Underrated space epics to see before Guardians Of The Galaxy

Odd List Rob McLaughlin 28 May 2014 - 06:25

Rob salutes some underrated space epics that might just get you in the mood for Marvel's Guardians Of The Galaxy...

The upcoming Guardians Of The Galaxy sees Marvel, for the first time, indulging in an interstellar action adventure. It's a path that cinema has trodden before, unsurprisingly - although rarely with such a budget behind it. Instead, back in the 80s and 90s, filmmakers had to make do with what they had. As it turned out, they managed really rather well.

So, let's take a look at some of the most underrated or overlooked space operas of the 80s and 90s - starting with a high profile one that's rather broken, but not without its merits...

The Chronicles Of Riddick

We're not starting from the highest base here, but The Chronicles Of Riddick - the bloated follow-up to Pitch Black - still has its merits. It's a huge, expensive, space-faring epic, with a plot that lets the side down. On the upside, it's visually stunning.

It stars, of course, Vin Diesel (who's voicing Groot in Guardians Of The Galaxy), and it expands the Riddick space universe into a space opera of sorts, with the likes of Dune and Star Wars a clear template.

Riddick himself is an archetypal 1980s action hero bad-ass with polished eyes and a death wish, whose opponents - the Necromongers - are as good as any Empire or Federation. Essentially up against super-powered zombie spacemen thingies, this one man versus insurmountable odds story has been done before and done better. But The Chronicles Of Riddick does spark into life sporadically, and is worth a look for the sheer spectacle of it.

Flash Gordon

Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon comic strip was first published in 1934 but most people remember the character from the 1980s film that starred Sam Jones and Melody Anderson. Eccentric, vivid and just plain out there, the film - whilst not a massive hit at the time - has become a cult favourite thanks to its continual references in pop culture (it seems to be Seth MacFarlane's favourite film for a start). And, of course, there's the amazing soundtrack from Queen which even now is still riff-tastic, pompous and musically brilliant.

Campy, fun and packed with outer-space adventure, Flash Gordon has Max von Sydow at his most sinister (surely this was his Star Wars: Episode VII audition), Ornella Muti at her most seductive and of course Grampy Rabbit himself (Sir) Brian Blessed at his most shouty.

If Guardians Of The Galaxy does indeed go for the eccentric and the odd, and fully embraces the sheer enthusiasm of having a film set full in alien worlds packed with creatures and one liners, then really, Flash is the film to beat. Diiiiiiiiiiiiiiivvvvvvvveeeee....

Starchaser: The Legend Of Orin

If George Lucas ever tracked this one down, he'd be entitled to have an interesting chat with the animators of this 1985 epic. It not so much paid homage to Star Wars, as, er, stopped three paces short of the photocopier.

Potential lawsuits aside though, this slick animation sees a blonde-haired muppet ‘inherit’ (well, nick) a mythical sword from the crystal mines where he is held prisoner. Before you can say ‘may the Force be with you’ he teams up with a Obi-Wan style mentor and battles an evil galaxy-spanning empire with the help of a rag-tag bunch of space cowboys.

Animation-wise, this is actually a pretty decent movie, with a lot of rotoscoping of characters to add a real fluid movement to a lot of the action. In that sense it has the same feel as Ralph Bashki’s take on Lord Of The Rings. A bit more originality might have helped though...

Battle Beyond The Stars

The first and probably biggest success from Roger Corman's space-opera period, Battle Beyond The Stars, borrowed from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress as much as Star Wars does. Certainly Corman dipped into the same creative well, and also into The Seven Samurai, for his first space epic.

Battle Beyond The Stars involves a peaceful race called Akir (named after Akira Kurosawa) that employs a variety of freelancers, assassins, and mercenaries to help defeat John Saxon's evil Sador. Sador's Star Destroyer-like ship contains the most powerful weapon in the galaxy. Not the Death Star but the, er, Stellar Converter.

Packed with melon-headed mutants who fly froggy-like ships, the film is silly fun that, in truth, also feels like it doesn't have an original idea for the duration of its running time. It goes as far as to re-cast Robert Vaughn in exactly the same role he took in The Magnificent Seven, itself of course a take on The Seven Samurai.

Battle Beyond The Stars (which also has big star names such as George Peppard and Sybil Danning in its cast) is a fun, cheap space opera that unashamedly 'liberates' all the best bits from Star Wars, Buck Rogers and numerous westerns. The film has a certain noteriety, not only for being a cheap parody of Lucas classic space opera but for also employing as a young eager filmmaker by the name of James Cameron who assisted in devloping the sets, ships and special effects for the film.

Using cobbled together footage of space ship battles from other movies, you don't get shortchanged in entertainment terms at least. After all, where else can you see a Russ Meyers-style Valkyrie warrior fight side by side with a ‘V’ reject and a set of aliens whose transport seems to have come straight from a cover of an ELO album...

Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone

Long before donning the heavy metal get-up for RoboCop, Peter Strauss - along with a pre-Ghostbusters and Congo Ernie Hudson and a young Molly Ringwald - spent some time in the notorious Forbidden Zone, a sci-fi nightmare ruled over by the evil cyborg Overdog (an over the top Michael Ironside).

Set to be shown in 3D, Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone would actually find its feet in the-then emerging video market. Perfect for ten year-olds with short attention spans (that's us in the 80s), the mix of evil monsters, robots and a huge big labyrinth of death at the end understandably helped make the film a lot of friends. In effect, it was essentially a computer game made in sections that never really lasted more than ten minutes apiece. When the hero completed each level/boss, he moved onto another more challenging environment. Think a mix of a teenage Mad Max with a splash of Waterworld.

Mind you, realistically Spacehunter was a hammy run of the mill B-movie, but because it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than that, it still has an innate charm.


Arena is a sort of WWE with aliens, and the main star of this one is Babylon 5’s Claudia Christian. The film is set on-board a satellite, which just happens to have an Ultimate Fighting Championship-style octagon on it where racers from across the universe can battle evenly in the ‘Arena’. That's thanks to some nifty technology that makes everyone’s strength around an equal level. Thus, it’s the martial arts and skill that counts rather than brute strength.

Enter, then, the aptly named hero Steve Armstrong, along with his four-armed best mate. They have to battle monsters from across the galaxy, all within 90 minutes of B-grade pap. And it's hugely entertaining B-grade pap at that, with no shortage of latex-clad actors battering the hell out of each other.

Arena gets bonus points too for the person who penned the copy for the back of the video box. They'd clearly not watched the film, as they seemed to know but half the story, and got the main bad guy's name wrong. That's our job.

Enemy Mine

Starring Dennis Quaid and a plastic covered Lou Gossett Jr (it's not his best look, in truth) this sci-fi epic has a soldier from Earth crash landing on an alien world. There, he encounters another survivor from the enemy species known as the ‘Dracs’. The same Dracs he was fighting before.

Banding together for self-survival they learn each other’s language, share ‘moments’ and eventually forge a friendship. What it adds up to is one of the weirdest ‘buddy’ movies from the 1980s, especially when Lou Gossett Jr's Drac character, Jeriba, has a baby. It predated Junior by many years.

An odd one this, but with some top special effects, and, er, plenty to talk about afterwards...

The Last Starfighter

Welcome to the Star League! When an alien testing/recruitment unit console (read: a 1980s arcade cabinet) gets delivered to a caravan park, it’s up to teenager Alex to get the high score and in turn be enlisted into the Star League (space baldies). The task at hand? To help battle a set of lizard-like monsters with cool red armour via the last remaining Starfighter spaceship.

A real treat of the 80s this, an indulgent mix of wish-fulfilment and escapist pleasure. Thus, while the visual effects have not aged well, it matters not a jot. The true heart of the film remains, and the adventures of Centari, Grig and the residents of the ‘Starbright, Starlight’ caravan park still bring a smile to our face.

Our full lookback at the film is here.

Galaxy Of Terror

Let's finish off with another Roger Corman classic, a good and more adult-focused horror sci-fi movie that shows that the master of rip-off wasn’t afraid to just borrow from Star Wars but also was more than happy to take a fair chunk of Alien as well.

Along with its 'sister' film, Forbidden World (aka Mutant), this is highly watchable stuff that transcends its ultra-low budget. Sure, it's packed full of familiar footage, but there is still a little more to it than just a standard B-movie sci-fi epic (such as Star Crash).

The cast includes Happy Days’ Eri Moran, cult favourite Sig Haig (as a crystal obsessed warrior) and Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund.

Furthermore, Galaxy Of Terror is actually quite atmospheric and creepy, and has a very down to earth sci-fi feel. Apart from a questionable bit with a monster worm, the effects, creatures, ships and actual sci-fi foundations are pretty good. Plus the reveal at the end adds a bit of grandeur and high-concept sci-fi to the whole film.

Fun, a little scary and jam packed with some gory visual effects, it’s a low-budget space opera that only Roger Corman could get away with.

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The effects weren't cobbled together from other films. James Cameron and others created them for the movie. Roger Corman then used them for other films such as Space Raiders and Android. I don't think he used the main ship, Nell, again though; with its two massive breasts at the front it was a bit too unique.

Yup. Nell was used in space raiders. Which is great as its named after some 80s 10p crisps. Heehee boob ship

No David Lynch's 'Dune' then, surely a better film than any mentioned above? An underrated and sometimes genuinely transcendent film that was butchered by the studio in post sadly... had the DeLaurentiis' and Universal given Lynch the two-and-a-half-hour maximum running time he was contracted from day one to deliver a film no longer than, it would have been immeasurably better and infinitely more satisfying!

Was tempted to do Dune. However the above are all a bit of fun and most quite BMovie. I love Dune with a passion it is in a class all of its own. The recent doc about the aborted version looks superb

Most of The Last Starfighter's Earth bound action takes place at a trailer park, they even call it that in the movie.

Why has Riddick got a massive dildo strapped to his back?

Surprised you didn't mention James Horner's score for 'Battle' which made the whole affair seem a lot more expensive than it was!

He, of course, went on to score Star Trek II with a main overture that sounds ever so familiar...

Another favourite of mine as a kid, which may very well be getting another viewing before GotG, was Starcrash.

...and it had Michael Knight at the end!

Ahhhh bonus+1 for the Peppa Pig reference.

Starcrash has two really good reasons to watch it

I love that score. - That and Krull

I had to - I have a 2 year old and its on all the time

I know your pain man ....... I know your pain. And I needed counselling after spending an entire day in Peppa Pig world when my daughter was 2 ....... I still wake at night screaming the theme tune.

No mention of The Fifth Element or Titan A.E.? For shame, guys. FOR SHAME.

Well I stand utterly corrected. I always thought that Star Wars and Battle Beyond the Stars came out in the same year, when actually there was three years difference (SW being earlier), which begs the question, why on earth would you make pap like BBTS having already seen Star Wars?

we are trying to ween her off it..on Ben and Hollys little Kingdom and Sarah and Duck both of which are awesome

it gets quite lonely in space

Spacehunter was Peter Strauss not Peter Weller!

It's a film starring Vin Diesel. Do I really need to spell this out?

It is...im really sorry. He was the star of....erm actually it seems this is the only film he did. Wow!

I presume you are referring to Christopher Plummer and Marjoe Gortner ;-)

Some favs of mine in there, especially Flash Gordon, Last Starfighter (we used to watch it end of term every year in primary school!) Enemy Mine and Space Hunter (Strauss not Weller). If you're going for B movie fodder, how about Space Truckers from 1996 with Dennis Hopper and Stephen Dorf? I really enjoyed that movie! I, er, don't know why though!

underdog... brings memories.

In addition to some of these listed, and the aforementioned Starcrash in my post below, I think I am going to have to add The Black Hole to my summer space opera viewing too - The film which, after seeing it when it came out on VHS, made my 4 year old brother wake up in the night screaming "The red man is coming to get me!!!"

My mum took me to see The Empire Strikes Back on release a year earlier (TBH didn't appear on VHS until 1981) but he wasn't allowed to come because she thought Darth Vader would be too scary for his tiny three year old mind (of course this plucky five year old was well equipped to deal with the terrors) so what made her think that the psychedelic mindscrew that is The Black Hole would be suitable is beyond me.

It's not strapped to his back, he's holding it ;)

I was getting through the list and I thought "ooh, they should have Enemy Mine" and there it was followed by my one of my favorite movies as a kid. I was going to suggest "Flight of the Navigator" but a space epic it is not.

Probably cos the black hole was Disney

Good call on that - must have been misleading for many parents.

Fun Fact: The Black Hole is the first ever live action Disney film to feature the murder of a main human character. And what a way to go: having your stomach drilled out by a seven foot tall satanic robot phallus.

It's like they were sat in the writing room saying "We're going to kill someone for the first time ever - how extreme can we make it?"

Sybil Danning in Battle Beyond the Stars has a /cough/ special place in my heart /cough/
Well worth tracking down the Ice Pirates and Megaforce for more campy space fun!

Hunter Prey should be on this list. One of the most underrated budget sci-fi films I've seen in a long time.

A lot of it is set back on earth, but come on Lifeforce, it's mankind's greatest achievement.

No 5th element? Oo I am disappoint.

I wholeheartedly agree with the above statement

Well, he did provide the voice of Justin, the heroic leader of the rats, for The Secret of NIMH.

Its focusing on not well known (anymore) films. 5th element was huge and very well known.

Nice mention of Chronicles, it's not the greatest film in the world but it's a decent space film. I truly hope and believe that Guardians will be the new Serenity!

"Underated" films it said. If your going to have 5th element or Titan A.E., you might as well go full hog and have star wars in there. But that sort of misses the point.

wheres the Ice Pirates? Space Herpes et al.

Now could you not mention that "Galaxy of Terror" was James Cameron's first (second unit) Directorial effort?

Enemy mine was a favorite of mine when I was young.

The last star fighter!

Peter Weller wasn't in Space Hunter, that was Peter Strauss.

Hell yeah it is! I love that movie!

Can't complain with Riddick, Last Starfighter, Enemy Mine, and Flash. Would like to have seen Krull on the list as well.
"Here is the knowledge you seek!!!"

A website called Den of Geek should be more careful with its lingo... Calluing the Necromongers in chronicles of Riddick Necromancers is a small glitch, but mistaking rotoscoping for ray tracing can't really be waved away. Geeks are known to go to war upon this sort of misses... (whoops, one already did...)

Farscape, you guys. You forgot Farscape.

What a great film.

Absolutel loved Enemy Mine, the directors cut of Chronicles (my favourite of the three) and Last Starfighter. Very much underrated classics in my opinion.

I'm not sure they're classics in as much as we watched them as kids and still enjoy that retro feel to them. Anyone seeing this for the first time today may want to punch you in the nose for recommending most of these films.

That aside I remember most of these from my childhood, except Riddick of course, and my friends and I still quote the hell out of them. Particular favourites include the singing alien in Battle Beyond the Stars and the Overdog's greatest line "I lied."

Also Battle Beyond the Stars borrows heavily from the Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven rather than Hidden Fortress.

I haven't seen Megaforce but the other 2 I have fond memories of

I really like "The Last Starfighter". It had franchise potential, which makes me disappointed that there never was a sequel.

Your mum's holding it.

Yes. In a manner that a child would understand.

All of those films except chronicles of Riddick and Enemy Mine are abject toss.
Chronicles of Riddick was a marvellous film that could have launched a fascinating universe.
Instead they make a 3rd Riddick film that was as underwhelming as the first Riddick film.
Way to sink a franchise guys !
Enemy Mine was just cheesy 80s sci fi with a fat budget and done right.

Flash Gordon, Last Starfighter and Battle Beyond the Stars in the same article; have you been hacking into my Netflix account????!!!!

Best article, ever!!

Maybe at the time of filming... Certainly not now :(

Considering I've always leaned towards Marvel Cosmic over the Mutant or Earth bound hero's (as awesome as they are), the interstellar lot have always been my favourites so this GoTG movie is like candy land for me.
Thanos, The Collector, Drax, Gamora, Ronan the Accuser, Korath, Nova Corps, I can't believe I'm going to see this bunch on the big screen.

Flash Gordon isn't underrated... I thought a lot of people were well aware of the fact it's one of the best films EVER

Ive seen battle beyond the stars 27 times, Think I originally saw it at the Gaumont in Doncaster , come to think of it, I think I saw Flash there too.I saw Starchaser and Spacehunter in 3D at the ABC. I first watched Enemy Mine on VHS , and it made my mum cry at the end, dozy woman.The rest I either rented , or borrowed from my aunt , who had an offy/video shop in Sprotbrough, apart from Riddick( Blockbuster had opened up by then).All these films remind me of my childhood, so this article has really put a smile on my face!

Titan A.E. was a big box office failure, and it's even nº6 on DenOfGeek list of the most underrated films of 2000. So It might also be included here

You mention Megaforce without Solarbabies as a double feature? Heretic!

Because he was also in the prequel, Pitch Black.

Oh, sorry, misread your question. I thought you said why has Riddick got a massive dildo in the starring role.

I need to see all of these!
I miss the animated "Titan A.E" on the list. It even has a connection to the marvel CU through Wheadon who is one of the screenwriters for it, his input in the dialouge is unmistakable!

We used to love 'Galaxy of Terror' because it was the "Joanie gets her face ripped off" movie.
When home video first came out we would rewind that scene over and over.
It would be nice to see John Carpenter's 'Dark Star' somewhere on this list.

How different is the director's cut of Chronicles? I've not seen it.

Even geeks have better things to do with their time than declare jihad over Chronicles of Riddick.

Solarbabies/Warriors. hey whats the best way to get around this desert and rock filled futuristic wasteland...hey how about roller-skates they will be effective! Love the film though

You havent seen Megaforce? Drop everything and watch it NOW!!! LOL. It's like Mad Max crossed with Xanadu!

Arena brings back memories, I remember watching it on VHS rental and it had a trailer for Robot Jox before hand...

Kk dude will give it a punt

Flash Gordon underrated?!? It's a much-loved cult classic!! What are you on about?

These are classics. Other than arena, which I haven't seen, these are among ny favorite scifi films and part of a category I might call the Comfort Zone, in that I can watch them any time and they make me feel good and warm and fuzzy.

I could see guardians potentially joining these ranks of the sublime


Sybil Danning, Tanya Roberts and Sandahl Bergman.... the early 80's had some wonderful leading ladies in both sci-fi and fantasy, sadly today hollywood has lost its spirit of adventure stuck in a loop of perpetual reboots.

I love all those movies mentioned above, all have their flaws but they entertained me and still do in ways modern cinema not only can't but more importantly won't.

Hurray for nostalga, playboy pinup leading ladies and imagination with ambition.

Not the first time they did it either ('Necromancers') - its quite disgraceful. I think they do it on purpose to ENRAGE ME!

he he Alien raper in Galaxy of terror!

It's boob-a-riffic, to be sure...

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