Sunday, January 6, 2008

Movie Review: Battle Beyond the Stars

It just doesn't get any campier.

Battle Beyond the Stars. Screenplay by John Sayles. Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami. Starring Richard Thomas, Robert Vaughn, and John Saxon. Executive Producer Roger Corman. Produced by Ed Carlin. New World Pictures (1980). Runtime 103 minutes. Rated PG.

See other reviews here.

A low-budget cult classic, Battle Beyond the Stars is the movie The Last Starfighter wanted to be. The basic gimmick: it's The Magnificent space!

The peaceful planet of Akir, where the people wear robes and live in big Styrofoam trees, is threatened by Sador (John Saxon), an evil overlord who enunciates very clearly and announces that he. Wants. To. Take. Over. Your. Planet. After a little bickering, the peaceful inhabitants of Akir decide to send stony faced farmboy Shad (Richard Thomas) on an expedition into space to find some mercenaries to fight off the villain.

Shad takes off in Nell, a chatty spaceship designed to look like a woman's torso (seriously), and accomplishes his task in record time, swiftly picking up six goofy mercenaries who happen to be flying through the solar system, each with an eccentric personality and spacecraft. Among them we have Space Cowboy, played by a pre-A-Team, post-Breakfast at Tiffany's George Peppard, who looks embarrassed to be here, but nonetheless gamely chomps cigars, chugs scotch, and plays the harmonica while flying a spaceship decorated with a Confederate flag. Also present and accounted for is Gelt, played by a Robert Vaughn reprising his role from The Magnificent Seven. Not to be outdone is Valkyrie Saint-Exmin (Sybil Danning), a warrior woman whose main purpose is to wear a bronze bikini and show off cleavage that can almost compete with Nell's. The other mercenaries are similar sci-fi clichés.

The script is unabashed camp. The evil yet motiveless Sador and his army of clones cackle like old-timey villains. Lovable absurdities include an android who does the "robot" and a woman who makes electronics innuendos, as in, "I would tingle his transmitters." Yes, she says that. With a straight face.

They really don't make them like this any more, not since Star Trek: The Next Generation decided the inside of a spaceship ought to look as if it were designed by Oldsmobile. Battle Beyond the Stars has surprising riches in the form of set and model designs by James Cameron (yes, that James Cameron). The ships, though obviously Star Wars-influenced, look good and by themselves make the movie worth seeing. James Horner's musical score is excellent. The film also features some imaginative surreal touches, including a half-constructed android singing opera and a villain who likes to attach parts of his vanquished enemies' bodies to his own. It's only in the action sequences that the movie's low, low budget takes its toll. The space battles, which almost never show more than one ship on the screen at a time, are nearly impossible to follow. Battles on the ground are poorly choreographed and look to have been filmed in one take.

Strange as it may seem, stories like this are often the most wholesome, and yet for over a century now, stories like this have received undeserved ire from moralists. For example, in Eight Cousins, Louisa May Alcott pauses in her storytelling to warn the reader away from boys' fiction, which too often features such dangers as high adventure and bad grammar. More recently, we have the embarrassing assaults on Harry Potter by Christian agitators with an uncanny habit of aiming at the wrong targets: first they attacked J. K. Rowling for her harmless fantasy series while Philip Pullman quietly picked up awards and accolades for a vicious collection of propaganda disguised as kid lit, and then they turned around and attacked the castrated film version of The Golden Compass while ignoring the vile adaptation of Beowulf that came out at the same time.

All the way back in 1901, G. K. Chesterton wrote an essay entitled "A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls" to answer these critics. The essay is as fresh as if it were written yesterday; it applies as easily to Harry Potter as to Dick Deadshot.

This trivial romantic literature is not especially plebeian: it is simply human. The philanthropist can never forget classes and callings. He says, with a modest swagger, "I have invited twenty-five factory hands to tea." If he said, "I have invited twenty five chartered accountants to tea," every one would see the humour of so simple a classification. but this is what we have done with this lumberland of foolish writing: we have probed, as if it were some monstrous new disease, what is, in fact, nothing but the foolish and valiant heart of man. Ordinary men will always be sentimentalists: for a sentimentalist is simply a man who has feelings and does not trouble to invent a new way of expressing them. These common and current publications have nothing essentially evil about them. They express the sanguine and heroic truisms on which civilisation is built; for it is clear that unless civilisation is built on truisms, it is not built at all. Clearly, there could be no safety for a society in which the remark by the Chief Justice that murder was wrong was regarded as an original and dazzling epigram.

Feelings with no new way of expressing them? Sanguine and heroic truisms? Well, you'll find plenty of those in Battle Beyond the Stars! Not only does the movie blatantly rip off other movies, it's absolutely jam-packed with truisms. The peaceful inhabitants of Akir have a strict moral code that mostly involves teachings against unnecessary violence, yet also allows for self-defense. The characters haul out this wholesome moral code frequently through the film. And then there are all those mercenaries who fight because it's the right thing to do or because they're bad people with a shot at redemption. Even the ones who fight for revenge or just because they like to fight end up sacrificing themselves for others. Yeah, they all end up dead (you've seen The Magnificent Seven already, so you knew that, right?), but their deaths are heroic and redemptive. Why, the movie even goes beyond that and tells you to quit smoking! Here on film is a pristine example of all those noble attributes Chesterton describes as the essence of bad literature:

The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared. There are a large number of cultivated persons who doubt these maxims of daily life, just as there are a large number of persons who believe they are the Prince of Wales; and I am told that both classes of people are entertaining conversationalists. But the average man or boy writes daily in these great gaudy diaries of his soul, which we call Penny Dreadfuls, a plainer and better gospel than any of those iridescent ethical paradoxes that the fashionable change as often as their bonnets.

So eat your heart out, Alcott.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Battle Beyond the Stars:

Myth Level: High (off the charts! Farmboy turned hero, evil villain, planet in danger, seven heroes who show up out of nowhere, perfunctory romance, etc., etc....)

Quality: Medium (for a low-budget camp classic, it's not bad)

Ethics/Religion: High (wholesome story, some skimpy clothing and innuendo)
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