Battle Beyond the Stars is a movie that seems to confound expectations. If you watch it expecting a good movie, you'll be disappointed. But on the other hand, if you watch it expecting a bad movie, you may be disappointed in the other direction.
Battle came out in 1980, one of a string of flicks to come out in the years after something happened in 1977 to suddenly make the entertainment industry think that there was a market out there for science fiction, especially in the form of explodey-spaceshippy-goodness. Battle was produced by Roger Corman, the king of the low-budget movie who nevertheless also served as a talent scout for later Hollywood geniuses, the most notable being a special effects artist who designed the spaceships for this movie and who later went on to bigger things. His name? James Cameron.
I saw Battle when I was in fourth grade. It was part of a double feature at the local movie house, the first film being a flick called Starcrash. I've never seen Starcrash since, although I do have a downloaded copy on one of my hard drives. Starcrash is legendary for being a bad movie, although I recall liking it when I saw it. Battle was the main event of the feature, though, and I was really looking forward to it, mainly because the nine-year-old me had thought that this trailer just looked awesome:
That trailer had run on a bunch of movies leading up to the release of Battle so I was really stoked when it came out. And when I saw it? Well, I was nine. I loved it. It had aliens and spaceships and lasers and things exploding and a cute girl. I got the soundtrack album, featuring music by a composer named James Horner, and I played that album a lot over the years, wearing it out and grooving to what I thought was the best explodey-spaceshippy movie music I'd heard outside of a Star Wars film. (Of course, my sample size was very small, I didn't know film music enough to hear Horner's huge debt to Jerry Goldsmith in the score, and I didn't know enough about orchestration or performance to recognize a score that was recorded on a shoestring budget and which featured some really bad orchestrations, such as the track "Cowboy and the Jackers" which does things to the trumpet section that may be in violation of several international treaties.)
I saw Battle once more when it showed up on network teevee a few years later, and still liked it, and then I didn't see it again for many years. I may have caught it in a cable broadcast sometime in the 1990s, but I'm not sure. I didn't see it again in its entirety until just last week. How does it hold up? Well, movies like this don't really "hold up" – that's the wrong way to look at them. I had no illusions that it was some unheralded gem of SF moviemaking, but I was pleasantly surprised that it's not that bad, either.
So, what about Battle Beyond the Stars, anyway? What's it about? It's very simple: The Magnificent Seven in space. That's it. Literally.
We open with a giant enemy ship traveling through space (at a very slow pace, even though it has six enormous thrusters that are constantly firing).
The ship is ruled by our villain, Sador of the Malmori. Who are the Malmori? Are they a race of aliens? An empire? A family? We're never told. Anyway, his ship approaches a planet called Akyyr (that's how I'm spelling it, anyway), which, seeing that it is inhabited by peaceloving folk who only own one spaceship (which is a weather station), decides that he's going to conquer it. So he hovers his enormous ship over them, projects his enormous face over their heads, and says, "I have come to conquer you." (This he does after destroying the weather ship, just because he's evil. The weather ship had been occupied by two guys who display the Akyyrian attitude by greeting an enormous and malevolent-looking spaceship by grinning, saying "Look! Visitors!", and then contacting it by asking, "Could you identify yourself, please?")
Anyway, Sador gives the Akyyrians seven days ("risings of your red giant") before he'll come back and finish conquering them. Why the delay? Who knows, but it gives the Akyyrians time to send one of their local young men, a boy named Shad (played by Richard Thomas as John-Boy Walton in space), off in the other ship they own, the secret one once piloted by the old blind guy who used to be an adventurer, to round up some help in the form of mercenaries.
The ship Shad flies is probably the single most famous thing from Battle Beyond the Stars. The ship is simply named "Nell", and sure enough, it's run by a computer by that name who speaks with the voice of a cranky lady. What's most memorable about the ship, though, isn't her personality; it's her shape:
This ship is one of the more famed B-movie spaceships in movie history. You know you're talking to a knowledgeable geek when the mention of the movie Battle Beyond the Stars draws the rejoinder, "Oh yeah, the movie with the ship that's shaped like a pair of breasts!" The ship is more than that, though – it looks like a feline body with female breasts and then a couple of wings where the ship's guns are, which sweep up and out, spread out to look like...well, it's a very feminine ship. (And it was designed by a young filmmaker who was cutting his chops with Corman's production crew, the afore-mentioned James Cameron.)
Anyway, Shad goes off in search of mercenaries he can hire to fight off Sador. On the way he meets a taciturn fellow named Gelt (Robert Vaughn), who only wants a meal and a place to hide from the apparent galaxy's worth of folks who are after him:
He meets a ship commanded by a group of aliens who have third eyes on their foreheads and who use telepathy to do stuff:
He meets a "Warrior Valkyrie" named "St. Exmin", played by Sybil Danning:
Given that her screentime involves her looking like this, it's almost a crime that Danning doesn't get more of it. She does, however, have one of the goofiest lines in movie history, and boy, does she deliver the hell out of it:
The other girl there is Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel), who is every bit as naïve about people as Shad is, which makes her a perfect fit for him. She, too, gets far too little screentime, because she's really cute. I remember her being one of the first females onscreen to impress me with her cuteness. I mean, look how cute she is in that clip, when she giggles at the prospect of learning how to "tingle, tangle, prangle" her new love interest from this warrior in the goofy headdress! Yeah, Nanelia is really, really cute:
Most memorable, probably, is the Space Cowboy Shad recruits who goes by the name "Space Cowboy", played by George Peppard:
Cowboy is an arms runner who ends up leading the Akyyrian planet defense with the weapons he'd been running to a planet that Sador has just wiped out. Cowboy is extremely cool, although it's hard not to expect him to grin and say, "I love it when a plan comes together!" But he does have one of the niftiest gadgets I've ever seen in a skiffy movie: he has a gizmo on his belt that dispenses Scotch and ice. (Why a Space Cowboy is drinking Scotch and not bourbon is never explained.)
And there are some aliens who are basically actors in rubber suits. You know how it is. Anyway, a big battle ensues (the Battle beyond the stars!), in which quite a few of the recruited mercenaries die heroically before Shad and Nanelia finally figure out how to do Sador in. I know, I just spoiled the movie, but what of it? Who would watch a movie like this and even consider the possibility of a bummer ending?
The clip above aside, there's some witty stuff in the course of the flick, and one nicely done moment after Gelt (Robert Vaughn) dies, involving Shad's bargain with him (a meal and a place to hide). There are also some exceedingly goofy moments, and like all B-movies, some of the stuff that happens isn't explained very well at all (such as a scene in which the telepathic-collective aliens make their own stealth attack on Sador that involves sacrificing one of their own and a transplant of arms, believe it or not).
Of course, we have to have a romance between Shad and Nanelia, and it's your typical awkward stuff ("Do they have kissing on your planet?"), but at the end, when victory has been won and all that are left are our hero and heroine returning to Akyyr, instead of ending with some neat dialog and some delightful snogging, we get Shad quoting at length from the "Varda", the sacred text that the denizens of Akyyr are constantly quoting throughout the film. Weird stuff – the kid should be finally taking his big step into manhood, and instead he wants to recite from the holy book of a pacifist planet that sounds like The Art of War.
Battle Beyond the Stars is not a good movie. Nor is it a bad one. If you're attuned to it and willing to go where it wants to go, it's a fun little flick, if you're into movies where the villain who is trying to conquer the planet Akyyr gets to shout in triumph at the end, shortly before his unimagined demise, "Akyyr is mine!", followed by leading his entire bridge crew in sinister bad-guy-who's-just-won-the-lottery laughter.
In other words, it's the kind of movie that can only appeal to your inner nine-year-old. And that's not a bad thing to be, is it?