Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. And yet others thrive on a tone not easily marketed in Hollywood. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these films for what they get wrong — when they get it wrong — and what they right do in spite of the wishes of the studio or the director.
This week: Battle Beyond the Stars
To look at the poster art for Battle Beyond The Stars on Amazon, you might expect a very chintzy flick with a more puerile sensibility. The film’s key spaceship clearly has breasts affixed to it. It is an image which suggests something more in the mold of later period Jim Wynorski films like The Bare Witch Project. And while that poster may have brought some viewers into theaters in 1980, it actually does the film a disservice as it turns out to be one of the best produced Roger Corman projects ever realized. With a script by John Sayles and art direction from James Cameron, it pulls off a minor miracle by looking more accomplished than its $2 million budget should allow. Of course, this is still a Corman pictures and, therefore, inherently cheesy. It is also a patent Star Wars rip-off, which means we have to take a look at it.
The plot concerns Shad (Richard Thomas) a young farmer from the planet Akir. When his world is threatened by Sador (John Saxon), leader of the Malmori Empire, he has seven days to tour the nearby star systems and bring back a defense force as the Akira are pacifists. Only one among them, an old man named Zed (Jeff Corey), is bred for battle as the planet’s Corsair. He offers Shad the use of his Corsair ship, fully expecting Shad to become a Corsair himself as a consequence of the journey. Shad soon finds himself in exotic locales filled with androids, helping out an Earther courier who identities himself as Space Cowboy (George Peppard), and finding unlikely help from a lizard man, a well-endowed Valkyrie (Sybil Danning) and Gelt (Robert Vaughn), a rich assassin who cannot show his face on any civilized planet. All agree to help Shad in exchange not for riches, but for more ephemeral reasons; like the lizard man’s thirst for revenge on Sador for exterminating his race and Gelt’s wish for a good meal and a place to hide from the galaxy.
And if the plot sounds a little like Seven Samurai or The Magnificent Seven, that’s part of the charm. Battle Beyond the Stars was Corman’s go-for-broke attempt to capture some of that Star Wars lucre for himself and employed Sayles — who also wrote the Corman hit Piranha — to craft a story upon which he would hang many, many special effects. Sayles chose the Seven plot as a good template and named the planet Akir in honor of Seven Samurai director Akira Kurosawa. Those choices give the film more of a dopey, film-lover turned filmmaker feel than it otherwise might have. Aiding this sensation is Vaughn, who essentially reprises his Magnificent Seven role of Lee as Battle‘s Gelt.
Of course, Lee never flew the hyperspace routes in a one-seater starship, but the sight of a bewildered Vaughn piloting his small craft is emblematic of the things which make Battle a worthwhile watch. Despite a larger budget than a typical Corman flick — which reportedly mostly went to Vaughn and Saxon’s salaries — the film still manages to reach for a level of quality it cannot hope to obtain. But in attempting that reach, it ends up with a certain passion as Cameron’s sets and ships look much better than you’d expect from the producer’s often cavalier attitude to the notion of exacting details.
Unfortunately, director Jimmy T. Murakami and director of photography Daniel Lacambre never light Cameron’s starship interiors or the Akir canyon sets in a convincing way. Instead, the harsh bright lighting will remind you of later episodes of Buck Rogers in the 25 Century or the original Star Trek. But even that mistake of filmmaking aids the homespun feel of Battle.
But one cinematic mistake Murakami commits which does not aid the film is its pace. Thanks to Cameron’s rather good special effects work and model shots, special effects eat up a lot of the film’s runtime. It suggests Corman may have watched Star Wars and assumed its unprecedented special effects photography was the key to its appeal. He wouldn’t be alone in that assumption, but Battle Beyond the Stars will leave you suspecting Corman believed the effects are all a film needs. Much of the film focuses on space battles, beauty passes of the various ships, and the recurring image of the one good space explosion Cameron and his team managed to shoot. The individual effects shots appear to be dropped in from start to finish without any consideration for how they work within the sequence as a whole. Consequently, it makes many of the battles more leaden than they should be and the film feels longer than its 102 minutes as a result.
Also, Corman’s assumption leads to the film opening with Cameron’s take on the hyperspace jump effect and a riff on Star Wars‘s iconic shot of the Star Destroyer’s underbelly. Of course, Cameron puts his own spin on it by combining the Star Destroyer with the smaller ship its pursuing to create the look of Sador’s capital ship.
The film also features an early score from eventual Cameron collaborator James Horner. It features a lot of musical phrases the composer would ultimately employ in Krull, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Aliens, and at least one cue seemingly lifted from Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. As a result, the music will feel oddly familiar except for its ebullient main title theme, which Corman would re-purpose again and again in films like Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II and Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell. Nonetheless, Horner is a very accomplished musician and his work gives the film an extra polish it would not have otherwise.
Which is the key thing to keep in mind when watching Battle Beyond the Stars. It has this polish thanks to people like Horner, Cameron, Sayles and Vaughn. Corman’s attempt to class up his Star Wars rip-off almost works thanks to these talents. And in that gulf between almost working and actual creative success is where one will find its cheesy goodness.
Battle Beyond the Stars is available for streaming with an Amazon Prime subscription and for rent at most streaming services. A 30th Anniversary Blu-ray release is also available wherever disc media is sold.