bass falls short with the rest of the track, but there's just enough low-end to give the movie a bit of depth. All in all, it's a good high-rez upgrade for a Corman schlockfest.
This new anniversary edition shares the same assortment of bonus features as its DVD counterpart.
'Battle Beyond the Stars' is a highly ambitious B-feature that surprises by actually being somewhat engaging and funny. From producer Roger Corman and written by John Sayles with art direction by James Cameron, the movie sets the plot of Akira Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai,' and later 'The Magnificent Seven,' in a large-scale battle in outer space and is amusingly entertaining for it. The Blu-ray displays a strong, remastered video/audio transfer and features a decent collection of supplements to celebrate the film's 30th anniversary. Cult enthusiasts and collector's of schlock will not be disappointed, while others looking to kill a couple of hours will want to give the movie a spin.