Battle Beyond the Stars

Year: 1980
Production Co: New World Pictures
Director: Jimmy T Murakami
Producer: Roger Corman
Writer: John Sayles
Cast: Richard Thomas, George Peppard, John Saxon, Sybil Danning, Robert Vaughn

Back when I first saw this movie in cinemas as a kid not even 10 years old I had no idea about how John Sayles would become among the smartest writers for hire working in Hollywood, I knew nothing abourt John Saxon's outsized body of work ( A Nightmare on Elm Street , where most film fans my age first saw him, was half a decade away), and I had no clue how impactful on global cinema The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven were.

But with a couple of decades of cineliteracy behind me I can see it in a completely different light. Sayles knew exactly where it was drawing from and what it was doing, and both it and the studio knew kids my age would flock to anything that featured spaceships and aliens in the years after Star Wars.

The Mexican village is the peaceful farming planet planet Akir, Calvera the bandit is the galactic tyrant Sador (John Saxon), and the crusaders recruiting a band of heroes to protect them are changed to a fresh faced young Akiran pilot, Shad (Richard Thomas, who seemed to be on a bid for the same kind of stardom everyone expected for Mark Hammill after this film but never quite made it).

He crisscrosses the star system in his AI-driven spaceship Nell (a cheap R2D2 stand-in, maybe?), offering what little resources the Akirans have to any mercenaries and cutthroats they can find. Some, like the Cowboy (George Peppard) or the collective consciousness Nestor that's shared by five identical beings, seem to just want the excitement and good times. Some, like the reptilian Cayman, have a score to settle with Sador. And some, like the stoic Gelt (Robert Vaughan, reprising his role from the 1960 Western classic this movie is based on), has run out of options and just needs the work.

The movie does some general plotting to see Shad and his love interest Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel) split up to put the band of misfits and fighters together, and even though Sayles keeps things lively and fun and it doubtlessly involved some skilled structuring, it seems in hindsight that it only had to follow the template laid down so successfuly by its progenitors.

The effects and the scope of the sets and locations are claustrophobic and ropey when looking back on the film 30 years later as I write this, but anything with monsters and ray guns was manna from heaven for a kid still drunk from what cinema could do thanks to a galaxy far, far away. I don't remember loving it, presumably because even at nine years old I knew tat when I saw it, but it's interesting as a historical document both for Sayles' career and the economic tendency of art to continually eat itself.

One of these days, some enterprising producer and studio will have the idea of setting the same story in the world of teenage wizards, a slasher or a schoolyard romantic drama and make a fucking fortune.

And exactly how was it so cheap and tacky? None other than Roger Corman's New World Pictures was the company behind it, with the entire thing shot in his Venice, California studio.

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