Battle Beyond the Stars is an American 1980 science fiction film directed by Jimmy T. Murakami and produced by Roger Corman. The film, intended as a “Magnificent Seven in outer space,” is a pastiche of The Magnificent Seven, the Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai. The screenplay was written by John Sayles, the score was composed by James Horner, and the special effects were directed by James Cameron.
Several of the effects shots and clips were re-used for other films throughout the 1980s, including Bachelor Party, while the spaceship model was re-used in the film Space Raiders. The film was later picked up by Shout! Factory, who released it on DVD and Blu-ray in 2011 as part of the “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” series.
The farmers of the peaceful planet Akir (named in honor of director Akira Kurosawa) are threatened by the space tyrant Sador and his army of mutants, the Malmori. Sador’s huge ship carries a weapon called a “Stellar Converter”, which literally turns planets into small stars. He threatens to use the Converter unless the planet submits to him when he returns in several days. Zed, the last Akira warrior, the “Star Corsairs”, is old and nearly blind. He suggests they hire mercenaries to protect the planet. Lacking valuable resources, they can only offer food and shelter in payment. Unable to go himself, Zed offers his ship, which has an artificial Intelligence navigation and tactical computer named Nell, for the job if they can find a pilot. The ship is fast and well-armed but cannot defeat Sador alone. Shad, a young man who has piloted the ship and is well known to Nell, volunteers for the recruiting mission. Shad takes off, unaware Sador left a fighter behind to watch over the planet. The mutants Kalo and Tembo pursue Shad, but he is able to outrun them and they return to Akir to continue watching.
Shad’s first stop is the Hephaestus space station, which repairs androids. Expecting to find potential allies, Shad instead finds only two humans among the androids, Doctor Hephaestus (portrayed by Sam Jaffe) kept on life support and his beautiful daughter Nanelia. The doctor attempts to force Shad to mate with his daughter. He doesn’t want to abandon his people, so Shad escapes, with Nanelia following in her own ship. Although she has no weapons, her computer systems are highly advanced and might be useful. The two split up to look for more mercenaries.
Shad comes across Space Cowboy, portrayed by George Peppard, from Earth. He is a spacegoing truck driver, who wears a Stetson hat, plays the harmonica and has a fondness for western films. Shad saves Cowboy and his ship, an armed space freighter, from several hijackers. Shad learns that Cowboy is late delivering a shipment of laser guns to a planet which, as they watch, Sador destroys with his weapon. Lacking the fuel to carry the weapons home, Cowboy offers to deliver them to Akir. Shad talks him into teaching the Akira to use the guns.
Shad then meets a set of five alien clones who share a group consciousness named Nestor. They admit their life is incredibly dull, since their whole race shares one mind. In order to be entertained, they have sent five members to join Shad’s cause. Nestor does not need payment, saying they are completely self sufficient.
Back orbiting Akir, Kalo and Tembo observe a wedding ceremony being conducted by Shad’s sister Mol. Their ship swoops down and beams Mol aboard before they return to orbit. Meanwhile, Shad stops at a planet known for its criminal activity. He discovers a nearly abandoned world being used as a hideout by Gelt (Robert Vaughn), a wealthy assassin who is so well known he can’t show his face on any civilized planet. Gelt gladly offers his services in trade for the ability to live peacefully hiding among the Akira. Gelt’s spaceship is highly maneuverable and well armed.
Shad is then approached by Saint-Exmin, of the Valkyrie warriors. She is a pushy young girl looking to prove herself in battle. She pilots a small, barely armed, but extremely fast spaceship. Shad finds her annoying and wishes she would go away, but she tags along.
While waiting for Shad’s return, Nanelia had been captured by a reptilian slaver named Cayman. Cayman possesses a powerful old ship with an eclectic crew of aliens. She quickly recruits Cayman to their cause when he learns that they are looking for mercenaries to fight Sador. The only payment Cayman wants is Sador’s head, since Sador’s forces had destroyed Cayman’s homeworld.
The fleet of seven ships return to Akir. In the orbiting Malmori fighter, Tembo is raping Mol when Kalo detects the approaching mercenaries. They try to escape, but their ship is destroyed by the pursuing Gelt. Shad takes the mercenaries down to the surface, but they are greeted with caution by the natives, who are not used to violent species. Eventually, Sador returns, but his fleet of fighters is intercepted by Shad and his new friends. In the opening battle, despite skillfully destroying several of Sador’s ships, Gelt’s ship is badly damaged by enemy fire. He is mortally wounded when his ship crashes. After Gelt dies, Shad orders the people to make a feast for Gelt and bury him in a place of honor, fulfilling their agreement (“a meal and a place to hide”). Meanwhile, Cowboy and the Akiran natives, armed with his laser guns, fight off Sador’s invading ground forces.
Sador survives an assassination attempt by one of the captured Nestors and launches all of his ships in retaliation against the planet. The Akira ground troops, lead by Cowboy, defeat Sador’s army, but Zed is killed in the fighting. There is another huge space battle and the mercenaries’ ships are being destroyed one by one. Cowboy, piloting his armed space freighter, leads a strafing run on Sador’s flagship. Cowboy’s ship is severely damaged and he quietly sits on the bridge playing his harmonica as his damaged ship tumbles into deep space.
However, the mercenaries are successful in destroying all of Sador’s star fighers and the Stellar Converter, leaving only Sador’s flagship. Shad and Nanelia, flying in Zed’s Corsair, are captured by the flagship in a tractor beam. The pair escape in a lifepod after Shad orders Nell to activate the crippled Corsair’s self-destruct program. The Corsair blows up, destroying Sador’s ship. As Shad and Nanelia return to Akir, Nanelia despairs over the deaths of their friends. Shad tells her that the Akira believe that no one is truly dead when they are remembered and beloved by the living. The Akira will remember the sacrifices made by the mercenaries and honor them forever.
Prior to production, a Hollywood trade paper announced that John Wayne would star in the film, under the direction of Ingmar Bergman. In all likelihood, this was a joke, either by the trade paper or the film’s publicist.
At one stage Australian Richard Franklin was announced as director.
At the time of its release, it was the most expensive film produced by Roger Corman. Much of the budget allegedly went toward paying the salaries of George Peppard and Robert Vaughn, since screenwriter John Sayles was known for low-budget productions and the film was produced in Corman’s own studio, his “renowned lumberyard facility” in Venice, California.
Roger Corman hired James Cameron as a model maker in his studio, and after the original art director for the film had been fired, Cameron became responsible for the special effects in Battle Beyond the Stars, or, as Cameron later put it, “production design and art direction.” This was Cameron’s first “big break” in the entertainment industry, and it helped propel his career. While he initially worked on camera rigging, he soon started working on special effects, and designed spaceship’s corridors, for instance, out of spray-painted McDonald’s containers. Cameron paid great attention to detail, and hardly slept for weeks while working on the film; however, his hard work paid off, opening the door for his later success.
The production sound mixer, also responsible for special effects, such as Robert Vaughn’s “laser shot” – based on Clint Eastwood’s .44 Magnum from Dirty Harry – was David Yewdall, a regular contract-worker for Corman films.Yewdall later remarked on the “film’s frugal sound editorial budget” in his Practical Art of Motion Picture Sound, and explained some of the movie’s sounds: each of the seven spaceships had its own sound. The Nester ship’s sound was made from human voices generated by the community choir from his hometown college in Coalinga, California; Robert Vaughn’s ship was based on the recording of a dragster.
The spaceship used in the film was reused for another science fiction film blasted by critics, the Roger Corman film Space Raiders, and in the ultra-low budget Starquest II and Dead Space. Footage was also used in later films and games: a clip from the film (in 3-D) is shown during the movie theater fight scene at the end of Bachelor Party,and footage was also used for the laser disk game Astron Belt. The soundtrack was later recycled by Corman for Raptor and other films.
Battle Beyond the Stars grossed $1.7 million in its opening weekend, and reportedly earned $11 million fairly quickly. It received mediocre reviews, receiving a 40% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.