Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Battle Beyond The Stars (1980)

Let's talk for a moment about how not to pull off an evil scheme. In 1980, Nick Perry had been the host of the nightly Pennsylvania Lottery drawing for three years on WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Along with the Maragos brothers, Peter and Jack, with whom Perry was in the vending business, Perry hatched a plot to exchange the official lottery balls for ping pong balls, all of which were weighted with the exception of the numbers 4 and 6. Ergo, the winning numbers would have to be any of eight combinations of the two numbers. On the evening of April 24, 1980, the winning number for the lottery was 666 (yes, really). This, of course, set officials' and authorities' bullshit-meters into the red. 

On the day of the drawing, the Brothers Maragos (proving themselves to be more like the Brothers Malachi than anything else) traveled around Pennsylvania, buying lottery tickets using the eight number combinations. At one of the ticket sellers' establishments, one of the brothers made a phone call and even held the receiver up, so the listener could hear the sound of the tickets being printed. Naturally, this call was traced back to the studio where the drawing was shot. Needless to say, the three were caught and Perry served time after the Maragos brothers testified against him. Even if the winning number wasn't statistically highly improbable, the fact that these three yutzes ran around, all but announcing their scheme (and sometimes flat-out announcing it) insured its eventual failure. So when Sador's (John Saxon) holographic head appears over the populace of the planet Akir in Jimmy T Murakami's Battle Beyond The Stars, you just know he's going down for the count. After all, according to Aleister Crowley, "It is the mark of the mind untrained to take its own processes as valid for all men, and its own judgments for absolute truth."

Anyway, after the aforementioned giant Oz-esque head appears to the Akira, Sandor orders his minions to open fire just to keep the natives on their toes. The vile warlord (is there any other kind?) declares he will return for the planet's crops in seven days time. Young Shad (Richard Thomas) affirms to the people's council that he will go into space and find warriors who will fight Sandor on behalf of the Akira. Setting off aboard the sentient starship, Nell (voiced by Lynn Carlin), Shad wends through the universe assembling a ragtag team of spacefarers which winds up numbering seven (there's that pesky number again). But can even the likes of Gelt (Robert Vaughn), Space Cowboy (George Peppard), and Saint-Exmin of the Valkyrie (Sybil Danning) stand up to Sandor's ultimate weapon, the Stellar Converter? What do you think?

After Star Wars sealed the deal on summer blockbusters begun in 1975 with JAWS, Science Fiction became big business in Hollywood (to be certain, it had been so beforehand as well, but normally this sort of genre picture was more often than not the province of the B-movie producers of the day). It also didn't hurt any when The Empire Strikes Back was released earlier in 1980 and reinforced the franchise's stranglehold on the youth of the day's disposable income. And so it was that Roger Corman got in on the act, but just as Lucas was influenced in his original movie by Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, Corman decided to borrow the plot structure of John Sturges's The Magnificent Seven, the American retelling of Kurosawa's superlative Seven Samurai. And just to be sure that gormless audiences wouldn't be able to tell the difference between his film and Kershner's (though I have yet to encounter anyone who ever mistook the two for each other), he also took elements from Lucas's original film and put his own twist on them. So, the Stellar Converter is like Murakami's Death Star. Shad visits a planet which mirrors the Mos Eisley cantina, but this one is scary and deep underground. The Akira create a series of precise canyons in their planet (like, say, the trench on a certain Death Star), but the fighting that takes place in this ditch is strictly on the ground level. None of the correlations are exactly direct, but they are just non-specific enough that the viewer gets the idea loud and clear. 

Along this same thought process, the filmmakers still use the Assemble The Team aspect of the Kurosawa/Sturges films, but not all of the characters remain true in spirit to their forebears. For example, Shad the boy farmer is now as much a fighter as any of the others (he is included in the seven and at least partly fulfills the Katsushiro Okamoto character). The lizard man Cayman (Morgan Woodward) has a personal grudge against Sandor and is aided by the Kelvins (Lawrence Steven Meyers and Lara Cody). Peppard's unlikely Space Cowboy (some people call him) is the Tanner/Katayama stand-in. The role of women is also far more prominent in this film with the inclusions of Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel) and Saint-Exmin. Of the two, Saint-Exmin is the more intriguing, because she not only partly fills the Kikuchiyo/Chico role of the brash, frank warrior, but she also is a character straight out of Norse mythology (the Valkyrie, of course, being the escorts of the worthy dead into Valhalla). It goes without saying that Vaughn is more or less reprising his role of Lee from the Sturges film, even sort of playing it as the same character years into the future (and in a galaxy far, far away). He has scads of money from the killings he has perpetrated (his name is even synonymous with money), but he seeks a place to hide out from the innumerable enemies he has amassed.

In essence though, Battle Beyond The Stars plays very much like an epic fable, and it is geared toward a family audience. Yet there are still exploitation aspects that the filmmakers threw in just to be sure and have some slight semblance of sleaze. Hence, we get a spaceship with boobies on the front. The planet where Gelt lives has such amenities as Dial-A-Drug and Dial-A-Date (the results of the latter proving especially dispiriting). Two of Sandor's cronies crash a wedding and kidnap the bride (Julia Duffy), who it is then heavily implied they rape. The very presence of Danning in skimpy outfits is enough to get any adolescent male's mind wondering about space exploration. There is even some mild gore when Sandor's sonic weapon makes its victims' ears bleed profusely. And yet, many of the story elements are depicted so lightly, so offhandedly, it detracts from the impact that the brave heroes' deaths have unlike in the Sturges/Kurosawa films. The film is still a fast, fun adventure romp, but compared to the films it's based on(perhaps unfairly, perhaps not, seeing as it's so heavily pervaded by them), this one's not going to touch you on the same core level. But have fun, anyway.

MVT: The special effects (especially those involving the spaceship shots) are highly effective and are on a level with the best Hollywood could put out on budgets much higher than the one for this film.

Make Or Break: The first shot in outer space displays the attention to detail, craft, and care that the filmmakers put into this film (or at the very least, its special effects). Despite the derivative nature of just about everything in it, the filmmakers still took their work seriously, and it shows.

Score: 7.25/10

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