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Post-STAR WARS Space Operas for Fun and Frivolity

We’re all intensely excited for the new Star Wars film after watching that teaser about sixteen trillion times over the past few weeks. When the movie opens in a year’s time, it’s going to be insane with people flocking to see it probably multiple times, just like people did when the original Star Wars came out in 1977. In fact, so much money was made from George Lucas’ modest little space opera that the call for other such adventure films became of utmost importance.

In the years following, dozens of pretenders were made and released, some great and others not-so-great. The following is a list of seven space operas that probably never would have seen the light of day, or at least not the way they did and when they did, if not for the public’s massive need to travel a long time ago to a galaxy far, far away.

Click on the links for full reviews of each of these movies.

Starcrash (1978)
Coming about as close as it could to 1977 was the most Italian space movie you’ll ever see, the immortal Starcrash, in which director Luigi Cozzi used what look like plastic Christmas decorations on strings as ships to tell the “story” of a galaxy under attack by an evil count and his squadron of mustachioed baddies. The only hope rests in a scantily-clad woman in thigh-highs who is apparently the best starfighter in the galaxy. It’s about the silliest and most fun movie you’ll see, and one that truly doesn’t make any sense, to me or anyone. I’m not sure what’s the more perplexing casting choice: Christopher Plummer as the kindly emperor or David Hasselhoff as his son.

Message from Space (1978)
It’s not just the Italians who wanted in on the space race. Japan was also quick to answer the Lucas call, with a film that has a lot more in common with Godzilla movies or Power Rangers than it does with anything else. A group of misfit pilots, warriors, and royalty band together to defend a planet of meek agrarian people from an evil prince with the biggest hat I’ve ever seen. The plot to this one makes a lot more sense but it certainly still isn’t more than charming. The ships still totally look like toys but they’re toys I’d at least want to play with. You know, if I were a person who did such things. And a lot of the ships are ACTUAL SAILING SHIPS IN SPACE. That’s just cool.

The Black Hole (1979)
This is one of my favorite movie stories: Following Star Wars, Disney, who didn’t own the franchise at the time if you can believe it, was eager to make their own space film, naturally, and so combed through all the scripts they had. The one that best fit their bill was actually written as sort of a 2001: A Space Odyssey cash-in in the early part of the decade. With a cast of people like Anthony Perkins, Maximilian Schell, and Ernest Borgnine, this is a very bleak and somber movie, but with cute robots added to be more family friendly. At least the score and special effects are top-notch.

Moonraker (1979)
Even other big franchises wanted in on the new fad, and none cashed-in harder than the James Bond films, which by 1979 had become a bit of a self-referential hodgepodge. So, naturally, for the 11th film, why not go to outer space? Most of Moonraker is the typical James Bond film, but the last third takes place entirely in the titular space station and even includes a massive laser gun battle between the good forces of Earth and the bad guy forces of Hugo Drax. The effects for this, like The Black Hole, were nominated for Oscars (both losing to Alien) and, despite its baffling absurdity, I kind of dig this movie’s willingness to just be a big dumb space adventure, even with aging Roger Moore as an ersatz Han Solo.

Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)
Despite its unfairly low IMDb rating, this is probably my favorite film in the bunch and one I think is legitimately great. Roger Corman’s turn at doing a space opera, he had it based on Seven Samurai, with a young peasant boy having to travel into the galaxy to recruit people who might help his poor society battle the forces of an evil, resource-sapping dictator, played by John Saxon. He ends up getting George Peppard, Robert Vaughn, a lizard guy, a hive-minded species, a couple of things that radiate heat, and a super busty Austrian woman. This movie boasts a script by John Sayles, a score by James Horner, and special effects by none other than James Cameron. This movie is silly but it’s kind of amazing.

Flash Gordon (1980)
By this point, they were really just adapting anything, or using the success of space opera to allow for things to be adapted, like this update of the old 1930s serials about a sports star from Earth who gets to be the one to save the universe from the vile Ming the Merciless. This movie gets unfairly maligned for being cheesy, but I think that was the point, and Sam J. Jones’ famously wooden performance has more to do with him being dubbed by another actor due to a tiff with producer Dino De Laurentiis than it did his actual performance. Still, huge set pieces, pretty amazing effects, and a soundtrack by Queen that flat-out rocks the casbah. What more can you say besides… FLASH! AH-AAAAAAA!

Dune (1984)
I’m throwing this one in as the final entry mostly because it was very nearly made a few years before Luke Skywalker made his X-Wing flight but was shelved due to the outrageousness of original director Alejandro Jodorowsky. By time it was made, in the mid-’80s by producer Dino De Laurentiis and director-for-hire David Lynch, the movie bore little resemblance to what the original idea may have been, but it had a young boy becoming a hero on a desert planet against various other bad guy factions, and a lot of pseudo-spiritual whatnot. Lynch has disowned this movie, which is a bit of a shame because there are certainly some awesome parts in it. It just doesn’t hang together very well. Frank Herbert’s novel may well have been unfilmable after all.

And there we have it, friends. Seven cinematic space operas that exist almost entirely because of Star Wars. All certainly worth a watch, because a year until The Force Awakens comes out is a loooooooong time.

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  1. 76Pauls says:

    Anyone see or remember the movie Space Raiders (1983)?

    This film recycled Battle Beyond The Stars’ special effects and musical score.

  2. Bret Hammond says:

    As I recall, “Battle Beyond the Stars” was not only based on The Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai, but Robert Vaugn’s character was essentially the same in both….down to the wardrobe.

  3. mikedudez says:

    I have an important question to ask, if you were locked in a theater and they gave you a choice. would you chose to watch all these knockoffs or would you chose to watch the star wars prequals 1 to 3 and not the 4 to 6. bear in mind you cant escape the theater and your favorite teddy bear is held hostage. what would you do?

  4. Battle Beyond the Stars was  made to be a comedy and it’s pretty good as I recall (in an 80s cheesy comedy way).   What I remember about this was the ship that had a female voice and a hull that looked like large breasts and the whole movie was full of boob jokes (perfect for a 13 year old).  The other great post Star Wars flick is the animated movie “Starchaser The Legend of Orin”.  This was a slightly ranchy kids cartoon that would never see the light of day today

  5. Robert says:

    The original serials of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers are listed influences by George Lucas for the creation of Star Wars. So while the Sam Jones movie Flash Gordon was made after, the original story predates Star Wars. I remember as a kid TV re-discovered those old Buster Crabb serials and were running them to cash in on the Star Wars mania. They even ran old Commando Cody episodes!

  6. Bryan says:

    I think the first movie I ever saw in a movie theater was The Black Hole. I loved it and was terrified of it at the same time. These days I’m much more tuned for horror movies and I recognize that it’s basically a Hammer-style horror movie in a science fiction package. The Cygnus is a space station analog for the creepy gothic castle. There’s all kinds of allusions to Frankenstein in it. It hasn’t aged well, but it’s a nice artifact from a weird time at Disney when they were trying to transcend their reputation. See also: Something Wicked This Way Comes, Condorman and The Watcher In The Woods.
    I also saw Message From Space at a drive-in theater in Vestal, New York when it was the b-picture to Empire Strikes Back. I was in love with it at the time but my dad positively HATED it and left the theater before we could see the end. These days I have no memory of it and never thought to seek it out and see it again.

  7. wyrdone42 says:

    No Enemy Mine?\

  8. You’ve GOT to be kidding… Seriously? Battle Beyond the Stars was a HORRID movie. The star ship flown by the “hero” (Richard “John Boy Walton” Thomas) looked like the Enterprise grew a pair of breasts. HUGE breasts. And the whine of the AI that ran it. GAAAAAH! The acting was lame… The plot was clearly a rip off of Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven.. George Peppard – as “Space Cowboy” was out of place. Couldn’t spend 5 minutes to come up with a better name than that?  Mind you, this was about the time he was doing the A-Team… Oh and Surgery with a giant space chain saw? 

    Sorry.. But that movie sucked rotten eggs. Worst. Movie. EVAR!

  9. Brian says:

    They made an excellent Dune miniseries on Scifi or SyFy in I think 2000.. but the original extra long version of the 1984 film is excellent.. but as its own thing rather than as a novel adaptation. Flash Gordon is based on its own franchise as well, so while some of these are clones, some are not, and you could have done better making this list

  10. Orionsangel says:

    The music in dune still gives me chills. 

  11. Erik Helms says:

    “Jason of Star Command” anyone?

  12. Orionsangel says:

    I still love The Moonraker space laser fight.

  13. treadwell says:

    Good ‘ol Jackson Beck narrating the Message From Space trailer!

  14. doug says:

    What about Galaxina, or Ice Pirates? Loved them both ! 

  15. ericmci says:

    Everyone throws around the term space ‘opera’But-  where’s the singing?

  16. Justin Edwards says:

    I would also like to nominate Space Mutiny. I know most people have only seen the mst3k episode, but it is as good a parody as Flash Gordon without an ounce of irony.

  17. R Lantz says:

    What about the Last Starfighter???

  18. R Lantz says:

    what about the Last Starfighter??????

  19. Mark says:

    What, no Flesh Gordon? Shame.

  20. Combaticron says:

    I still love “Message From Space.” The DVD release is glorious. And it’s pretty obvious that the guys at Lucasfilm loved it, too, because they stole some stuff right back from them (the snowspeeder is almost a direct copy of one of the MFS hero ships).

  21. Martin Kelly says:

    Thanks for this reminder of some of the movies I haven’t seen for a LOOOONG time, as well as one or two that are new to me and I will now have to search out… 🙂

    As others have already commented, you DID miss The Last Starfighter somehow.

  22. TryptanFelle says:

    Anyone else notice in Battle Beyond the Stars how the sound effects used the Star Trek photon torpedo and the Battlestar Galactica laser?

  23. Stephane says:

    The last starfighter! 

  24. MichaelH says:

    Wow, Starcrash! I recall very little about the film, but it has always floated around in my brain. I recall it was obviously a take off of Star Wars, and it had David Hasslehoff in it though not as the main guy. Though – spoilers – the main guy dies and David becomes the main guy! I was clearly very young when I saw it, as the gratuitous skimpy outfits completely passed my attention apparently.

  25. Feydakin says:

    Please note that the “Dune” novel upon which the David Lynch film was based predates Star Wars by over a decade… while there may be some merit to the argument that the Dune movie may have been a cynical cash-in trying to bank on the popularity of Star Wars, the story of Dune is definitely not original to Star Wars…

    • RG says:

      That’s pretty well established in the writer’s summary, which notes that a version of Dune almost was filmed before Star Wars existed.

  26. Sibboz says:

    The last star fighter? How Could that be missed! 

  27. RG says:

    Anybody who just wants to zone out with Dune DEFINITELY needs to search out the Dune Alternative Edition Redux. It’s a fanedit which reincorporates a lot of deleted scenes and uses the best stuff from each version.

    Because if you’re gonna watch Dune, why bother trying to make it a refined cinematic experience? It’s best watched in the longest possible form… and goddamn if that movie doesn’t have some of the best sci-fi production design of all time.

  28. Chris says:

    What? No “Ice Pirates”?