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Battle Beyond The Stars (DVD)

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In 1980, as George Lucas was sending his three-years-in-the-making science-fantasy masterpiece The Empire Strikes Back around the Earth, Roger Corman's knockoff-factory New World Pictures was rushing the three-months-in-the-making Battle Beyond The Stars into the regional drive-in circuit. And though Empire remains the vastly superior product, Battle Beyond The Stars has a charm that belies its low budget and opportunistic origins. As Corman himself explains in a commentary track accompanying its new DVD edition, his stable of young filmmakers rose to prominence in the '70s and '80s because they were willing to take cheap genre assignments and make the end results as good as they could and as cheaply as possible. Consequently, you have Joe Dante's witty Jaws rip-off Piranha, Jonathan Demme's surprisingly sensitive woman-in-bondage picture Caged Heat, and Ron Howard's action-packed car-crash plugger Grand Theft Auto. And you've got Battle Beyond The Stars, in which screenwriter John Sayles "borrowed" the plot of The Seven Samurai, set it in space, and—with the help of special-effects wunderkind James Cameron, baby-faced composer James Horner, and where-is-he-now director Jimmy Murakami—made it a visually inventive and intermittently involving intergalactic shoot-em-up. Waltons heartthrob Richard Thomas stars as the emissary of a pacifist culture, tasked to round up warriors to defend his planet from a conqueror race that plans to convert their world into a sun. The plot is straight and narrow, as well as over-reliant on extended, repetitive battles, but Sayles introduces unusual characters every 10 minutes or so, with Cameron bringing them to life on sets that combine the oddball and the trashy to evoke a plausibly futuristic milieu. The supporting cast is also better than it has a right to be, with George Peppard mugging away in the corner as a drunken space cowboy, Robert Vaughn brooding as a wealthy recluse (reprising his character from the earlier Seven Samurai remake The Magnificent Seven), and John Saxon as the decadent villain. Sayles and Corman overstate the "brilliance" of the sets and script on their DVD commentary track, and the fact that they soon forget Stars and start a tangential discussion about the future of B-moviemaking in the digital age speaks to Battle Beyond The Stars' lack of depth. But they rightly praise Horner's score, which gives this amiable pulp film a sense of scope that even today makes it more striking than a run-of-the-mill SCI FI Channel original.