If there’s one thing Roger Corman likes in his movies, beyond wild excitement and firm budgetary control, it’s knowing that it’s going to make money. Sometimes that means going with a hunch and betting on an outsider idea capturing, and monetizing, the zeitgeist. Sometimes, like here, it means going with what’s been proven to work and hoping that there is enough of a wave of other people’s work to ride into the black on. Or, more specifically, several somethings that have been hammered together and, hopefully, won’t show the welds too much.
The first part of the mix is the timeless classic cowboy movie The Magnificent Seven, itself a rip-off of The Seven Samurai (itself a rip-off of a couple of Japanese folk tales, but folk tales can’t sue). It’s an incredibly simple premise that has been recycled by a countless number of films, so by the 8-minute mark we know the stakes: John-Boy Walton has a limited time to get some hired guns to stop Giant-Face-In-The-Sky Hitler from blowing up Planet Hick.
So off he flies, in a spaceship that only looks like a flying scrotum 80% of the time, into a universe that is totally not a rip-off of Star Wars because the mystic force is The Varda, and Space Hitler is called Sador. Over the course of the next 50 minutes, John-Boy and his spaceships suspiciously chipper-sounding AI encounters a series of monocultures and mild-perils, slowly but surely recruiting a group of misfits, outlaws, affordable character actors, and unconvincing full-body costumes before heading back to Planet Simple-But-Honest-Folk for a ruck.
The Magnificent Seven Of Space (that’s the translation of the movies’ Spanish Title) are mostly disposable, but the writer John Sayles padded the movie out with them so I’m going to do the same here. The two most memorable are Gelt and St Exmin, The Space Valkyrie. Gelt is played by Robert Vaughn and has one scene before he spends the rest of the movie sitting in a cockpit. That’s enough time for him to deliver an absolutely mesmerizing performance as the aged and wanted space bandit, living a miserable life surrounded by riches. He brings pathos, honesty, and tension that no amount of sci-fi mumbo-jumbo can stop hitting you in the heart. If you have the time it’s worth watching it for him alone. Then again, he played the same character in Magnificent Seven so it’s not surprising he hit it out of the park.
St. Exmin The Space Valkyrie is just the living embodiment of every issue of Heavy Metal, brought to life by every adolescent wet-dream of sci-fi fandom. Played by Sybil Danning, her casual outfit is a silver-trimmed space-swimsuit with a matching winged helmet and “bra” that looks disturbingly like hands cupping her ample bosom with strategic positioning and scotch tape. Her combat attire is far more restrained, being half the material needed to make a PVC cat-suit held together by red trimming, bondage chains, and some kind of electro-static wishful thinking. As befitting a young member of a warrior race, her main interests are violence and sex, and possibly violent sex and sexy violence. Plot-wise, her job is telling John-Boy’s love interest/kidnap victim/refugee friend that his puppy eyes and left-behind puddles “means he fancies you” and blowing some shit up whilst making orgasm noises; filmwise, her job is to make every such inclined person under the age of 16 consider this the greatest movie ever.
Rounding that off, we have Cowboy (George Peppard) who’s a cowboy from someplace called “Earth”, Cayman the Lizard thing who has one line of plot to explain why he hates Space-Hitler, a couple of space Death-Furbies called Kelvins, and five members of a hive-mind called Nestor, who absolutely take the piss by delivering a line about not having ears when you can see them quite clearly under the botched-up makeup. They all have backstories, although none of them are worth mentioning and you won’t give a monkey’s which of them lives or dies. Everyone gets back to Space Station Banjo and there is a bit of a fight with The Big Space Bastard; then he bogs off, then he comes back, then a couple of people die, and then the day is won. Woo! Yeah! John-Boy snogs his love interest and the day is won. Honestly, what else were you expecting? The film sets out its stall before the first 10 minutes are done, you know exactly what you’re in for or you should have switched it off. Anyone who thinks it fails on that front is watching the wrong film, simple as that.
It also manages to mostly hold its own on the special effects. Yes, like most things from the early 80s they haven’t aged that well, and the sets and costumes look very Battlestar Galactica. But the spacecraft look pretty damn good, even if they are shot rather boringly and the focus is on people concentrating hard to fly through space without dying, rather than swapping pithy dialogue. Okay, maybe just eye candy for the model nerds.
Where it really fails is in the scale of it all. The big-bad taking over a town works in the Wild West or Edo Japan (or an ant’s nest in A Bug’s Life, or a post-apocalyptic outpost in World Gone Wild), because you can get your head around it. Here you have something the size of a Star Destroyer (but not the exact shape, so no one got sued) turning up to take over a planet that’s got one small village in it, and that just feels impassably silly. You then have John-Boy planet-hopping for three days, which makes the whole universe sound about as big as Essex (and about as violent, especially with the cannibalism). It doesn’t feel like a universe like Star Wars did, it’s what someone would make if they heard Star Wars did well and then completely missed how it managed that.
But the good moments somehow pull it through, and it has enough enjoyably silly elements and hateable bad guys to pull things together. It’s unlikely to make it into your collection if you don’t instantly fall in love with its retro kitsch, but you’ll probably get something out of one viewing if you’re willing to accept it as “of its time” and not the worst Star Wars or Magnificent Seven cash-in ever.