I’ll be counting down the days until I see The Force Awakens with a series of remembrances and observations about the franchise. Today, when everybody wanted their slice of the Star Wars pie.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Star Wars sincerely got the living hell flattered out of it. The film’s success opened the floodgates for a wave of copycats who wanted nothing more than to cash in on the public’s new-found mania for spaceships and laser beams. It also pushed science fiction into the mainstream; Star Trek as a cinematic franchise owes its existence to Star Wars convincing Paramount to take its nascent TV revival and blow it up for the big screen. Some of the imitators had a similar prestigious sheen, others were much more ramshackle and rushed, but for a less than discerning adolescent like myself, it was a wonderland.
One of the first to come on the scene was the Japanese opus Message from Space. Now this is by no means a good movie. But it’s done with that typical exuberance found in most Japanese tokusatsu films, where everyone’s giving their all and trying not to notice the cardboard sets and plastic costumes. It’s also hard for me to resist that almost fairy tale look of a ship with sails soaring through space, even if it’s obviously doing so against a painted backdrop around planets hanging from wires. The story wears its Star Wars influences on its sleeve: there’s a princess, an evil empire, dashing pilots, robots, all the ingredients. Except competence. But that’s part of its charm.
Then there was Battlestar Galactica. In a world where you had to go to the movies to get your Star Wars fix, the promise of something like it every week on TV was enough to send us geeks into the throes of ecstasy. Throw in John Dykstra, who did the special effects for Star Wars, and how could it miss? Well, pretty wildly, actually. The pilot looked fantastic. Maybe a little too fantastic; it cost an obscene amount of money, and clips from it would continue to appear throughout the rest of the season because they were paid for. Even still, the weekly budget on the show was astronomical, and while people watched, they weren’t watching in enough numbers to justify the cost. As far as its debt to Star Wars, well, 20th Century Fox would end up suing the production for being a little too similar. Galactica would ultimately win, but well after it had been cancelled. My childhood memories made it seem like this show ran two or three seasons, but it really ran only one before transforming into the truly wretched — and much cheaper — Galactica 1980. But for someone for whom sci-fi on TV had mostly been the same 79 episodes of the original Trek for years, even an expensive, derivative glass of water was still kinda tasty.
But for me, the crown jewel of the Star Wars knock-offs was Battle Beyond the Stars. Leave it to schlock master Roger Corman to know how to exploit something the right way. What Battle lacked in budget it more than made up for with enthusiasm, and for a Corman film, there was a surprising amount of technical polish; not unexpected when a young James Cameron was in charge of the effects. Throw in an early but rousing score from James Horner and a script from John Sayles, and this was more than just a quick attempt to cash in. Which it totally was, don’t get me wrong, but there’s also a genuine affection for the source material here that shines through some of the cheesier moments. It’s only a few steps removed from what we’d been doing in our backyards since 1977, dressing up and acting out our favorite scenes. It’s a film I can still pop in and enjoy even today, removed from the adolescent haze in which anything with a spaceship was automatically at least decent.
And that’s what I loved about that time. Looking back now, yes, most of the imitators weren’t very good. But to a kid just having his eyes opened to the genre, it was great to have those options out there. People trying meant every once in a while some of them would succeed, and the rush of genre filmmaking after Star Wars gave us that magical, dizzying decade of the ’80s where it seemed like anything was at least worth trying once. Without Star Wars, there’d be no Wrath of Khan, no Raiders of the Lost Ark, no Industrial Light & Magic pushing the effects envelope. Genre films still would have come along, but without the budgets and the promotion that the possibility of a Star Wars-like success engendered. The last forty years of popular entertainment seems worth the occasional Message from Space.
The Twelve Days of Star Wars