Movie Review: Battle Beyond the Stars (US, 1980)

Let’s get the big thing out of the way.

BBtS is “The Magnificent Seven IN SPACE!” Or, since TM7 was actually Seven Samurai done as a western, you could say BBtS is “Seven Samurai IN SPACE!!!”

Produced by Roger Corman and his New World Pictures, it’s a typical example of his later work. Take a simple or hackneyed story, but give it as much “bang for the buck” as you can. Typically this involved reusing shots and sets, but it could also mean finding and nurturing young talent or getting established talent who could be had on the cheap.

Richard Thomas plays our hero, Shad. He’s the only person willing to take the only spaceship on the poor farming world of Akir to go out and find help after the villian has given his world an ultimatum. Best known for his years as “John-Boy” on The Waltons, Thomas had been appearing on television since the late 1950s.

John Saxon is Sador, the villain. He’s just passing by Akir on his way to blowing up another planet, but is EEEvil enough to want to blow them up for no apparent reason. Saxon is one of those veteran supporting actors who never seem to be out of work. He does a great job at chewing up the scenery here – presumably he’s relishing the fact that he’s got a major role.

Darlanne Fluegel is Nanelia, Shad’s first recruit (and love interest). She’s the daughter of crazy recluse scientist Dr. Hephaestus (Sam Jaffe, who’d been acting since the 30s), and joins up to get out and see the galaxy. This was only her second role. Alas, not everyone is destined to be a star. This seems to have been the peak of her career.

They next meet up with a self-styled “Space Cowboy” (that’s the actual name he uses) played by George Peppard. Peppard’s career goes back to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but he’s best known for starring in The A-Team.

Shad goes to a well-known planet of vice and iniquity in the hopes of finding a mercenary willing to work for very little. The planet turns out to be abandoned; the only inhabitant is an outlaw called Gelt (Robert Vaughn, playing the exact same character he did in The Magnificent Seven).

Longtime veteran of TV westerns (he’d been in shows from The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp to Wagon Train to Gunsmoke to Bonanza to How the West Was Won) Morgan Woodward put on reptilian makeup to play Cayman, who has a personal vendetta against Sador. After this movie, he’d take a regular role in the TV series Dallas.

Two more recruits hear about Shad and Akir’s need, and volunteer. Nestor is a group mind; what we see is a group of five humanoids dressed all in white. They join the fight to add the experience of combat to the group mind. The primary Nestor is played by Earl Boen. He only had about five years of small parts on his resume prior to this movie, but he would go on to a good and lengthy career as a character actor. These days he’s heard more than seen; he does voices for computer games. Sybil Danning provides eye candy as Saint Exmin, the Valkyrie. She’d had ten years of bit parts to her credit at the time; as far as I can tell this was the first of many roles for her as the “warrior goddess” or “sexy villainess”.

Lynn Carlin provides the voice of Nell, Shad’s spaceship. Carlin’s another veteran of TV, but she also has an Oscar nomination to her credit.

That’s a heck of a combination of talent, and it shows in the finished product. The entire main cast is more than capable of actually acting and not just reciting lines. Especially Vaughn; he doesn’t have a lot to do (many of his “scenes” look like test shots: “OK, Mr. Vaughn. We need to make sure that you look fine with your makeup in the lighting. Just sit there and pretend you’re piloting the ship…”), but when he does have lines, he nails them. Every. Single. Time.

There’s a good deal of talent behind the camera, too….

John Sayles wrote the screenplay. He used his earnings from working with Corman to fund his own independent films, like The Return of the Secaucus 7. His work in the early 80s earned him a MacArthur Fellowship, which allowed him to make movies like Brother from Another Planet. He’d eventually earn Oscar nominations for Passion Fish and Lone Star.

The composer had only four movies on his resume at the time.

Here’s some of the work he did afterwards:

Oh, and a young wannabe screenwriter was asked by Corman to make the spaceship models. The kid did such a good job that Corman made him the Art Director.

That was James Cameron’s first screen credit……

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