Wednesday, July 13, 2011

BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (Blu-ray)

In 1980, legendary low budget producer Roger Corman produced the most expensive film ($2M) of his career, a special-effects-heavy space opera in the vein of STAR WARS. That sci-fi epic, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, has just been re-released in a 30th Anniversary Special Edition (actually, shouldn't that be 31st Anniversary?) by Shout! Factory on both DVD and Blu-ray disc.

The planet of Akir is a desert world "with one green spot." Its inhabitants are peaceful farmers, who live by the nonviolent code of The Varda. Unfortunately, this makes them a tempting target for intergalactic despot Sador (John Saxon, ENTER THE DRAGON, QUEEN OF BLOOD), who strives for immortality by replacing his worn-out limbs and organs with transplanted replacements culled from beings like the humanoid Akira. He gives them an ultimatum - submit to his rule or be destroyed - then gives them time to ponder his "offer" while he scoots off to destroy a planet that has chosen to defy him. Desperate, the people of Akir send farmboy Shad (Richard Thomas, THE WALTONS, STEPHEN KING'S "IT") off in their only functioning starship, the sentient - and decidedly female - Nell, to buy weapons and recruit mercenaries to help them stand against Sador and his mutant armies. Shad scours the star system and ultimately returns with seven (give or take) alien defenders, but even with these valiant souls, the odds are not in their favor...

An unabashed mash-up of George Lucas' STAR WARS and Akira Kurosawa's THE SEVEN SAMURAI/Robert Sturges' THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, this satisfying and exciting space opera is graced with a witty, intelligent screenplay by John Sayles (PIRANHA, LONE STAR), a game cast comprised of veteran character actors and TV stars (Jeff Corey, Sam Jaffe, Robert Vaughn, George Peppard, Morgan Woodward, Marta Kristen, Sybil Danning, et al), and remarkably accomplished miniature spaceship effects by a talented crew of enthusiastic young technicians, including James Cameron and the Skotak brothers. Wrapped up in a sweeping, Jerry Goldsmith-inspired musical score by a young James Horner, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS is probably the best of the STAR WARS imitators - and in some ways (dialogue and acting), it's maybe a little better.

Director Jimmy T. Murakami keeps things moving at a brisk pace, and - with his talented cast - maintains a breezy, tongue-in-cheek tone that doesn't preclude moments of genuine heart and occasional pathos. Sayles' script is intentionally funny, with lots of amusing wordplay and sly innuendo. Everyone in the cast hits exactly the right notes to sell their comic book characters and the comfortingly familiar story. Standouts include  George Peppard's (THE A-TEAM, DAMNATION ALLEY) space trucker, Cowboy; statuesque Sybil Danning's (CHAINED HEAT) stunning and sexy Valkyrie warrior, St. Exmin; and Robert Vaughn (HUSTLE, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.) as Gelt, a professional killer somewhat modeled after the character that Vaughn played in the original MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.

The special effects are a  triumph of Old School/pre-CGI craftsmanship, with a variety of unique spaceship designs (especially Cameron's Nell), detailed tabletop miniature landscapes and plenty of fiery explosions. Corman, appalled at the prices quoted to him by established FX houses, ended up setting up his own special effects unit for the production, and then re-used/recyled the space shots from this movie over and over for the next couple of decades (along with Horner's score)!

The Shout! Factory Blu-ray "Roger Corman's Cult Classics" presentation of BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS is, in every way, a quantum leap over the original DVD release from Corman's own New Concorde label. That edition was non-anamorphic and sourced from a battered print that looked like it had been stored in a ditch behind his office for 25 years. This newly-remastered (from the internegative) 1080p, 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer still possesses a few random specks and scratches, but is otherwise remarkably clean and clear. Contrast and color balance are notably improved, and details are sharp and well-defined in most shots. Some of the special effects sequences are of noticeably lesser quality, but that's inherent in the FX technology of the time. Overall, it's a very impressive presentation of a 31-year old genre film. Audio options include a new 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. Bonus material includes the two fine commentary tracks from the original DVD release - one by Corman and screenwriter John Sayles, and the other by Production Manager Gale Ann Hurd. There's a new behind-the-scenes/retrospective documentary, a video interview with star Richard Thomas, a handful of still galleries, and the original trailer, TV spot and radio ads.

For fans of 70s - early 80s sci-fi (and traditional special effects), BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS is essential viewing. Smart, funny and bright, with a great cast, this cosmic adventure is endlessly entertaining. If you're already a fan of this flick, the new Shout! Factory special edition (especially the HD Blu-ray) is likely to be the definitive presentation for the forseeable future. I would have liked a few more bonus features, but it's a terrific package overall, and highly recommended.

BUYBattle Beyond the Stars: Roger Corman's Cult Classics (30th Anniversary Special Edition) [Blu-ray]

BUYBattle Beyond The Stars [Roger Corman's Cult Classics]