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I Can’t Believe It’s Not Star Wars: Live Fast, Fight Well

The modern blockbuster, as typified by Jaws and Star Wars, is the B-movie writ large. The current mainstream cinema landscape is driven by concepts and stories that, in the past, would have been considered the domain of schlocky exploitation films and low-budget film serials. One of the earliest filmmakers to bridge the somewhat tenuous gap between two eras of popular cinema is independent filmmaking trendsetter Roger Corman, producer of over 300 films and mentor of many influential filmmakers, including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante and Ron Howard. The key to Corman’s longevity is his eye for talent and his keen understanding of the kinds of movies people want to see. Case in point: consider 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars.

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The untold adventures of Han Solo’s father, Napoleon.

Released a few months after the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back, this shoestring science fantasy, helmed by animator Jimmy T. Murakami and written by Oscar nominee John Sayles, comes closer than most Star Wars imitators to realizing that one of the things that made A New Hope work was its atmosphere. The attention to detail in Battle’s art direction, overseen by a pre-Terminator James Cameron, gives the movie a substance that outshines its roots as a shameless, word-for-word Seven Samurai retelling. The other aspect that elevates Battle above other Star Wars clones is the relatively naturalistic direction. Some of the acting is refreshingly subtle compared to campier space opera fare. In particular, Robert Vaughn providing a somewhat moving performance as the wealthy, solitary assassin Gelt. Granted, he’s portraying the same character he played in The Magnificent Seven, but it’s worth it just to see his moody introductory scene.

For an opportunistic cash grab made to capitalize on Star Wars mania, Battle Beyond the Stars has a surprising amount of sincerity and craft, which gives it a good amount of rewatch value. Overall, Battle feels like the cinematic equivalent of a good cover band: it may not deliver the full experience but it’ll most certainly try.

Credit: Roger Corman [Official YouTube Page]

“Let’s get ourselves together”: Abar, the First Black Superman

With the premiere of Marvel’s promising Afrofuturist adventure Black Panther closing in, interest in black superheroism has reached a fever pitch. However, instead of a retrospective on the impact of Blade, a reflection on what went so very wrong with Steel, or a discussion of the hidden charms of M.A.N.T.I.S.I’m going to take a look at 1977’s Abar, the First Black Superman, an offbeat offering in the rare subgenre of blaxploitation science fiction.

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Billed as the “first black science fiction film”, Abar is the sole directorial effort by Frank Packard, based on a story written by James Smalley and co-star J. Walter Smith, who portrays Dr. Kinkade, a black scientist who hires ass-kicking activist John Abar (Tobar Mayo) to protect his family from neighborhood bigots. After drinking a superpowered serum concocted by Kinkade, Abar uses his newly developed mental and physical abilities to clean up the hood.

Abar is a tonally strange film, which is both its biggest boon and flaw. The movie’s a lot of fun to watch, even when it struggles to balance the multiple identities that it establishes for itself, which include a fantastical morality tale, a politically charged sermon on the African-American experience, and an action-packed slugfest in the vein of the Jim Kelly vehicle Black Belt Jones. The acting is similarly erratic, with Mayo and Smith carrying the film while the other performances range from unremarkable to cartoonishly exaggerated.

While it probably won’t be lauded for any skillful storytelling or filmmaking, I appreciate Abar for representing an early attempt to tell a bigger, weirder and more inspiring story in the realm of black cinema.

Credit: Paul Kazee

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Star Wars: Are They Missing Any Limbs?

As one of the biggest breakout characters in the original Star Wars trilogy, the mischievous smuggler Han Solo has been widely imitated in many works inspired by (or plagiarizing) the films. With 1983’s Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Columbia Pictures and director Lamont Johnson (The Twilight Zone) reached what they felt was the logical conclusion: make an incredible simulation of the Millennium Falcon’s captain into the hero of the movie.

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Forbidden Zone? Say hello to George Taylor for me.

The results are mixed, to say the least. As the interstellar bounty hunter Wolff, Peter Strauss (The Jericho Mile) does his best Harrison Ford impression but he’s not given the chance to show the vulnerability that made Ford’s portrayal of Captain Solo work. It doesn’t help that the performances from the rest of the cast are all over the place. On one hand, Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters) gives a surprisingly natural turn as Wolff’s old rival and Michael Ironside (Total Recall) is fairly menacing as the cybernetic heavy, Overdog. On the other hand, Niki, the young scavenger played by Molly Ringwald (The Breakfast Club), comes across like every stereotypical annoying teenager ever known. These eclectic performances seem to obscure what Strauss is going for and, as a result, Wolff is lost in the shuffle. On a more positive note, the film is visually appealing, if derivative. Of particular interest are some of Overdog’s mutant henchmen, with unearthly designs that wouldn’t look out of place in your average 80’s horror flick.

Overall, Spacehunter’s willingness to throw as many bizarre concepts at the audience as possible is both its greatest strength and flaw. Though the film’s short run-time hampers its potential to fully realize its numerous settings and characters, it never drags out or complicates the exciting story it wants to tell.

Credit: Mondo Digital

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Star Wars: A Nut Inside a Tomato

There’s a lot to examine when it comes to understanding how Japanese cinema has influenced the Star Wars films. From the overall concept of the Jedi to direct homages to the works of Akira Kurosawa and Toho Studios, George Lucas and his team have made their appreciation of Japanese films very open. Toei’s 1978 space opera Message from Space (Uchū kara no Messēji) is an obvious cash-in on the Star Wars craze that takes a cue from Lucas’s creation by drawing inspiration from an acclaimed Kurosawa film.

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JFK once said space is the new ocean but this is ridiculous.

Compared to the more subtle allusions to 1958’s The Hidden Fortress in Star Wars, Message from Space, directed by the innovative Kinji Fukasaku (Tora! Tora! Tora), is a space-age retelling of the 1958 classic Seven Samurai, in which a band of misfits are chosen by fate to defend the denizens of an oppressed planet from deadly invaders. The performances range from overly energetic, like the Jerry Lewis-esque schemer Jack (Masazumi Okabe), to the surprisingly grounded. Vic Morrow (Combat!) and Sonny Chiba (The Street Fighter) easily carry the movie with their understated depictions of warriors seeking to regain their personal honor by protecting the captive planet. In the same vein, the film’s art design is fittingly erratic, combining the standard “used future” look with the more whimsical fairy-tale imagery.

In its best moments, Message from Space matches the expeditious storytelling and bizarre spirit of the sci-fi serials that motivated Star Wars. It may not be as timeless but it’s certainly one of the most earnest films released in the wake of Lucas’s groundbreaking production.

Credit: The Museum of Classic Chicago Television

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Star Wars: Up Is Hell

We’re a month away from a new Star Wars film that’s apparently so incredible, Lucasfilm is giving director Rian Johnson his own personal Star Wars trilogy to play around with. With hype for the eighth installment of the Skywalker saga at a fever pitch, whet your space opera appetite with a series featuring some of the strangest films inspired by George Lucas’s opus. First on deck is the 1985 animated feature Starchaser: The Legend of Orin.

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Look familiar?

Directed by Steven Hahn and written by Jeffrey Scott (Superfriends, Muppet Babies), Starchaser is essentially the store-brand equivalent of the original Star Wars trilogy, the Sam’s Choice to the OT’s Pepsi. To wit, here’s a tale of a brave but reckless young worker who discovers a magical sword that once belonged to a band of warriors. With the aid of an arrogant outlaw, the courageous daughter of a ruler, and a pair of bickering machines, the young man comes of age and fights a cybernetic warlord. It’s not just the basic story either. Certain shots, set-pieces and even sound effects have been pilfered, almost verbatim, from the classic trilogy (pay close attention to the sounds of the titular starship’s engines as it flies by the camera).

On the plus side, the movie looks good. The animation is fluid and highly expressive in a Rock & Rule/Heavy Metal sort of way and the overall art design, though conventional, shows a good deal of skill and pulp sci-fi influence. By far, the most intriguing designs belong to the flesh-harvesting Man-Droids, who look appropriately nightmarish in their only appearance in the film. For that matter, there are times where Starchaser feels more like a family friendly Heavy Metal, especially in scenes involving Dagg Dibrimi (Carmen Argenziano), the amoral space pirate who could give Captain Sternn a run for his money in the sleaze department. The film seems to find its real voice when it drifts away from its routine nature-versus-technology plot and into these crasser moments.

On balance, Starchaser holds up fairly well. It’s incredibly simple but its infectious zeal and breathless momentum keep it from getting boring. Don’t let the somewhat derivative story keep you away from checking out this visually appealing animated space opera.

Credit: The Popcorn Drop