1977 was a big year for science fiction. It’s the year that George Lucas first gave the world Star Wars. And while it’s been said that George himself ‘borrowed’ from a lot of other films to make the Original Trilogy (and from a lot of poor computer games for the latter ones), there were those who jumped on the sci-fi bandwagon at the time and tried, no matter what the quality, to give us more space opera fun.
We salute 11 films and TV shows that tried to be another Star Wars….
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
How can Star Trek copy Star Wars? Well, for the first outing on the big screen for Trek, the premise was a big, galactic cerebral space epic, filled with more high-brow sci-fi elements and a deathly slow plot. It was and still is criticized for it.
For the second movie, however, the writers learned their lesson and found out what people actually wanted in a space opera. Namely, space battles, bad guys, monsters, and lasers, all the things that a few years previously Lucas had provided in a completely different franchise.
It’s ironic that nearly fifteen years later Lucas, in turn, took a look at Star Trek: The Motion Picture and used its slow, meandering dead-behind-the eyes style and made a trilogy of emotionless movies that sapped all the love people had for the original, and turned avid fans and audiences against him. Just an observation.
The perfect fantasy film? Perhaps. But it also bears an uncanny resemblance to Star Wars. Replace Alec Guinness with Freddy Jones as a wise old mentor, Darth Vader with the Beast, and Storm Troopers with Slayers, and you have nearly an identical movie.
Both have rogues helping out the hero, both are filled with mystical forces, and both have UK film stars. In all honesty, Krull would not get made today, as who in their right mind would fund a film where the big dopey one from the Carry On Films plays a Cyclops, a kid from Grange Hill has a major role, there are flying horses, and the main weapon is a killer Frisbee? Uwe, perhaps, but not many others.
Still, because of all those reasons, the film works. Not tied into a franchise, not having to bow to a market group or appease a toy company, Krull works as a piece of unadulterated fantasy film pleasure and is still as good now as it was when I originally saw it.
Additionally, it is also so much better than The Beastmaster and Hawk the Slayer. Just saying.
Message from Space (1978)
It’s said that Lucas mined Japanese films for the more influential scenes in Star Wars, and he’s stated that legends like Akira Kurosawa inspired him to create Star Wars in the first place.
It’s apt, then, that Kurosawa’s own countrymen took it upon themselves to produce this dodgy effort in 1978. In this film, the evil Gavanas wipe out the peaceful planet of Jillucia and it’s up to the eight chosen ones to assist in defeating the evil empire.
While not exactly copied scene for scene, the whole premise of the film is strikingly familiar. There’s that evil empire, chosen people who can use a Force-like power, and there’s even a character called Han in it.
Battle Beyond the Stars (1978)
One of the first films I saw at the cinema, Battle Beyond The Stars begs, steals and borrows from Star Wars, The Magnificent Seven, and, by extension, The Seven Samurai, mixing it all together with the low-budget filmmaking talent that only Roger Corman can provide.
Richard Thomas (yup, John Boy from The Waltons) plays the hero who recruits a band of space warriors to help him protect his home world from the evil John Saxon. Equipped with a sarcastic female spaceship (with boobs), he is helped by a pre-A-Team George Peppard and Robert Vaughn, both of whom I guess did it purely for the money.
The film is silly, over the top, and most importantly, made on a shoestring. Especially the space battles and ship explosion shots, which Corman reused over and over again, both in this film, Mutant (aka Forbidden World), and another no-budget movie called Space Raiders. Space Raiders, for the sake of clarification, should not be confused with low priced British corn-based snacks.
Jason of Star Command (1978)
In a similar vein to the more successful Buck Rogers, Jason of Star Command was a thrifty Saturday morning space opera filled with plastic ships and hammy acting (not to mention James Doohan).
Similar in tone to Star Wars, it also takes its inspiration from the black and white serials, such as King of the Rocket Men, which Lucas was also “inspired by.” Amid cliffhanger endings and stop-motion monsters, Jason, equipped with a massive collared shirt and a handy computer pal called Wiki, helped to defend the universe from Sid Haig’s evil cyborg, Dragos. The Blu-ray special edition is, no doubt, imminent…
A weird Italian sci-fi movie by Luigi Cozzi, Starcrash featured British and American actors and is most notable for the bizarre castings of a very young David “The Hoff” Hasselhoff and Christopher Plummer.
Full of wonky model spaceships, insanely colourful space, and robots that are, frankly, embarrassing, Starcrash is seen by some as a B-movie classic. But those critics would be wrong, as Starcrash is appalling in every sense of the word.
Embarrassingly bad, the film is, for the most part, unwatchable and incoherent. Even the curvy space goddess that was 1970s Caroline Munro as Stellar Star (doing her very best Barbarella impression) and a score by John Barry cannot save this Star Wars rip-off from being a blatant cash-in.
The Last Starfighter (1984)
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 be enlisted into the Star League to help battle a set of lizard-like monsters with cool red armor via the last remaining Starfighter spaceship.
With Centauri replacing Obi-Wan and Grig being a hybrid of Han and Chewie, this is a great movie that is an indulgent mix of wish fulfilment and escapist pleasure.
The Last Starfighter really shows that, while its Star Wars influences are many, the concept of the space opera can be brought down to earth and have a very human (and fun) element to it.
The Black Hole (1979)
With Star Wars raking in millions worldwide, you could imagine the seething and anger boiling away in the ‘House of Mouse’ in the late 1970s. Kids were buying toys based on Star Wars, meaning that there was less pocket money going into the coffers of the Disney merchandise machine.
That was all about to change, however (or so they thought), when two years after Star Wars first hit, Disney unleashed the genius mess that was The Black Hole. Too dark to be a children’s film and yet too flippant to be a serious space opera, it fell between these two camps, making The Black Hole a strange viewing experience.
With lobotomies, cute robots, comedy shootouts, and delusions of godhood, this is a great mash-up of all types of sci-fi films in one.
Add to this, too, the eclectic weird castings, with the likes of Roddy McDowell, Robert Forster, Anthony Perkins, Maximilian Schell, and Ernest Borgnine, all trying their best to hit the right balance. You end up with something trying to be a cerebral European sci-fi tale à la Solaris, while at the same time also trying to sell bucket loads of toys and merchandise.
Battlestar Galactica (1978)
When Glen A. Larson saw Star Wars for the first time, the master of action adventure shows figured that a gigantic space opera would translate perfectly well onto the small screen.
With Buck Rogers also in production, Mr. Larson brought another idea to screen, basing a show on a mix of ancient mythology and sci-fi, and so it was that the original Galactica was born.
This was not, of course, the gritty, edgy Galactica most modern sci-fi fans are familiar with, but rather an easier going, beige, and disco-influenced Galactica, which was full of cigar chomping womanizing pilots, irritating kids, and weird cyborg puppies.
While Galactica was far from a failure and was revered by a lot of fans, you can easily see that the themes of ancient civilizations from a “long time ago” mixed up with lasers and space battles, and faceless Cylons, all give more than just a general nod to the mythology of Star Wars, the Force, and the Empire.
Starchaser: The Legend of Orrin (1986)
Before Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series, and even Droids and Ewoks, there was another animated Star Wars cartoon. It was called Starchaser: The Legend Of Orrin and, well, it actually has nothing at all to do with Star Wars, apart from being exactly the same story.
Released three years after Return of the Jedi, this sword (or should that be lightsaber?) and sorcery epic is an animated tale about a robotic empire run by main villain Zygon, who is a robot dressed in a man suit and is in no way similar to Vader, who is a man dressed in a robot suit. Starchaser also contains a chosen one, a mystical sword, and a space pirate. Yup, all the elements are here in animated rip-off glory.
One plus point for Starchaser is that the animation is actually pretty good. Using the Ralph Bakshi-style rotoscope methods, the characters movements are all fluid and quite real for hand-drawn animation and the ships aren’t too bad either.
It’s just a shame that the entire film is an absolute rip-off story-wise.
Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983)
A space pirate, a spunky “princess,” a half man/half robot nemesis and, erm, Ernie Hudson playing a dead ringer for Billy Dee Williams’ Lando. You can see that Spacehunter did more than, er, “take a few hints and tips” from Star Wars.
Released in 3D, the film has our cast of misfits venturing through the notorious Forbidden Zone, a sci-fi nightmare ruled over by the evil cyborg Overdog (an over the top Michael Ironside).
Perfectly dropped into the time of the growing video market, the film is everything you want from a Star Wars rip-off: evil monsters, robots, and a huge labyrinth of death at the end. You also have a teenage Mad Max vibe, with an element of Waterworld, making Spacehunter a hammy run of the mill B-movie that has not one original idea, and yet, in spite of, or perhaps because of this, it’s a superb low-budget space opera.
This article originally appeared on June 10, 2014.