There’s something so intoxicatingly comforting about Roger Corman’s sci-fi reimagining of “The Magnificent Seven”, itself a remake of “Seven Samurai” that I’m surprised it’s not regulated by the government. It’s appeal probably lies in its perfect placement at the start of the home video boom in the early eighties when it was available to rent and its only competition was “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and “Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone”. This was during the wild, lawless days when the rumour mill had it that George Lucas was determined never to release “The Empire Strikes Back” or “Return Of The Jedi” on home video. Ironically, history would go on to record that, on the contrary, Lucas would barely stop releasing versions of those films on home media for decades to come.
When the peaceful agrarian world of Akir (named for Akira Kurosawa) catches the eye of the Malmori Empire and its tyrannical leader Sador (John Saxon), they are warned that a failure to submit to Malmori rule will bring destruction at the hands of the stellar converter a weapon which turns planets into stars. Desperate for hope, Zed, the last of the Akira Corsairs suggests the planet recruit a band of mercenaries to fight for them and gives his starship Nell to Shad (Richard ‘John Boy Walton’ Thomas) to seek out recruits.
At the time of its release, “Battle Beyond The Stars” was the most expensive Roger Corman production ever and it shows. Obviously, it’s not quite in the Lucasfilm league but the visual, creature and model effects are pretty darned good and still hold up reasonably well today. All of that money ends up on the screen as Corman brings out the star power to battle beyond. In addition to Thomas and Saxon, the cast of characters includes the likes of placeholder-name-that-made-it-to-the-shooting-script Space Cowboy (George Peppard), Robert Vaughan as Gelt – virtually the same character he played in “The Magnificent Seven” – and, of course, pneumatic eighties pin-up Sybil Danning as Valkyrie, a fearsome – and scantily clad – warrior looking to prove herself in battle. Aside from the winning diversity of character tropes, there’s plenty of interesting sci-fi ideas including cybernetics, gestalt entities, hive minds and body replacement thrown into the mix so no matter what, there’s always something to keep your interest.
Of course, one of the best characters – and certainly the one which appealed most to my pre-teen wide-eyed wonder – is Nell herself, voiced by Lynn Carlin. Part ship part sassy fembot AI, she’s the heart of the film: the counterpoint to Poundland Luke Skywalker Richard Thomas’ vanilla square-jawed earnestness. Of course, Sigmund Freud might have some thoughts on quite why a movie which centres on a ship with such prominent breasts might have appealed to young boys but sometimes an Akiran Corsair is just an Akiran Corsair.
It’s a likeable low-fi sci-fi adventure that never tries to be more than it is and its bolstered by some remarkable talent behind the camera too as Corman shrewdly identified burgeoning talent and recruited them before they hit the big time. Journeyman director Teruaki “Jimmy” Murakami may have ostensibly have helmed the picture but this was Corman’s production and when the veteran producer fired the art director on the picture, he handed the job to the model maker, one James Cameron, handing the future master Director his big break as well as inadvertently introducing him to future wife and producing partner Gale Ann Hurd. It was also the third film score for James Horner, one which would introduce many of the leitmotifs he would go one to use again and again during the early eighties, most notably in “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan”, “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock” and “Aliens” the latter of which would mark a career-long and eventually Oscar-winning partnership with Cameron himself. Also working on the movie as a carpenter was Bill Paxton, a happenstance that would lead directly to Paxton’s Hicks contract on “Aliens” some six years later.
So, if nothing else, it’s worth appreciating “Battle Beyond The Stars” for its legacy alone for but thankfully there’s a lot else to like about it. Cheesily swashbuckling, corny in all the right ways and featuring those Cameron-directed space battles, it remains a joyous throwback to a simpler era makes it perfect family comfort viewing for nostalgic grown-ups and their kids alike.