Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) ***Ĺ

     Iíve never been a scores-and-soundtracks guy. Itís taken five years of training from Juniper (a scores-and-soundtracks gal if ever Iíve known one) to get me to the point where I consciously notice movie music most of the time. But even before that course of instruction, a film would come along every once in a while bearing musical accompaniment striking enough to pierce the curtain of my obliviousness. Whatís curious in retrospect is that it wasnít necessarily the weird scores that got my attention. Sure, I caught on quickly that quirky, minimalist music was a John Carpenter trademark, and I had many a good chuckle over the female choral warbling that so often overlay 70ís Eurosmut, but a fair proportion of the films whose sonic signatures stuck with me were set to perfectly normative Hollywood orchestral music. Aliens is one example. So is Something Wicked This Way Comes. And when I was a kid, the back of my mind used to cue up the soundtrack to the first shootout between the Enterprise and the Reliant in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan whenever any kind of make-believe game entered a high-stakes action phase. The score-savvy among you will have noticed a pattern just now. The same composer worked on all three of the aforementioned films, although I didnít learn to recognize the significance of the name James Horner until many years after his work first burrowed its way into my brain.

     I havenít seen any indication yet whether Horner has cashed in his Posthumous Rehabilitation Pass; good for him if he has. But when I finally learned his name in the late 1990ís, it was not because people were speaking highly of him. Mind you, it mostly wasnít the quality of his compositions per se that caught Horner so much internet fan-flak in those days, but rather his very conspicuous habit of repeating himself. Search for his name on YouTube, and you wonít have to scroll down very far before you start seeing video titles like ďJames Hornerís Self-Plagiarisms.Ē I canít say it isnít a fair gripe, either. Watch Wrath of Khan and Krull back to back sometimeó youíll see what all the detractors were talking about. Or if action movies are your thing, try the same experiment with 48 Hours and Commando. Bits and pieces of that Aliens score, meanwhile, are every-fucking-where, even if we donít count how the ďdeath ride of the APCĒ cue got cut into the trailers for seemingly every shoot-Ďem-up/blow-Ďem-up movie to come out over the subsequent fifteen years or so.

     Horner came by the habit honestly, however, for he was yet another graduate of the Roger Corman Academy of Film. Specifically, he got his start with New World Pictures, where his early compositions contributed mightily to the credibility of Cormanís efforts to take the company up-market at the turn of the 80ís. At New World, you never did anything successful just once. If an idea worked, you used it again and again until it stopped workingó and any minor variation that might keep a successful formula viable for one more go-round was fair game. The principle applied to premises, to scripts, to typecasting, to props and costumes, to completed special effects footage, so why not apply it to music, too? Corman certainly had no compunctions about stripping the best of Hornerís New World scores for parts throughout the rest of the decade to gussy up junkers like The Warrior and the Sorceress and Wizards of the Lost Kingdom. Itís only fair, then, that Horner himself should get in on the action. And the best part is, it wasnít just his mainstream work that Horner recycled. Go watch Humanoids from the Deep, and see if any of that music sounds at all familiar. Or better yet, treat yourself to a double feature of Star Trek II and Battle Beyond the Stars. Just as the latter score became Cormanís favorite source of spare musical parts, so too does it lie at the root of Hornerís own most conspicuous line of cloning. As well it might, too. Itís a soundtrack that any sci-fi or fantasy action flick would be proud to call its own, and a hell of an accomplishment for a 27-year-old composer.

     But letís move along now to the film itself. As seems so often to be the case with attempts to cash in on Star Wars, Battle Beyond the Stars owes at least as much to The Seven Samurai and/or The Magnificent Seven as it does to the movie whose coattails its creators were hoping to ride. Somewhere in time and space, the interstellar warlord Sador (John Saxon, of Planet Earth and Strange New World) puts his mighty flagship into orbit around the defenseless world of Akir, and issues the populace a cruel ultimatum: either they voluntarily join the Malmori Empire by accepting him as their lord and master, or he will deploy the power of his Stellar Converter against their planet. As we see a bit later, when Sador calls at the planet Umatil to hear the inhabitantsí reply to a similar demand, the Stellar Converter does exactly what it says on the package. Discharging it into the core of a planet triggers a thermonuclear chain reaction, transforming the world, for all practical purposes, into a miniature (and presumably very short-lived) star. Now the Akira run their lives and their society according to a strict ethical system of peace and cooperation known as the Varda, but they werenít always such pacifists. Unfortunately, however, the planetís last surviving warrior, Zed the Corsair (Jeff Corey, from Curse of the Black Widow and Jennifer), is now blind and elderly, and thus in no shape to oppose Sador personally. On the other hand, Zedís old fighting ship, Nell (voiced by Lynn Carlin, of Superstition and Deathdream), is in rather better shape. If a volunteer could be found to pilot her, Nell could become the nucleus of a fleet strong enough to protect Akir, and Zed is pretty sure he knows where this hypothetical pilot could find sufficient mercenaries to make up the rest of such a force. Despite the skepticism of Fen (Wavelengthís Eric Morris), the leader of Akirís governing council, a volunteer does indeed come forward in the form of Shad (Richard Thomas, from It and The Todd Killings), a lad who appears to be functionally equivalent to Nellís stable-keeper.

     Zed instructs Shad to journey to the Phoenix Cluster, to seek out Dr. Hephaestus (Sam Jaffe, of The Dunwich Horror and The Day the Earth Stood Still). In Zedís day, Dr. Hephaestus was the greatest genius of weapons development in all the galaxy. As weíve already established, though, Zedís day was a long time ago. In this day, Hephaestus is an arrogant and capricious hermit, living all but alone on a moon-sized space station crewed entirely by androids, and caring for nothing but to find a mate for his cloistered daughter, Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel, from Pet Sematary II and Eyes of Laura Mars). Far from outfitting Shad with an arsenal, the doctor attempts to kidnap him! The attempt is not successful, but thereís an excellent chance that Hephaestus will be getting what he really wanted anyway. The two kids rather hit it off during Shadís abbreviated detention, and Nanelia steals a rocketship in which to follow him when he gets away. Whatís more, Nanelia might even be useful to the Akira. Sheís no warrior, to be sure, nor does her vessel carry armament of any kind, but she is a computer genius. Perhaps her skills could come in handy analyzing Sadorís capabilities to find a gap in his defenses. Shad instructs her to wait for him in the Lambda Zone, the sector of space most convenient to serve as a gathering point for whatever other forces he and Nell are able to round up.

     Shadís search is fruitful indeed. First, he encounters the Space Cowboy (Damnation Alleyís George Peppard), a freighter pilot hauling a cargo of advanced hand weapons to Umatil. Now that Sador has exterminated his customers, Cowboy is left with a shipload of paid-for merchandise that he needs to get rid of. Shad, of course, is in need of exactly such equipment, and he even manages to negotiate a deal with the space trucker to train the Akira in the weaponsí use. Cowboy has no intention of taking part in the fight itself (his old trash-heap of a space tug wouldnít be much use in combat anyway, even if it does have a battery of defensive lasers), but this is a terrific start just the same. Next, Shad meets Nestoró or five facets of Nestor, anyway. This strange being (represented principally by Earl Boen, of The Man with Two Brains and The Terminator) is an entire species with but a single, distributed consciousness. Everything learned, thought, or done by any individual Nestor organism is experienced by them all, which means that the species as a whole is unable to meet within itself the social or intellectual needs of a sapient lifeform. Nestor must therefore send facets of itself out into the universe in search of stimulation to avoid literally dying of boredom. Sadorís infamy reaches far and wide, and Nestor thinks the Akiraís desperate stand against the Malmori promises enough excitement to last quite a while. After that, Nell leads Shad to a planet called Nescosto, known throughout the galaxy (to those with the right connections) as a den of assassins, thieves for hire, and soldiers of fortune. If thereís an ass that needs kicking, Nescosto is sure to harbor somebody willing to do the footwork for the right price. It turns out, though, that somebody else got there before Shad, with a very different agenda in mind. Nescosto finally attracted the wrong kind of attention, and the only man alive on the entire planet now is a conscienceless killer called Gelt (Robert Vaughn, from Teenage Caveman and Starship Invasions, reprising his Magnificent Seven role in all but name). Luckily for Shad, the one thing his people have to offeró hospitalityó is all Gelt really desires out of life anymore. Heís experienced so little of it hitherto, after all. And finally, on the way back to the Lambda Zone, Nell attracts the attention of Saint Exmin (Sybil Danning, of Hercules and Chained Heat), a young Valkyrie on a rite-of-passage quest to prove herself as a warrior. Shad doesnít take her very seriously at first, but if he wonít invite Saint Exmin to his war, then sheíll just have to crash it.

     Meanwhile, within the Lambda Zone, Nanelia unexpectedly does some recruiting of her own. While she waits for Shad to return, her ship is attacked by a zymeó a sort of giant, semi-corporeal energy amoeba that sometimes likes to feed on the power emissions of spacecraft. But zymes can be power sources as well, and there is consequently a lucrative trade for their carcasses among worlds that are not self-sufficient in energy. Nanelia is rescuedó well, sort ofó by the crew of a zyming vessel captained by Cayman (Morgan Woodward, from Supervan and The Sword of Ali Baba), the last survivor of the reptilian Lazuli people. Under Caymanís command are an apparently human and apparently mute beefcake dude named Quopeg (Stan Davis, of The Sword and the Sorcerer and The Curse) and a pair of Kelvins (Lara Cody and Larry Meyers), diminutive beings who communicate by modulating the thermal output of their burning-hot bodies. Anyway, the reason I say that Nanelia has only sort of been rescued is because Cayman initially considers her to be part of his haul. Slaves and pets are even easier to sell than zymes, after all, and for that matter, Cayman knows of a few species that consider human meat quite tasty. Nanelia tries to bargain for her life with the promise of Shadís mission to hire mercenaries, but Cayman knows Akir well enough to realize that the planet holds nothing of value to him. Itís only when Nanelia mentions Sador that Cayman changes his tune. You remember how I said Cayman was the last of the Lazuli? Well, that was Sadorís doing, and a chance for revenge on behalf of his otherwise extinct people is worth more to Cayman than all the salable commodities in the galaxy. When Shad and his Magnificent Five (or Magnificent Nine, depending on how you count Nestor) arrive at the rendezvous point, they find Cayman and his crew awaiting them alongside Nanelia.

     From this point on, Battle Beyond the Stars becomes a remarkably disciplined siege movie wearing an epic space opera like a skin suit. Virtually every remaining scene is directly related to the titular battle, the preparations for its next phase, or the regrouping and recovery that become necessary when part of it goes badly for our heroes. This is by no means to say, however, that the film devolves into 40 solid minutes of cheap plastic spaceships shooting at each other. The war for Akir is fought on the planetís surface as well as in orbit. It involves ruses and stratagems as well as brute force and heroic self-sacrifice. It takes judiciously timed pauses enabling us to count the cost and to honor the fallen. And best of all, it is constructed so as to afford each of Shadís mercenaries (with the curious exception of Quopeg) a moment in the spotlight to contribute to the defense of Akir in their own unique ways. Besides, the cheap plastic spaceships are honestly pretty damn good. Maybe not quite good enough to justify all the times they turned up in later movies, but entirely good enough to make the temptation to reuse them understandable.

     Iíve watched Battle Beyond the Stars a number of times now, usually at sufficient intervals to shift my perception of it at least a little. During its initial theatrical release, I responded to it with all the uncritical enthusiasm of the six-year-old I was. So complete was this movieís enchantment over me that I think I remember crying a bit over Nellís final fate. Even if I didnít actually cry, Iím quite certain that Iíve never been so moved by the ďdeathĒ of an automatic pilot systemó and that scene still has teeth 38 years later! As a teenager, I saw Battle Beyond the Stars as an example of producer Roger Cormanís knack for making the most consistently and dependably entertaining formulaic lowbrow junk to be had in all of 70ís and early-80ís Hollywood. And now, I find this movie revealing a totally unexpected virtue, which I somehow never consciously noticed before. It makes a sincere, good-faith effort to work through the implications of its various aliensí characteristics to create believable cultures that arenít just exaggerated embodiments of this or that common human value.

     Nestor is the most obvious example, but there are plenty more if you look closely. Geltís singleminded selfishness is explained as the result of his having been born in space, implicitly to a long line of interplanetary fugitives. He is quite literally a man without a culture, accustomed to think about nothing but the requirements of his own survival. Cayman, the reptile, enjoys the company of creatures who constantly radiate large amounts of heat. And the Malmori are a race of degenerate mutants, whom we may perhaps surmise to have learned nothing from the experience of repeated atomic wars, living parasitically by conquering species that are still capable of producing something other than violenceó and their tyrant does personally what his followers do on a cosmic scale, pursuing immortality by harvesting healthy body parts from anatomically compatible captives. It isnít that thereís anything inherently wrong with not doing this sort of thing. It makes sense, for instance, for the Star Wars universe, with its galaxy-spanning super-civilization, to exhibit a cultural uniformity at odds with the physical diversity of its inhabitants, while Star Trek, which has always traded in the humanist-allegorical mode of science fiction, has a built-in justification for treating alien societies as test cases for the logical limits of human ideals. Whatís interesting and commendable about Battle Beyond the Stars in this regard is that it engages in so much xeno-sociological speculation, even though it isnít necessary for the filmís primary aims. No one was demanding that The Magnificent Seven in Space put this amount of thought into the ďin spaceĒ part of the premise, but Battle Beyond the Stars is considerably the richer for having done so.

 

 

Every B-Masters Cabal roundtable up to now has been about things that we see. This one is different Itís what we hear, specifically the films whose music made some kind of lasting impression on us. Click the banner below to reach the index to all our contributions. Contrary to all plausible expectations, Iím deliberately not reviewing a punk rock movie.

 

 

 

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