Thursday, March 1, 2012

I'll Watch Anything: Patrick Watches Battle Beyond the Stars

I'm so disappointed. I really wanted to love Battle Beyond the Stars, the 1980 sci-fi movie produced by Roger Corman and starring John Boy Walton, Hannibal Smith, Napoleon Solo and Sybil Danning's boobs. I love many of Corman's movies from his New World era. I love exploitation movies and silly, low budget sci-fi movies. I'm a big fan of much of the talent involved with the movie. So why didn't I like the movie more?

The suggestion that I watch Battle Beyond the Stars came from listener Joyce G., and I was happy to oblige for my first foray into "I'll Watch Anything" -- mostly because I already had every intention of watching the movie anyway. I've known of Battle Beyond the Stars from a very young age without ever having seen it, because my older brother loved it as a kid. And why wouldn't he? It has so many of the signifiers of a fun sci-fi movie: it has heroes and villains and lizard men and laser guns and space ships and Sybil Danning's insane cleavage. At one point, a guy gets stabbed and bleeds green blood, because fuck it why not? It came out on DVD for a short time in the early 2000s before quickly going out of print, and was unavailable for years until Shout! Factory acquired Corman's catalog and put the movie out on DVD and Blu-ray last year. And, yet, it wasn't until the movie showed up on Netflix Watch Instantly and Joyce emailed that I finally forced myself to see it.

Goddammit, why didn't I like it more?
The specter of Star Wars looms large over Battle Beyond the Stars. Not because it's Corman's usual cheapie knock-off remake of that particular pop culture phenomenon -- that would actually be Star Crash with Carolyn Munroe -- but because it's only able to exist because of Star Wars. In a sense, it's still a cash-in, but the movie itself owes little to Lucas outside of the setting and general space opera feel. No, Battle Beyond the Stars is instead an outer space reworking of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (and, subsequently, The Magnificent Seven), with a screenplay by John Sayles.

Yes, John fucking Sayles wrote Battle Beyond the Stars. He was writing a number of exploitation movies back then, including both The Howling (also for New World) and Alligator. According to Howling director Joe Dante, Sayles was writing both of those scripts at the same time and would just switch out the paper in the typewriter depending on who was standing over his shoulder.

But it gets better, because also credited on Battle Beyond the Stars is James Horner, Academy Award winning composer for Titanic, who also wrote the classic scores for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (one of my favorites), The Rocketeer, Aliens, Braveheart and dozens of others. His music for BBtS goes a long way towards making the movie seem better than it is; from the opening titles to the space "battle" sequences (really just shots of stationary models with some sound effects thrown in), Horner's music feels thrilling and iconic. It covers up just how inert most of the action is.

But it gets better, because also credited on Battle Beyond the Stars is James Cameron, who acted as art director charged with creating the movie's sets, props, ships and special effects. Cameron is obviously constrained by the movie's budget, but even as far back as 1980, one can see his obsessive attention to detail -- it's evident that he was going to do any given task to the absolute best of his abilities. So Battle Beyond the Stars looks cheap but never tacky, and has a great hand-made aesthetic that, even today, I prefer to the majority of dots-and-pixels CGI landscapes found in just about every blockbuster made today. What's maybe most interesting about Cameron's contributions to the movie is that it's one of the only times in his career where he's clearly chasing the work of someone else, essentially recreating Star Wars on a much lower budget. These days, he's so far out in front of everyone else -- at least, as far as visual effects are concerned -- that there's no one else even close to catching up.

Richard Thomas -- who makes Mark Hamill seem downright edgy -- stars as Shad of the planet of Akir, because calling it "Kurosawa" would have been just too on the nose. When the evil space asshole Sador (John Saxon) tells the people on planet Akir that he intends to destroy their planet in seven days if they do not willingly submit to him, one of the planet elders comes up with a plan to hire mercenaries to take Sador out, leaving it up to Shad to pilot a ship and assemble a team of protectors. Among them are Space Cowboy (George Peppard), a cowboy in space; Gelt (Robert Vaughn), as assassin looking for a place to hide; lizard man Cayman (Morgan Woodward), hoping to settle a score with Sador and warrior princess Saint-Exmin (Danning), seeking to prove herself in battle.
What's usually so great about Corman movies is the way that they strip down what's best about genre movies to their essential elements; they may be movies without much depth or subtext, but there's hardly any fat on them, either. They're made up of just the good parts. And, yet, because Star Wars and The Seven Samurai are already distilled down to the basics of story (in the best way possible), Battle Beyond the Stars feels the need to go the other way -- to begin adding on characters and subplots. It ends up having to service so many things that there's never a real throughline. Plus, say what you want about the silliness or childishness of names like "Luke Skywalker" and "Darth Vader," but those are memorable, iconic names. It's names like Shad and Sador and Gelt that turn people off of fantasy and science fiction, because they're too generic to tell apart and too nonsensical to remember.

But ultimately, I don't think it's Sayles' script that hobbles Battle Beyond the Stars. For that, I have to blame director Jimmy Murakami, who to date has made a few other films but none as well-known as this one. That's saying something. I know he's limited by the movie's low budget, but his problem seems to be one of tone. The movie is nowhere near as fun as it ought to be. I certainly had a good time with parts of it, but that's only because of what I brought to the movie -- I liked seeing the old-fashioned visual effects, and the way that Sayles transplants the structure of a classic like Seven Samurai into outer space. The "fun" is not inherent in the movie, and that's all wrong for something like this. It lumbers and drags, and its space battle scenes have no sense of lightness to them. Star Wars really captured that Saturday matinee feel; its low-budget counterpart, which has to replace spectacle with energy and ingenuity, should do that even more. Instead, it feels like a weak episode of Buck Rogers.

As much as I've bagged on Battle Beyond the Stars, I really can't complain. I'm happy to have seen it and actually got a lot out of it. There's a lot to like in the movie, even if it doesn't all work, and parts of it are genuinely enjoyable. Compare it to something like The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, which Doug had to watch for the very first "I'll Watch Anything," and I might as well have seen Charles Foster Kane take a DeLorean back in time to spend a weekend with Hooker Julia Roberts. My disappointment with Battle Beyond the Stars most likely stems from my own inflated expectations -- it's neither the movie I thought it was nor wanted it to be, though there flashes in which it comes close. Any movie in which George Peppard flat out says the words "I'm a space cowboy from the planet Earth!" can't be all bad. And have I mentioned Sybil Danning?

I will say this: if you've seen The Seven Samurai, you've got a pretty good idea of how the last half hour of Battle Beyond the Stars goes down. I have no idea how my brother handled that shit as a kid.

In the comments section, please continue to give us suggestions for future installments of "I'll Watch Anything." Thanks!


  1. thanks for taking it on. you put into words a lot of the same impressions i had. It's kinda like a bad trailer for a saturday morning tv series. Each character had the potential to have an interesting backstory but that's way too much story for 104 minutes. What's the deal with Sam Jaffe's character? and all the cyborgs..and do the 'couple' ever go back and make babies? or actually it would be cool if they brought jaffee and the cyborgs TO the colony. Vaughn was virtually playing his character from Magnificent Seven. But when it comes right down to it...a good time was not had by does make a kick ass poster. joyce

  2. Anthology Film Archives here in NY concludes tonight (March 1) a week-long series called 'From the Pen of John Sayles' featuring 35mm screenings of some of his "lesser" work (no "Eight Men Out" or "Lone Star" high-caliber stuff): "The Howling," "Alligator," "The Candidate," etc. Guess what they're showing tonight at 9:15PM as their last feature in the series? That's right baby, tonight I'm seeing "Battle Beyond The Stars" on a big screen in 35mm for the first time. Quoting the black Ghostbuster: I love this town! :-)

    1. ^^^ Shit, I just read the fine print of tonight's presentation and apparently the print of "BBTS" that AFA was planning to show is in too rough a shape to project. So they're using a Blu-ray instead. :-( Oh well, might as well still attend this 'digital' screening so I can get the watching-with-others shared experience of a theater viewing.

  3. Peoria Babylon (1997) i closed my eyes and stuck a pin in netflix instant watch...and if i can sit through can.

  4. Watch "Hudson Hawk" (1991) so you can see the bad zaniness happening in that film.

    1. That's a GREAT suggestion, Leo. I'd tackle it myself, except that I've seen it too many times (including, I think, TWICE in the theater as a 13-year old?) to offer any kind of fresh perspective. But if one of the other guys wants to have at it...

  5. So, just came back from the theater that showed "BBtS." They actually found a decent 16mm print and projected that instead of the announced Blu-ray version. The theater only had one 16mm projector though, so we had minute-long blank pauses every time they switched reels (the six people that attended, myself included, didn't mind).

    What a trip! I'm not a "Star Wars" lover but seeing "BBtS" makes me appreciate the attempt by Lucas and his SFX technicians back in '77 to at least mask the limitations of their effects work by having an epic story/likable characters distracting the audience until the money shots/space battles take over. As the hero Shad (!) Richard Thomas literally switches between nerdy wimp and somewhat-believable hero (sometimes in the same scene) throughout the flick. Never thought I'd ever regard the voice of K.I.T.T. as Shakespearean, but damn if William Daniels' chatty-but-still-robotic vocal tone (the logical evolution from "2001's" smart-but-monotone HAL voice) makes Lynn Carlin's 'Jersey' voice for Nell the ship-with-saggy-boobs's talking computer a constant nails-on-chalkboard annoyance.

    "BBtS" is a cheaply-made movie but what it lacks in resources or direction (if Cameron or Dante were directing instead of Murakami we'd have the 'fun release' Patrick talked about) it makes up for in conviction. It reminds me more of "Galaxy Quest" than "Star Wars" though, especially the very "Trek"ish mercenaries that Shad recruits. You can tell most of the actors (particularly the invested-in-their-characters-with-wildly-different-styles Vaughn and Peppard), SFX technicians (Jim Cameron's fingerprints everywhere), James Horner (who scores the hell out of it to great effect) and the crew/script were in it for the love of making movies and not to get rich.

    I agree with you Patrick, "BBtS" delivers what it promises with the resources it had and it's mostly the director's fault the flick doesn't have the fist-pumping release of fun this genre (and Sayles-penned scripts) usually delivers.

    Want to appreciate "BBtS" a little more than you already do? If you haven't seen it there's a really cheesy space comedy that came the same year as "BBtS," 1980's "GALAXINA" (Stephen Macht, Dorothy Stratten and mugging-too-much Avery Schreiber) that's a prime candidate for someone willing to subject themselves to a 'Watch Anything' experiment. The Stratten angle is a downer (her well-known story is why "Galaxina" is even remotely known today) but the actual SFX/story/attempts at 'R' comedy would make for a fun column if the right person (Doug?) tackles it.

    Also Patrick, didn't you mention in a previous podcast that you've never seen 'YOR: THE DEFENDER OF THE FUTURE' (1983)? That or another couple of Reb Brown flicks, 1988's 'SPACE MUTINY' or 1979's 'CAPTAIN AMERICA/CAPTAIN AMERICA II,' would once and for all prove that you and your crew WILL... WATCH... ANYTHING... except 1985's 'THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN.' :-(

    1. Wow. New York is so jaded -- they get an actual film print screening of Battle Beyond the Stars and only six people show up? Greatest city my ass.

      Good to see that we're all basically in agreement as far as the movie is concerned, though.

      And for the last time, I have SEEN Legend of Billie Jean. Yeardley Smith. Backseat period. CHECK.

  6. ^^^ Got it, no "Billie Jean"... then how about "SUPERGIRL" (1985)? The cheese of the 80's and sexiness of Helen Slater from "Billie Jean" without the offensive 'Lisa Simpson having her period' scenes. All that plus Marc McClure, a shirtless Hart Bochner and a drunk Peter O'Toole, plus scenery-chewing Faye Dunaway and Peter Cook. It's a good-enough recipe for a poscast, but I'll settle for a decent 'WILL WATCH ANYTHING' article (is Adam busy this weekend?).

    And just because Michael Bay got around to trashing your hometown of Chicago in his last "Transformers" movie doesn't mean you now have the right to put us down sir. Where does Loki and his alien/whatever bad guys land in the trailer for the new "Avengers" movie? Where do the money shots of "ID4," "Deep Impact," "Planet of the Apes," "Zoolander" and "Kramer vs. Kramer" take place? That's right, NY fucking City, the town that at one point supported FOUR "Law & Order" shows shooting/airing at once while you guys couldn't get "The Chicago Code" to last for one half-season. It's also where Kenneth Lonergan shot and set up "Margaret," which had even fewer people (four) when I saw it New Year's Eve/Day in 2011/2012 but its theatrical run lasted from last September until just two weeks ago. Screenings of "Margaret" in Chicago? NYC FOR THE WIN (plus that Lin basketball guy)! ;-P

    1. Not actually trying to put NYC down. After all, Ghostbusters. I would just like to believe in a world in which a screening like that is packed.

      And Chicago does seem to be the new NY, as far as TV is concerned: Boss, Happy Endings, Mike and Molly, The Good Wife, The League, Whitney, Shameless...they're not all good (and I don't think any of them are actually shot here). Maybe TV writers thought NYC was getting too played out, even though putting everything in Chicago makes no difference and just makes that played out, too.

      What I'm saying is: more shows set in Sioux Falls.

      If it helps, MARGARET did have a one-week run at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center in mid-February. It's a medium-sized screening room, but it sold out every show, I believe.

    2. ^^^ You have to understand that we New Yorkers (and after living in this town since '96 that's I consider myself as even though I'm technically a nomad) assume and know that these retrospectives and film screenings will come around. Every weekend/weekday without fail there's something old/forgotten/foreign/cult/avant gard/etc. playing in at least two of the half-a-dozen theaters that specialize in repertoire. Tonight I could go see "The Lorax" and holdover recent films on many theaters. But I could also choose to go see 35mm screenings of "Alien" or "Big Trouble In Little China" (IFC Center), "Harold and Maude" (Landmark Sunshine NYC) and "Fitzcarraldo" (BAM... and no, a bear doesn't eat Herzog when he gets the boat over the mountain :-P).

      So I'm not surprised any more when a screening of an old movie doesn't sell out in Gotham. Many of us have turned our tiny apartments into man caves that we also happen to live in. The type of cinephile that frequents Anthology Film Archives knows a "BBtS" screening (or something in its ilk) will come back around eventually. Plus they showed "BBtS" last Sunday night and, according to the guy in charge, half the theater was filled (which for AFA is rare). That's why, when Chicago gets "Margaret" for a week, every screening is precious and must be attended or risk never seeing this projected again. We NYers know this film will live forever in special screenings/revivals in this town. That explains why few people went to see "Margaret" theatrically here but enough did to keep it running in one theater on 12th St. for nearly six months (same theater I saw "13 Assassins" and "Martha Marcy May Marlene" in).

      Not rubbing it in (from the podcasts I gather Chicago has a healthy repertoire scene with Music Box and other specialty theaters, many of the old-school movie palace era that have disappeared from Gotham except for one) but I guess by virtue of the population and political tendencies (very liberal and open-minded) New York just happens to be better at the repertoire/international/alternative movie scene. And that, of course, leads to complacency when a 2nd screening for "Battle Beyond the Stars" is barely-attended. BTW, even though he didn't have anything to do with it (except perhaps edit the trailer), the 16mm print of "BBtS" we saw was credited as being loaned to the theater from the private collection of someone named Joe Dante. Jealous Patrick? :-P

      Thanks for reading my rant, have a nice weekend and enjoy your weekly New York-shot-but-Chicago-set new episode of "The Good Wife" this Sunday at 8pm CT (or whenever the DVR'ed version is played back), only on CBS-2. :-)

  7. Is this and the other Corman exploitation classics released by Shout! ("Starcrash," "Galaxy of Terror," etc.) worth getting on DVD/BD because of the bonus features? I've bought movies I didn't necessarily like because of decent/educational/entertaining bonuses (Criterion "Two-Lane Blacktop," Fox's "Cleopatra," etc.) and these Corman movies sound like they'd have fun commentaries and/or entertaining documentaries about how they stretched their limited budget to go a long way. Not that I would ever buy a movie I actually know is bad and I'd hate like "Galaxy of Terror," which I've seen and don't like in the slightest (unlike "Battle Beyond the Stars," which is at least dumb fun).

    1. I don't own BBtS, so I couldn't say (maybe someone else wants to jump in?), but I do think Starcrash is a really fun movie made even better by some great bonus features (including two commentary tracks from the same guy, both of which are great). Other old Corman movies, like Death Race 2000 and Rock n' Roll High School, also have a lot of good bonus features, but they're worth owning just because the movies are kick ass.

      Agreed on Galaxy of Terror, though. Too mean-spirited to be fun.

      I'm about to watch the new documentary Corman's World, which I'm sure is going to make me want to watch all of these movies again.