The Guardians Of The Galaxy movies are Marvel’s stab at 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 Duneand 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.
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 – while not a massive hit at the time – has become a cult favorite thanks to its continual references in pop culture (it seems to be Seth MacFarlane’s favorite 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 VIIaudition), 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 dummy ‘inherit’ (well, steel) 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 an 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 Fortressas 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 knockoff 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 Meyer-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 (like us), 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 Spacehunterwas 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 crap. And it’s hugely entertaining B-grade crap at that, with no shortage of latex-clad actors battering the hell out of each other.
Arena gets bonus points for the person who penned the copy for the back of the video box. They clearly hadn’t 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.
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, 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 armor via the last remaining Starfighter spaceship.
A real treat of the ’80s, it’s 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.
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.
This article first appeared on Den of Geek UK in June 2014.