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March 5, 2014

Battle Beyond the Stars

by Franz Patrick


Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)
★★★ / ★★★★

Having conquered more than a handful of planets in different galaxies is not enough for overly ambitious Sador (John Saxon) so he warns the citizens of Akir, a peace-loving planet, that he and his troops will return in seven risings to colonize. If the residents do not surrender upon their return, their planet will be space dust. Akir’s leaders send Shad (Richard Thomas), inexperienced but willing to prove himself, on an intergalactic mission to hire mercenaries and form a resistance. Can he gather them in time to save his planet?

What is most admirable about “Battle Beyond the Stars,” written by John Sayles, is a forward trajectory devoid of philosophical furnishings like a man being forced to ruminate his destiny while facing a crucial undertaking. Right when Shad gets into the ship, managed by a sharp-tongued and at times foul-mouthed–computer named Nell (voiced by Lynn Carlin), we get the impression that the picture’s priority mostly shallow entertainment: shooting at targets and blowing things up. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Its special and visual effects, although dated, command a special charm. It reminded me of those badly dubbed science fiction television shows imported from Japan that I used to watch (and love) when I was a kid every Saturday and Sunday mornings. When lasers rain on the characters, I felt transported to a simpler time.

Shad’s expedition holds a consistent level of excitement. Each place he visits contains a certain level of curiosity and danger. More importantly, the screenplay knows when to slow things down in order to focus on the characters and communicate to us why they decide partake in Shad’s request.

Two of my favorite encounters include clones with psychic powers and a man with great riches but happens to have a bounty on his head. The clones, collectively known as Nestor (Earl Boen, John Gowans, among others), are chalk-white creatures with egg-shaped heads and a third eye on their foreheads. I enjoyed the contradiction between their otherworldly appearance and good intentions. Their strange abilities are not only useful in battle, they are executed in an entertaining fashion.

As for Gelt (Robert Vaughn), labelled as a criminal in nearby systems, there is a certain sadness to his reasons for joining the resistance. Though he is surrounded by great riches, the precious metals and jewels around him prove worthless because he is alone: a king in an uninhabited island is no king at all.

However, I wished that Shad’s romantic interest, Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel) is given more to do aside from looking good when faced with a dilemma, looking good despite the panic happening on Akir, and looking good while Shad attempts to navigate them out of a predicament. Surely there is more to her than physicality. Shad is not shallow, just slightly curious of the opposite sex. Inevitably, it leads to some awkward and amusing situations. It would have been more than welcome if the screenplay had allowed us to see what our hero sees in her.

Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami and Roger Corman, “Battle Beyond the Stars” may have been an imitation of other epic space adventures but it has its own treasures. Its lack of self-importance is endearing.

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