Battle Beyond The Stars (Blu-Ray)
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Twenty-first-century science fiction fans accustomed to special-effects orgies like The Matrix may snigger at the quaint, Flash Gordon-like spaceships in Battle Beyond the Stars. But executive producer Roger Corman's belated entry into the '70s sci-fi craze surpasses expectations with sharp performances and a witty script by John Sayles (his third for Corman, including 1978's Piranha). The story, lifted wholesale from Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954), finds the dictator Sador (John Saxon) threatening the planet of Akira. Its pacifist inhabitants are no match for Sador's devastating weapon, the Stellar Converter, but young Shad (Richard Thomas) decides to fight back. Borrowing the ship of notorious mercenary Zed the Corsair, he recruits a band of mercenaries, each of whom has a personal reason to join the fight. Among them are a lizard-like humanoid (Morgan Woodward), an improbable space cowboy (George Peppard), a zaftig female warrior (Sybil Danning), and brooding killer-for-hire Gelt (Robert Vaughn, reprising his Magnificent Seven role). Battle's final showdown is somewhat anticlimatic, but the surprisingly stellar cast (which includes Sam Jaffe and Darlanne Fluegel) and the indie spunk of Sayles' script, with its light meditations on death and honor, will charm newcomers and repeat audiences alike. New Concorde's digitally remastered DVD features commentary by Sayles and Terminator 2 producer Gale Anne Hurd, Battle's assistant production manager. Oh, and those spaceships? Designed by Titanic director James Cameron. Still laughing? --Paul Gaita --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Battle Beyond the Stars was the biggest-budgeted movie Corman had ever made up to that time, about 2 million dollars, and his money is up there on the screen, with good sets, good props, good special effects, and a good cast. In typical Corman fashion everything except the cast was used over and over again in other space sagas he made. Waste not, want not! is his credo, and he boasts that he's never lost a dime on any of his movies. I believe it.
The plot of this movie was stolen shamelessly from Akira Kurosawa's classic Seven Samurai, so if you liked that Japanese epic and its American remake, The Magnificent Seven, you should like Battle Beyond the Stars, too. It just goes to show that if you have to steal a story, you might as well steal a great one!
The cast includes Richard Thomas, just out of his John-Boy of The Waltons role, as a poor man's Luke Skywalker recruiting mercenaries George Peppard, Robert Vaughn, Marta Kristen, and Sybil Danning, among others, to fight the evil conqueror Sador, played by John Saxon, always a good villain.
Never one to miss a trend, or start one, Corman cashed in on the phenomenal success of Star Wars with Battle Beyond the Stars. It's a fun film and I recommend this DVD widescreen edition. There's interesting commentaries by Gale Anne Hurd, John Sayles and Roger Corman, movie trailers, biographies, trivia game, scene index -- but the usual Corman filmography booklet is absent here.
First off, as mentioned before, the plot is nothing new. While a lot of people would say he is ripping off Star Wars that is really not the case (although he probably is banking on the popularity of the space opera). As a matter of fact Corman, in his infinite desire to copy successful themes based Battle Beyond the Stars on the The Magnificent Seven. Which of course was copied by John Sturges in his western classic from Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece The Seven Samurai. So technically Corman didn't copy anything that wasn't already copied. Still a good plot is a good plot no matter where it came from and putting it in a science fiction setting only makes the movie that much more interesting.
What makes this story work so well is that Corman "gets" what Magnificent Seven (and Seven Samurai for that matter) were doing... at least to a point. These movies were less about the brave warriors protecting a community from evil raiders and more about the various personalities of said warriors. Battle Beyond the stars takes that to different level with the different warriors coming from different planets and cultures. While most of the character development is a little more than two dimensional the amount of various characters really make up for it. From there you have a usual space opera fare. Spaceships roaring and blowing each other up to majestic music. Villains wearing black and acting ruthless. Heroes giving pretty speeches. Nothing as noteworthy as the character interactions.
There is actually a surprising amount of well-known talent in the cast. It makes me wonder how Corman got them all on such a tight budget. We're talking people like Richard Thomas (of Waltons fame), Morgan Woodward (How the West Was Won), and Robert Vaughn (in practically the same role he played on Magnificent Seven). I would say the acting is actually quite good for the short amount of time they had to shoot the film. Special effects are on the low side, but not all that cheesy. Set designs weren't bad at all. I actually enjoyed the backdrops. The spaceship designs are really cool too, thanks to future mega-Director James Cameron. Even though there is no exciting motion control flying like Star Wars, at least the spaceships themselves were very creative. The music is an instant classic and is done by James Horner, another star in his field (he has composed music for A Beautiful Mind, The Perfect Storm, Titanic and more).
Okay enough waxing over the cool stuff. This is still a B-movie and it does have some bad drawbacks. The bad thing about the plot (and forgive me if I spoil it for anybody) is that essentially all the heroes that were rounded up to save the planet end up getting picked off one by one until only the main star is left. I hate it when movies do that... so stereotypical. You can tell a lot of the space battle scenes are the same clips from footage earlier in the film. Yeah I know... budget constraints, but it's still cheesy. The extras they have on set end up not really looking like they know what they are doing. Also some of the scenes that try and portray action and excitement end up falling a little flat. So yeah... it's still a B-movie.
We are finally getting this B-Movie gem on Blu-Ray, and since Shout Factory is releasing as part of their B-Movie release bonanza there is reason to be excited. So far Shout Factory has put out some pretty impressive looking Blu-Rays of movies you wouldn't think would ever look so good in high definition without major studio intervention. My expectations are pretty high that BBtS will look and sound better than ever. First off they announced a brand new 5.1 DTS Master audio track. Also the two commentaries from the old DVD release will be present. From there you are going to get some extra features I never seen before. Here's the breakdown:
Aforementioned Audio Commentary - One with Production Manager Gale Anne Hurd and another with Directory Roger Corman and Writer John Sayles
Space Opera on a Shoestring - A documentary on technical and post production of the movie with interviews from Aaron Lipstadt, Alec Gillis, Alex Hajdu, Allan Holzman, R.J. Kizer, Robert & Dennis Skotak, Thom Shouse and Tony Randel. Sorry... no James Cameron.
The Man Who Would Be Shad - Brand new interview with actor Richard Thomas.
Promotional - Trailers, TV commercials, Radio Spots.
In my humble opinion I believe this movie should be considered required viewing for those hardcore sci-fi fans. It's too much a strong part of the genre's heritage to pass up. That being said this is not Oscar winner by any stretch of the imagination. While it's cheap and cheesy in many, many ways it's also refined in ways you don't see in many other B-movies. The Blu-Ray (and upcoming 30th Anniversary DVD release) will have never before seen features and undoubtedly a cleaned up look. If you can forgive the fact the film has all the trappings of an ultra low budget movie and see the fact that they did a LOT with that budget then set yourself up for a treat.
This was one [heck] of a smart script. No surprise, since the writer is John Sayles, a screenwriter of impeccable literary sense. The dialogue of this film crackles better than most big-budget films I've seen, and as a result Darlanne Fluegel (as innocent maiden Nanelia), Robert Vaughn (ice-cool mercenary Gelt), Sybil Danning (who steals the show as dashing, comically busty Valkyr warrior Saint-Exmin), Earl Boen (as lead drone Nestor) and George Peppard (as Space Cowboy) all shine, having a field day with the incredibly brisk pace and economical character interactions. And there's great comic material here, which is like an amplification of the gently sardonic tone of Seven Samurai, the obvious ancestor of this film.
The richness of Sayles' conception of this world just draws you in -- even more so, I would argue, than Star Wars, because the depth of the philosophical implications behind the details is phenomenal. The "Facets" of Nestor, the on-the-run nihilism of Gelt the mercenary, and the communicative dilemma of the Kelvin -- it all points to very real human needs and psychological desires, hidden behind the comic-book action and tongue-in-cheek tone. Revel, as well, in the amount of attention paid to the design: Talking spaceship "Nell" is in the shape of a giant woman's body; the stingray menace of Gelt's ship; the different kinds of "hum" that each character's vehicle produces. Shows what you can do even with little money if you put some thought into it.
Though it doesn't have the mystique of Star Wars -- whose amalgamation of chivalric romance and science fiction created a new sub-culture -- Battle Beyond the Stars deserves applause for overcoming its humble origins. And for all of the rich background, it's one of the fastest-moving science-fiction films I've ever seen. Dig in if you've never seen it; celebrate it again if you have.