When I met John Sayles at a preview screening of his film Honeydripper (2007) I was struck by two things on my first impression. The first was the size and strength of his hands. I have never gotten quite as firm a handshake since. The second was his warmth and intelligence. Sayles spoke to me like a buddy or a pal, without any judgement and with tremendous patience. There were so many of us film students at that event so I’m sure the veteran filmmaker’s civility was more than a little taxed. The funny thing is, after that meeting, it was easier for me to sense Sayles in his films, even the ones he wrote.
John Sayles and Anne Dyer conceived of Battle Beyond The Stars (1980) at the behest of Roger Corman as a pseudo-remake of Seven Samurai (1954) but as a science fiction film as a means of cashing in on the Star Wars (1977) craze. Sayles’ script, like many of the screenplays he penned for New World Pictures, has a humor about itself but is really remarkable for its economy. Savvy as ever, it’s clear that Sayles understood what Corman’s productions needed was a narrative framework comprised of popular tropes and pre-fab signifiers. Sayles’ approach to the project ostensibly stripped the project of the potential for madcap campiness that had defined Corman’s earlier, and more enjoyable, Star Wars cash-in Star Crash (1978).
In the publicity for the Blu-Ray release of Battle Beyond The Stars, Shout! Factory sell the film as the project that launched John Sayles’, James Cameron’s, and James Horner’s careers, but this is misleading. Sayles had already written a number of screenplays for Roger Corman, just as Horner and Cameron had also cut their teeth on other more low profile projects. Battle Beyond The Stars is simply the point in Cameron and Horner’s careers where their name/brand recognition really begins.
More so than the crew, the cast is responsible for the cult status that Battle Beyond The Stars enjoys. Richard Thomas, Robert Vaughn, John Saxon, George Peppard, Darlanne Fluegel and most importantly Sybil Danning all lend the film their own brand of B-movie excellence. Danning’s role as Saint-Exmin is something of a Barbarella for the eighties; a coked out, quasi-feminist, over sexed intergalactic warrior whose likeness continues to echo through geek culture to this day.
Battle Beyond The Stars is nobody’s best work, but it does entertain which is all that Corman really sets out to do. It’s worth revisiting these early Star Wars imitators as the Disney re-brand of George Lucas’ most lucrative creation continues to hold sway over our current film culture. I’ve found that most of these B-movie knock offs actually have elements of science fiction that are done more interestingly or more effectively than in the franchise to end all franchises.