Battle Beyond the Stars is Star Wars gone wrong

Battle Beyond the Stars is the rare bad movie worth experiencing. How can you not be at least a little curious about a Roger Corman-produced Star Wars pastiche, starring John-Boy from The Waltons, Hannibal from The A-Team, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., with a screenplay by John Sayles and special effects by a young James Cameron?

Like Starcrash a few years earlier, Jimmy T. Murakami’s Battle Beyond the Stars crassly copies a number of superficial elements from Star Wars: sassy robots, radial wipes, exploding planets, severed arms, and heavy borrowing from Akira Kurosawa and John Sturges (Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven in this case). But it betrays a total cluelessness regarding the real feat George Lucas pulled off: iconic characters, mythic underpinnings, and a tantalizing sense of a larger world worth exploring. Its spaceships, lasers, and robots are all in service of the story, not the other way around — otherwise you wind up with Battle Beyond the Stars, essentially a special effects reel with cursory linking material. As much as Star Wars gets right, Battle Beyond the Stars gets wrong.

As for those aforementioned James Cameron special effects, there sure are a lot of them. The ratio of effects shots to live-action studio footage must be near-equal. There’s a tremendous discrepancy between the level of effort expended on the models and matte paintings, vs the dialogue, characterization, and story.

The performances certainly don’t commend it. Robert Vaughn sleepwalks through it, and George Peppard hambones as an Earth cowboy. Richard Thomas doesn’t seem to have a handle on his character, which I suspect is due to a lack of clarity in the writing & direction. Like Luke Skywalker, he’s an everyman farmboy with aspirations to be a pilot. What appears to make him unique among his people is his ability to pilot a A.I.-powered spaceship, but he later claims to not know anything about computers. He’s also an embittered jerk who seems resentful for the ragtag army that sacrifices everything for his world.

And it would be a waste of time to outline the ways in which it is ridiculously sexist. It’s only 3 years younger than Star Wars, but decades more retrograde.

Vertigo in Space: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solyaris (Solaris) (1972)

The opening credits of Andrei Tarkovsky‘s 1972 film Solaris state it is “based on the science fiction by Stanislaw Lem.” It’s perhaps telling that the term “science fiction” is used in place of simply “novel.” This faint hint of apology may hint at a lack of respect for the original Polish novel or the entire science fiction genre as serious literature. A similar ambivalence echoes decades later in the advertising campaign of director Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake, emphasizing the romantic melodrama over the fantastic, futuristic setting.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey had arrived only a few years before Solaris, and was by a long shot the most serious stab at intellectual, literary science fiction cinema yet filmed. In his essay for the 2002 Criterion Collection DVD edition of Solaris, Phillip Lopate outlines three ways Tarkovky wished to distance his film from Kubrick’s. He found 2001: A Space Odyssey “cold and sterile,” and set out to infuse his own science fiction with “passionate human drama.” Unlike its predecessor’s gleaming high-technology, Tarkovsky built run-down and filthy sets for the space station, and found futuristic earthbound locations in the contemporary cars and architecture of Japan. Finally, Lopate points out that Solaris shares more themes with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo than 2001, namely, “the inevitability of repeating past mistakes.”

Natalya Bondarchuk and Donatas Banionis in Solaris
Kelvin sees dead people

The links between the two films go beyond the thematic into the political; Solaris is frequently cited as the Soviet Union’s answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey, so it ought to be viewed in the context of the Cold War. 2001: A Space Odyssey preceded actual manned moon landings, the US’ most definitive victory in the space race. Kubrick’s visuals were so effective that they spawned the still-simmering rumor that the moon landings were falsified using footage directed by Kubrick. But before all this, 2001: A Space Odyssey must have seemed like a threat or promise made to the USSR: saying, in effect, that the US is going to be first in space and the first to make first contact with alien intelligence.

So in this context, it’s hard not to interpret Solaris as at least partly a propaganda countershot. It too illustrates how the society of its makers and audience also have the brainpower and resources to extend their empire into space. But most unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tarkovsky and co-writer Fridrikh Gorenshtein never allude to politics or even mention the names of other countries. Kubrick’s film envisions no end to the Cold War, even at least thirty years into the future. Kubrick’s vision of the future is actually a wicked satire, showing how little he expects humanity to evolve despite significant technological advances. His future humans still engage in petty squabbles and apocalyptic brinksmanship in the face of a potentially paradigm-shifting revelation: the discovery of definitive evidence of alien intelligence in a manufactured monolith buried on Earth’s moon. The US scientists and government officials investigating the monolith seem unmoved by the powerful notion of alien contact, and instead hold boring boardroom meetings and pose for photographs. In stark contrast, Tarkovsky’s Solaris has no sense of humor at all, about anything. Perhaps the most significant trait Solaris shares with Kubrick is a penchant for long takes. As Lopate also notes in his Criterion essay, atypically for a Russian filmmaker, Tarkovsky favored long takes over Eisensteinian montage.

Donatas Banionis in Solaris
Kelvin inspects the ductwork

In this vision of the future, the Soviet Union operates a scientific research station in orbit over the ocean planet Solaris. An entire school of study called Solaristics has sprung up around the study of the ocean’s peculiar properties. Astronaut Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) returns to Earth with controversial claims that the Solaris ocean somehow creates physical manifestations of landscapes and monstrous creatures on the planet’s fluid surface. Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan), still stationed at Solaris, sends for his old friend, psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis). Berton, haunted and prematurely aged by his experiences, visits Kelvin at his father’s home in an attempt to warn him about what he is surely to experience, but Kelvin rudely dismisses him. We later learn the source of Kelvin’s misanthropy: his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) committed suicide after he left her some years before.

Kelvin arrives at Solaris to discover that Gibarian has already committed suicide. The strange manifestations Berton reported on the Solaris oceans are also occurring on board. Every surviving scientist still aboard the space station is haunted by “guests,” their euphemism for the apparitions that, as best they can determine, are somehow culled from their most emotionally intense memories. In due course, Kelvin’s dead wife reincarnates in a confused, partially-formed state. She is dazed and doesn’t quite understand who she is or why she is there, and doesn’t “remember” that she is dead. When she tries to undress, she discovers her dress is completely sewn shut; Kelvin’s imperfect memories of her apparently don’t include buttons ‘n’ zips. Kelvin also experiences feverish nightmares in which he confuses Hari with his long-dead mother.

Natalya Bondarchuk in Solaris
The twice-doomed Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk)

In a kind of filmed suicide note, Gibarian tells Kelvin the manifestations have “something to do with conscience,” indicating that the common origin of every guest is that they are each the primary object of guilt in an individual’s mind. Gibarian asks Kelvin “did you see her yet?” suggesting that he sent for him because he correctly predicted Kelvin’s guest would be his dead wife Hari. The presence of Gibarian’s guest (a little girl) was evidently for him an intolerable curse, but perhaps he imagines it would be a gift for Kelvin to have Hari back. But the whole situation begs the question: if the authorities know about the manifestations, why would they agree to send such a psychologically damaged man as Kelvin?

When Kelvin attempts to leave Hari alone in his quarters, the not-quite-human creature manages to smash through the doorway in pursuit. She instinctively doesn’t want to be left alone, but can’t explain why. A suitable science fiction explanation might be that she somehow senses that she may literally dematerialize when Kelvin’s brain is not within proximity. Or her newly-formed mind may be suffering echoes of what the “real” Hari felt when she committed suicide after Kelvin left her. What if Kelvin becomes comfortable living with this reincarnation of Hari, and his guilt for the original woman’s death lessens… will her reincarnation then disappear?

Donatas Banionis in Solaris
Kelvin at home in Mother Russia

An observation: like Lindsay Anderson’s If…, Solaris uses a mixture of black & white and color film. For most of the first hour, black & white footage initially signifies either film clips or teleconferencing (note that the film correctly predicts widescreen HDTV monitors and webconferencing in the future). But later sequences appear in black and white, without internal justification: first as Berton drives dejectedly back into the city (filmed in the alien landscapes of Japan), and later as Kelvin locks himself in his cabin on Solaris. To confuse the matter still further, Kelvin brings a home movie with him from Earth, which is in color! I don’t have a theory to explain these logical discrepancies; I’m just pointing them out.

I’m surprised to find to find that I did not like the film as much as my first viewing almost a decade ago. Solaris is as talky and overwritten as its ostensible model 2001: A Space Odyssey is elegantly quiet. Totally self-serious and humorless, its three-hour running time is frankly a little trying on the patience. In his 1977 appreciation of the film reprinted in the Criterion edition booklet, Akira Kurosawa reports he was stunned by the expense when he visited the set, equivalent to 600,000,000 yen at the time. But he defends the significant length of the early scenes set on Earth, which he interprets to be intended to instill nostalgia for Kelvin leaving nature behind forever. Indeed, the time spent on Earth in the early parts of the film does prefigure a significant homecoming at the end, when Kelvin seems to return to a dreamlike vision of his father’s house. The formerly lush and moving natural scenery landscape is now wasted and frostbit. It rains inside as well as out, suggesting a kind of baptism or rebirth in the waters of Solaris.


Must Read: Solaris by Phillip Lopate

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Seven Samurai protect others to save themselves in Akira Kurosawa’s Shichinin no samurai

Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is awesome and perfect, and this most recent viewing has affirmed its place among this blogger’s all-time favorites. It’s a big movie, by which I mean it makes the best use of its generous running time with just the right amount of everything: romance, comedy, drama, suspense, and action. Nearly half the film is taken up by a massive, expertly choreographed battle rivaling anything put to film by famous Western directors of violent spectacle like Michael Mann or Steven Spielberg. Long as it is, it’s about 15 minutes shorter than Gone With the Wind but twice as epic, twice as substantial, twice as… well, twice as good.

It is, in some ways, a simple tale broadly told. A rice farming village in 16th century Japan is under constant siege by a band of parasitic bandits that abduct its young women and regularly steal most of its annual yield. With no government or military to protect them, the villagers pool their meager resources to hire seven ronin (masterless samurai reduced to surviving hand-to-mouth as mercenaries) to fight on their behalf. The archetypal characters seem simplistic on the surface: villains to boo and heroes to cheer. In case the viewer have any doubt as to who the bad guy is, the chief bandit wears a black eyepatch, for crying out loud! Kambei (Takashi Shimura), the supremely capable and wise leader of the samurai, essentially lays down a universal definition of “hero” with his recruitment call: “There’s a tough battle ahead, leading to neither money nor rank. Will you join us?”

Seven Samurai
You messed with the wrong ronin

And yet, many subtleties gradually unfold. Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is one of the great pleasures of the movie, but also one of its greatest mysteries. He’s clownish and childishly impulsive, yet passionately moral. He’s a commoner masquerading as a samurai, his only certification being his ridiculously long sword (presumably the liberated former possession of a very tall samurai). Kambei, whom in another life could have been a good shrink, correctly deduces Kikuchiyo’s motivations for having attached himself to the venture; he himself is a peasant farmer with pretensions for more. He directly identifies with the farmers’ plight, yet his deep-seated class insecurities fuel his a love-hate relationship with them. As an essay by Kenneth Turan in the Criterion Collection edition booklet points out, medieval Japan was a fiercely delineated caste society, and the fact that a former farmer might presume to call himself a samurai is a huge transgression. For a very different, more subdued dramatic performance by Mifune, see Kurosawa’s Stray Dog.

As we learn more about Kikuchiyo, we likewise slowly get a more and more complex portrait of the villagers. They are no doubt the victims of a serious crime. Yet they whine all the way and mythologize themselves as helpless, saintly, victimized salt of the earth that must resort to hiring disgraced samurai to protect them. But they harbor a dark secret; they have robbed many fallen samurai of their armor and weapons over the years Their veritable armory of pilfered gear of war is useless to them, and yet they shamefully hide it from the samurai protecting them (even though it would bolster their coming war). The seven samurai are deeply offended, and yet nevertheless do the right thing and defend the village. But the gulf between the two classes, samurai and farmer, is reaffirmed.

Seven Samurai
He’s a wild and crazy samurai

Seven Samurai is in the company of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Citizen Kane, and Vertigo, a special class of film so famously influential that even first-time viewers may very well feel they’ve seen it before. Just to name a few of Seven Samurai’s first-generation offspring: The Magnificent Seven is an unapologetic transposition of the original from feudal Japan to the American West. The Dirty Dozen and Ocean’s Eleven both borrow the trope of recruiting a gang of misfits one-by-one, whom in concert become capable of strengths impossible as individuals. Another American-produced remake is scheduled for release in 2009, this time set in modern-day Thailand.

The 2006 Criterion Collection edition is a required library item, not one to merely rent. A magnificent restoration of the film itself is accompanied by a beautifully designed sleeve and booklet. A surprising amount of damage remains in the long battle sequence in the second half of the film, but Criterion’s reputation for quality ensures that these are almost certainly the best available materials. Perhaps these reels were more frequently subjected to torture over the years by scholars?

Why you need to read the booklet:

  • Kenneth Turan on the full year of production it took to make the film, mirroring the time that passes in the movie. On a practical level, the extended production allows for greater realism like Kambei’s hair realistically growing back after shaving his head in the beginning (the topknot is a prized symbol of the samurai; not just a fashion but a requirement of their caste). But also on a thematic level, one year = the farming cycle of life: planting through harvest.
  • Peter Cowie on the mutual admiration society between Kurosawa (a fan of the Hollywood Western) and John Ford.
  • Philip Kemp on 16th Century Japan. The feudal society had little distinction between ronin and bandits.
  • Peggy Chiao on Kurosawa’s influences. Kurosawa was a Marxist in his 20s, but later mellowed. His older brother turned him on to Dostoyevsky, but committed suicide.
  • Alain Silver on Kurosawa’s staging and composition.
  • Stuart Galbraith IV on the historical context of the contemporary Japanese cinema, which was flourishing at the time.
  • Appreciations by directors Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn.
  • Toshiro Mifune’s quite funny and entertaining reminiscences. Mifune claims he devised his character, as nothing had been written yet when he was cast.

Supplemental features on the bonus discs:

  • “Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create” – an almost excessively hagiographic biography, but with several amusing anecdotes. Shooting all year meant continuing through February’s freezing mud, while Mifune was almost naked. Kurosawa dutifully stood in the mud with his cast and crew, and was literally frostbitten.
  • “Seven Samurai: Origins & Influences” – “The Story of the 47 Ronin” was a popular puppet theater tale for hundreds of years, and was adapted into films several times a year in early Japanese cinema. One of those observations that sounds obvious in retrospect, but needs to be pointed out by somebody: Ronin (pronounced by some as “roh-ee-nin”) stories are more popular than samurai stories because they are inherently more dramatically interesting.
  • “My Life in Cinema: Akira Kurosawa” – a long interview by fellow director Nagisa Oshima.

Must read: the Criterion Contraption review by Matthew Dessem