Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Battle Beyond the Stars Blu-ray Review

A long time ago, in a former lumber yard far far away (actually 1980 in Venice, Calif.), Roger Corman gathered together a fledgling team of filmmakers to make one of the best low-budget science fiction films of all time, Battle Beyond the Stars, a space opera that managed to playfully borrow from Star Wars and The Magnificent Seven, to come up with an enduring cult classic. Long out of print, Battle Beyond the Stars has been meticulously restored with a new anamorphic widescreen transfer (1.85:1) from the internegative, boasting a new 5.1 DTS Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray, and featuring a galaxy of extras, including commentary by writer John Sayles and Roger Corman; a new interview with actor Richard Thomas; a behind-the-scenes technical featurette and much more. 

“This was the most expensive production I had financed. I always liked science fiction, and my idea was to do something of the feeling of Star Wars. What I came up with was The Seven Samurai in Outer Space.” – Roger Corman

Film (3 out of 5 stars) 
When Star Wars became the huge blockbuster it deserved to be in 1977, other studios that had passed on the film quickly scrambled to come up with their own science fiction movie.  The success of Star Wars enabled the return of Star Trek on to the big screen and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century on the small screen.  And that wasn’t all, since you could also add The Black Hole, Battlestar Galactica, and more to that list.  Low budget producer Roger Corman wasn’t any different.  He wanted to jump into the genre and he did just that by making Battle Beyond the Stars which was the biggest production he ever mounted.  Much like Star Wars and all of those other sci-fi movies and shows I mentioned, they all borrowed elements from previous works.  For Lucas, he incoroporated some Flash Gordon, The Hidden Fortress, and the feel and pacing of the early serials  that would later also influence his Indiana Jones series.  In Corman’s case, he stole from Star Wars, The Magnificent Seven, and of course the original source to that movie… The Seven Samurai.
John Sayles who would later go on to have a successful career, based his script heavily on The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven in the sense that a disparate group of races have to come together to fight a common threat.  That threat being the ruthless Sador the Conquerer (John Saxon) who likes to intimidate civilizations with mass destruction in the form of his “Stellar Converter” which is basically the Death Star in the form of a spaceship.  His usual modus operandi is to show up and kill some of the population and then tell them to be ready to accept him as their master when he returns at some point which didn’t make much sense to me.  Why leave and come back later when you can just subjugate them while you are there?  Why give them time to prepare some defenses or to get allies?  Those questions are never answered by this movie.
Thanks to Sador’s lack of forethought, a young Luke Skywalker wannabe named Shad (Richard Thomas) is given the chance to recruit some others to come help his people survive the upcoming onslaught.  He starts his quest by flying his female spaceship (complete with a woman’s torso and in a quirky touch by James Cameron, a pair of breasts) to a nearby space station to request the help of Professor Hephaestus (Sam Jaffe).  Arriving there, Shad quickly learns that the Professor is a cyborg and insane.  Unable to get the help and weapons he was hoping for, he does end up gaining the help of the Professor’s daughter Naneilia (Darlanne Fluegel).  Shad eventually recruits others to join his cause, including a space cowboy with the imaginative name of Cowboy (George Peppard).  Cowboy seems like a man out of time since he loves movies, eats hot dogs, and has an actual confederate flag on the side of his spaceship which makes about as much sense as being named Cowboy.  Fortunately, for all of our sanity, his ship isn’t shaped like a horseshoe or a cowboy hat.
Shad also gains the help of a race of clones known as The Nestor, a lizard man named Cayman (Morgan Woodward) who has a personal grudge against Sador, and a female warrior named Saint Exmin (Sybil Danning) who resembles a Valkyrie and is as lovely as she is deadly.  And last but not least, he tracks down Gelt (Robert Vaughn) who is supposed to be the most dangerous man in the galaxy and it’s basically the same role he played in The Magnificent Seven.  With his party of new allies, the resistance force assembles together to take on Sador and his fleet of ships in a welcome battle in the third act to determine if the Rebels can defeat the Death Star before Yavin is destroyed…wait a minute…I mean before the peaceful planet of Akir is obliterated.
When I first heard of this film and the people involved in it, I was pretty excited.  When you consider that James Cameron, John Sayles, Gale Anne Hurd, John Saxon, George Peppard, and James Horner were involved in this, you’ve got some serious firepower there.  Their combined efforts made Battle Beyond the Stars the best Roger Corman production ever made, but it’s still a far cry away from the blockbuster it was trying to imitate.  To be fair, this film was made for 2 million dollars and every dollar of it looks like it’s on the screen, but the movie as a whole doesn’t work. It’s ambitious visually but the script is weak with a lot of derivative attempts that don’t succeed.  With a weak plot and some less than great acting, the movie’s only real strength is the people that worked their asses off building the sets and doing the special effects along with the score by Horner.  The movie’s soundtrack is pretty good and it sounds like a demo version of Star Trek – The Wrath of Khan before Horner refined it into the masterpiece that soundtrack became.
The different characters are poorly fleshed out and have muddled motivations which result in them behaving out of character.  For example, Gelt is supposed to be the baddest motherf***er in space but he gets taken out like a red shirt from Star Trek at the start of the battle!  In fact, the aspect that I liked the most about the film is its utter ruthlessness towards its characters who are almost all killed by the end of the movie.  I’m guessing there wasn’t any plans for a sequel based on the fact that there’s hardly anyone left alive at the end to continue on to another adventure.  That was pretty awesome especially since I didn’t like a lot of them.  After watching this film, I was sad for the careers of John Saxon who was so good in Enter the Dragon and George Peppard who starred in other Corman movies until he hit it big again with The A-Team.  This is without a doubt the best looking and the most successful of all of the Corman movies, (it basically made back it’s budget its first weekend of release) and if you’ve enjoyed his other movies, you will most likely enjoy this.  However, if you want to see a fast paced space opera with heart, thrills, humor, an engaging story, and some talented actors, you should just watch Star Wars and not this pale imitation.

Video (4 out of 5 stars)  

The film’s newly remastered 1080p (1.85:1) transfer is one of the best things about this disc.  While it does have some grain and some print damage on display, this looks a lot better than I expected it would.  The film has some excellent clarity and colors are bold and stand out.  Black levels are decent for the most part but not as dark as I would have liked.  Flesh tones are natural looking and consistent throughout the movie.  For a low budget movie from over thirty years again, this looks pretty good and better than anyone has a right to expect.

Audio (4 out of 5 stars) 

The new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix for Battle Beyond the Stars is also a lot better than expected.  Dialogue is clear and separated well and the main beneficiary of the new mix is the sound effects and the score by James Horner which is given a prominent position in the overall mix.  There’s some nice directionality and use of all of the channels that add a lot of power to the film that it would lack otherwise.  A 2.0 mix is also included but I recommend the 5.1 track instead.

Special Features (4 out of 5 stars) 

The film has a lot of interesting extras that generally aren’t found on this kind of low budget film which made these a nice surprise.
  • Audio Commentary with Roger Corman and John Sayles – This is an interesting track since the two men cover different aspects of making the movie.  Corman focuses more on the actual production of the movie and the expenses and the rushed schedule while Sayles is more concerned with the story and the characters.  A great listen for anyone who’d like to learn more about the movie.
  • Audio Commentary with Gale Anne Hurd – At the time, Ms. Hurd was the production manager of the film who ended up becoming a very successful producer.  This track isn’t as engaging as the first one but there’s some good behind the scenes information if you are willing to wait for it.  As one of James Cameron’s ex-wives, you know she has to have some good stories to tell and it’s a shame that she didn’t record this with another person who could have prompted her to open up more.
  • “The Man Who Would Be Shad” – A candid talk with Richard Thomas who talks about his career and what the film represented to his and his co-star’s status in Hollywood and the challenges that the film had due to the lack of money and time.  He also mentions the difficulty the costumers had keeping Sybil Danning’s nipples from making an appearance in her revealing costume.
  • “Space Opera on a Shoestring” – A talk with the crew that toiled away to create the effects under a tremendous amount of pressure.  This is also another honest look back where the interviewees talk of their issues with the film and each other.  In a funny but not overly surprising revelation, it’s said that James Cameron used more more of the effects money for his group than he was supposed to but they also admit that he had the toughest and best looking effects too.
  • Still Gallery – 37 pictures from the movie.
  • Poster Gallery – A look at the various efforts from the marketing of the movie.
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Radio Spot

Final Thoughts (4 out of 5 stars) 

This is an admirable effort that many people enjoy.  While I can respect the amount of work that must have been done to make this movie look as good as it does, the film just doesn’t work for me and I would much rather watchStar Wars or Star Trek.  I will say however, that Shout! Factory has done an exemplary job on this release with the remastered audio/visual aspects and the special features as well.  I think this is the best package this film is ever going to get and I’m glad there’s companies like Shout! Factory who are willing to take the time to give these cult films the attention they need.
Order your copy today!


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