Star Wars Day, the 4th of May, happened exactly three weeks ago. And like a lot of other geeks worth their salt, I’ve celebrated it for a few years now by imbibing in something Star Wars (if this particular ritual on this particular day doesn’t register with you civilians, think, “May the force be with you,” with a lisp).
This year, however, it occurred to me that the most significant day in the Star Wars franchise was also in May. On May 25, 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope saw release, making today—I’d argue—the real Star Wars Day.
Instead of celebrating Star Wars’ actual birthday by watching some formally-licensed iteration of the franchise, I thought it’d be fun to journey through some of the less-heralded offshoots of George Lucas’s mammoth progeny—Star Wars’ ugly but endearing international red-haired stepchildren, if you will.
Like any mega-successful box office hit, Star Wars spawned a slew of imitations from around the world, most bashed out by less-talented filmmakers with lower budgets. It’s easy to poke holes in the special effects and scripts of these cheaper space operas, but they’re also a helluva lot of fun, and truly surreal viewing.
All of the below films can be accessed for free, on a couple of different platforms, or if you have spare change and prefer not to give Jeff Bezos’ intergalactic empire your financial support, there are some links/suggestions for purchase interspersed throughout. Now, prepare for the jump to Star Wars copycat hyperspace, kids.
Battle Beyond the Stars (1980, streaming on Amazon Prime, Shout Factory Blu-ray/DVD)
It’s pretty common Star Wars geek knowledge that A New Hope borrowed liberally from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai classic, The Hidden Fortress. That point was not lost on low-budget moviemaking trailblazer Roger Corman, who reasoned (understandably) that another Kurosawa film, The Seven Samurai, would likewise make great fodder for a space fantasy. Enter Battle Beyond the Stars.
Akir (Kurosawa reference!), a tiny planet in a galaxy far far away, is threatened with conquest by Emperor Sador (John Saxon), an evil warlord commandeering a giant starship piloted by thick-witted genetic mutants. An idealistic but spunky kid named Shad (Richard Thomas of the now-forgotten ‘70s TV series, The Waltons) escapes in a space ship, combing the galaxies and assembling a ragtag band of outlaws, miscreants, and aliens to help the planet defend itself.
One of the most self-aware (and probably the best) of the Star Wars riffs, Battle sports an intentionally humorous script by future director John Sayles, cool if imperfect visuals, a peppy pace thanks to director Jimmy T. Murakami, and a character-actor-filled cast that’ll give most genre fans the warm-and-fuzzies. Among Shad’s combat buddies are George Peppard, in sort of a dry run for his most famous role as Hannibal, leader of The A-Team; Robert Vaughn, Oscar-nominated two decades previous for playing the exact same part in the classic Seven Samurai western knockoff, The Magnificent Seven; and buxom B-movie action queen Sybil Danning, chewing the scenery as a Space Valkyrie.
Oh, and one of the special effects guys on the movie, James Cameron, went on to a moderately successful career in film himself.
If you’d prefer not to give that Darth Vader of Nerds Jeff Bezos your support, you can hunt up a stream of Battle Beyond the Stars on YouTube, or better yet buy, a DVD or Blu-ray from a nice independent dealer like Diabolik DVD.
Starcrash (1979, Amazon Prime, Shout Factory DVD/Blu-ray), The Humanoid (1979, YouTube)
Italian cinema of the ‘70s and ‘80s was a hotbed of imitation, so every successful movie or sub-genre fad was squeezed by that country’s filmmakers ’til inspiration and box office receipts were wrung dry. Sergio Leone’s revisionist westerns begat hundreds of so-called Spaghetti Westerns. Dirty Harry and The Godfather touched off a wave of Italian-generated knockoffs. Jaws spurred several Italian shark-attack movies. The original Mad Max movies spawned a bunch of Italian post-apocalyptic sci-fi flicks. And when Star Wars hit…Well, you can do the math.
Starcrash follows the exploits of interstellar pilot/pirate Stella Star (British genre queen Caroline Munro), her hippie sorta-Jedi co-pilot Akton (Marjoe Gortner), and Elle, Stella’s southern-accent spouting robot, as they work to thwart the machinations of Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell, Maniac’s Frank Zito himself) a megalomaniac with a cape and ridiculous hair. Director Lewis Coates (AKA Luigi Cozzi) throws all sorts of ridiculous fun at the screen, from Stella’s skimpy/kitschy wardrobe to erector-set giant robots to hairy cavemen to a duel between man and robot using laser swords that are so not light-sabers. As you might ascertain, Starcrash is not high art, but it is a blast.
And talk about strange bedfellows: Oscar-winner John Barry delivers the (genuinely great) musical score, a young David Hasselhoff plays a galactic prince, and future Oscar winner Christopher Plummer grabs a paycheck playing Hasselhoff’s dad.
You can still rustle up a physical copy on DVD or Blu-ray, or stream a pretty decent print of Starcrash on YouTube.
Meantime, one of the weirdest and most hard-to-find Star Wars ripoffs out there is another Italian entry, The Humanoid, which is directed by veteran giallo specialist Aldo Lado and plays like a mildly sleazy, extra-delirious episode of the old Buck Rogers TV series.
A kindly giant of a space traveller, Golob (Richard Kiel), is turned into an unthinking automaton by Lord Graal (Ivan Rassimov), then unleashed on a dumpy desert planet to take shit over. Along the way, you get some hilariously flagrant visual copycatting, right down to Graal’s Darth Vader gone-fetish helmet mask and space ships that look an awful lot like Imperial Star Destroyers.
Most of the films in the SWRU (Star Wars Ripoff Universe) were targeted at undemanding children, but it’s a head-scratching enigma as to who this movie was marketed for. It’s shot in bright, functional lighting like a kids’ show, one of the key protagonists is a precocious psychic kid, and Golob’s best buddy when he’s not a mindless killing machine is a cute robot dog (K.I.T.). But the movie’s rife with plentiful (if bloodless) deaths, explosions, and destruction, as well as one scene straight out of a tawdry horror movie, where second-banana villain Lady Agatha (Barbara Bach) goes all Elizabeth Bathory and drains the life-force of a nude woman.
The Humanoid spawned its own tribute website, and it’s more than entertaining enough to warrant its own official Blu-ray release. Alas, to date you can only find it streaming on YouTube (see above), or as a grey-market bootleg at this website. The YouTube print’s fuzzy and pretty painful to look at, but at least it doesn’t have burnt-in Russian subtitles like the dupey bootleg DVD-R of this movie I bought eons ago.
Message from Space (1978, Amazon Prime, YouTube)
Director Kinji Fukasaku was the guiding force behind the amazing Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, a five-film arc that’s like Japan’s pulpier riff on a multigenerational crime epic a la The Godfather. He also helmed The Hunger Games’ favorite well of inspiration, 2000’s Battle Royale. But Fukasaku also directed dozens of other genre films in his 40-year career, including this extra-fun bit of George Lucas homage.
Two years before Battle Beyond the Stars, this space opera likewise plundered The Seven Samurai, as a handful of disparate space jockeys are summoned by glowing space walnuts (long story) to rescue another doomed planet of pacifists from yet another intergalactic fascist empire.
The effects here are completely unconvincing, but they’re also wonderfully Japanese in color and design: The space vehicles take their visual aesthetic from anime as much as Star Wars, while the bad guys wear kabuki-influenced face makeup, spiky battle armor, and personalities so broad they make the monsters in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers look like shy wallflowers. Somewhere in the mix, the mighty Sonny Chiba (he made Uma Thurman a sword in Kill Bill) wears spiky armor, and veteran character tough guy Vic Morrow wears a floppy pimp hat and fights for the Glowing Walnut forces of good.
The Shout Factory DVD and Blu-ray are now out of print and pricey AF, but if you don’t want to give Jeff Bezos your money, you can still stream the entire movie on YouTube in lieu of hitting Amazon Prime.
The Man Who Saved the World (AKA ‘Turkish Star Wars,’ 1982, YouTube)
The wildest of the Star Wars knockoffs is unquestionably this micro-budgeted Turkish epic, which literally (and liberally) steals special effects footage and music from Star Wars as well as heaps of other well-known films from the west (including musical cues from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Queen’s Flash Gordon soundtrack!). Happily, despite the white-gloved iron Mickey Mouse fist of current franchise-owners Disney, you can still watch the whole movie on YouTube (above), and you may be able to scrape up a grey-market bootleg DVD with sufficient digging.
Rather than prattle on further, I’ll just direct you to some earthshakingly essential background, in the form of a piece I wrote a few years ago, outlining this very special movie in exhaustive detail. The makers of this, and many of the other movies profiled above, would likely appreciate my cost-cutting, recycling spirit.
In the meantime: Happy 43rd Birthday, Star Wars.