Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Because it’s Star Wars Week here at the A.V. Club, we’ve singled out some of the more interesting movies inspired or influenced by George Lucas’ beloved space opera.
The enduring lesson from the life and work of B-movie impresario Roger Corman is that crass commercialism and genuine artistry can coexist, provided that both sides of the partnership keep their eyes clear. Corman approached cinema with the guile of a dollar-store manager, compensating for his tiny margins with volume, volume, volume. He bought cheap and sold cheap, relying on eye-catching packaging to peddle what were essentially knock-offs, held together by filler. But because he cared more about steady profitability than era-defining blockbusters, he gave his employees a lot of creative freedom. So long as they stayed on-schedule and under-budget—and delivered more or less the movie Corman had promised to his customers—they were free to try and make the assignment as interesting for themselves as they wanted.
Battle Beyond The Stars came out toward the end of Corman’s heyday as an nurturer of young talent, after the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, and Ron Howard had all come and gone. Similar to the 1978 Corman-produced Jaws copy/parody Piranha, 1980’s Star Wars-inspired Battle Beyond The Stars allowed screenwriter John Sayles to have his way with another big Hollywood hit. Sayles responded by borrowing the plot of The Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven, telling the story of a pacifist planet that sends a scout (played by The Waltons’ Richard Thomas) to hire warriors to defend against a conqueror race. Every 10 minutes or so, Sayles and director Jimmy T. Murakami trot out another colorful character played by a familiar old star, like John Saxon as the libertine villain, George Peppard as a drunken space cowboy, and Robert Vaughn as a wealthy recluse (basically the same guy he played in The Magnificent Seven).
The bigger-name cast contributed to Battle Beyond The Stars’ relatively higher budget for a Corman production, although given the public’s ravenous appetite for all things Star Wars—stoked even further by the release of The Empire Strikes Back a few months earlier—the investment was fairly safe. (The movie ended up doing fine at the box office, aided in part by good reviews.) The real stars of Battle Beyond The Stars, though, were two then-unknowns: special-effects designer James Cameron and composer James Horner. Cameron’s team came up with visually inventive models and animation to combine the freaky with the trashy in clever ways, while Horner’s grandiose score makes a breezy drive-in picture feel epic.
Most of the discussion of Corman’s protégés focuses on the directors, like Dante and Demme, but they weren’t the only ones maximizing an early opportunity. In trying to analyze and replicate why movies like Star Wars were so successful, the best of Corman’s crews figured out that the most important elements didn’t have to cost a lot of money. Memorable designs, amusing bits of dialogue, and an overall feeling of fun and enthusiasm rarely require much more than the will of the artist—and some uncommon talent.
Availability: Battle Beyond The Stars is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon or possibly your local video store/library.