2019/07/14

Sci-Fi: Space 1977

It's May, 1977. For the past twenty years, there have been two kinds of space-based science fiction films:
  • The adventurous, shiny-chrome-bright, wholesome-to-horror sort (the black and white Buck Rogers serial, Forbidden Planet, Lost In Space, etc.) 
  • The philosophical, hexagon-dome near-future what-if view (2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dark Star, Silent Running, etc.) 
These categories aren't exact (Star Trek sits between them), but if you're a B-movie producer, those are the two wells you're drawing from. And then, on May 25th, 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope is released. It's outrageously popular. Every other B-movie director sits up, salivates, and starts taking notes. What do people like? Spaceships and robots? Ok, we can do spaceships and robots. A princess? Got it. Some weird costumes? Grab some stuff from the Western and the Medieval section. And someone find me a distinguished British actor!

A whole slew of films took the plot elements of Star Wars, changed the order, and tried their luck.

Star Wars is a canon juggernaut today. The average character from the cantina scene has more backstory than I do. It's part of the cultural lexicon. But before canon solidifies, before Star Wars becomes a universe, other films moved in parallel.

Most nerds have thought "what if only the first Star Wars film was canon. Luke never uses a lightsaber. The Force doesn't move objects. Nobody's anybody's relative. What's a Jedi? What were the Clone Wars? Who is the Emperor?" In 1977, the facts are fluid.
Check out the "Soldiers of the Empire" article for the state of canon in 1977.
This blog article - this setting - assumes that all films directly inspired by Star Wars: A New Hope coexist in one shared universe: Space: 1977.

Film Criteria:

  • Release date between May 1977 (Star Wars: A New Hope) and May 1980 (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back).
  • Cannot be inspired by Alien (May 1979). A lot of films were; the special effects were less demanding.
  • No parodies. The film's worldbuilding has to take itself seriously. There needs to be a sense that the director hoped, somehow, that it'd spawn a line of action figures and lunchboxes.
  • Cannot take place mostly on Earth (or the moon). Earth can be mentioned, even visited, but it shouldn't be the whole setting.
The criteria are flexible. In this post, I'm going to review the potentially useful films. The next post will contain a synthesis of the ones that makes the cut, and the third post will contain some rules. I've got no particular timeline on this project. It's just a fun thought experiment.

And yes I've watched everything listed here while preparing this post and writing other content. If you want to fund my recovery, here's a link to my Patreon.

Unconditionally Canonical


Message from Space Battlestar Galactica Starcrash The Humanoid Battle Beyond the Stars Escape from Galaxy 3

1978/04 1978-1979 1979/03 1979/04 1980/05 1981/02
Sequences            
-Opening Text Crawl
x X X

-Opening Narration
X
X

-Slow Pan Under Giant Starship X X X X X X
-Diverse Rubber Alien Bar X




-Streaky Hyperspace



X
-Starfighters In Formation X X X x X X
-Trench Run X
X


Protagonists            
-Heroic Farmboy x x

X
-Plucky Smuggler x x X X X
-Furry Bear-Person





-Princess x x X
X X
-Wise Old Mentor x X X X X
-Non-Speaking Robot x X X X

-Cowardly Emotional Robot

X


-Other Robot X X X
X
Antagonists            
-Dark Helmet X x X X
x
-Emperor X X X x
x
-Faceless Goons X X
X X
-Giant Evil Space Base

X

X
Setting            
-Slightly on Earth





-Mostly on Earth





-Earth Mentioned
x
X X x
Tropes            
-Diverse Rubber Aliens X x

x
-Mysterious Mind Powers X x X X X
-Lightsabers

X


-Light-weapons


X

-Stirring Orchestral Theme X X X X x
-Leitmotifs





Texture            
-Used Future X X

x
-Shiny and Chrome X X X
X X

Capital X indicates a strong theme, small x is a dubious or minor reference.


Message from Space
1978/04
The soundtrack, in places, lifts whole stanzas from Star Wars. The costumes are excellent. Some (but not all) of the spaceships are... literally space-ships, with sails and everything. But the starfighter sequences are surprisingly vivid. The special effects artists must have had experience with miniature plane battles, because they use clouds and asteroids to create very dynamic turns and maneuvers. The non-miniature special effects, especially the green-screen sequences, are... very poor. But hey, it fits Space: 1977.

Battlestar Galactica
1978/09-1979/04
Just the first season. It prompted a lawsuit, so there are definitely similarities between it and Star Wars. There are aliens (and at least one Satan), factions, politics, starfighters, etc.

Starcrash
1979/03
  • Soundtrack by John Barry. A bumbling robot with a southern accent. Released nine months before The Black Hole.
  • A protagonist is captured and suspended upside-down in a cave. A protagonist gets frozen and has to be carefully thawed via timelapse. A protagonist's arm is injured in a lightsaber duel. A floating city has to be evacuated. Released a year before Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. 
  • A protagonist tosses his lightsaber to another protagonist, who proves unexpectedly proficient. The only way to save the day is to crash a ship into another ship in hyperspace. Released 32 years before the latest Star Wars trilogy.
Remarkably prescient, you might think. But on the other hand you've got janky stop-motion robots (both large and small), Christopher Plummer delivering some of the most ridiculous lines ever written, truly bizarre costume choices, very shoddy special effects, and young David Hasselhoff

The Humanoid

1979/04
After 3 minutes of credits, we get the opening crawl (also read aloud by an obliging narrator). The evil Lord Graal wears a black samurai helmet and commands a giant wedge-shaped spaceship. Floating landspeeders. Mysterious mind-powers (Tibetan mind-powers, no less). Laser bows.
Wait, what?
Anyway, this film is unquestionably Space: 1977.

Battle Beyond The Stars
1980/05
Seven Samurai.. in space! A plucky young hero forges a band of rebels, falls in love, flies a starship, etc. I'm going to combine this with Space Raiders (1983), which resuses most of the orignal effects and adds even more Star Wars elements.

Escape from Galaxy 3
1981/02
Technically it's outside the date range, but it's pure Star Wars inspiration. Space kings.  Planets exploding. All the miniature sequences are stock footage from Starcrash, just desaturated. Some of the props were recycled (or possibly remade). Even the protagonists have have similar names and costumes (Stella Star and Akton vs. Belle Star and Lithan).

Canon-Adjacent 


Buck Rogers in the 25th Century The Black Hole Galaxina Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone The Ice Pirates

1979/03 1979/12 1980/06 1983 1984
Sequences          
-Opening Text Crawl

X

-Opening Narration




-Slow Pan Under Giant Starship
X X   X
-Diverse Rubber Alien Bar

X
X
-Streaky Hyperspace
x
X X
-Starfighters In Formation X



-Trench Run X



Protagonists          
-Heroic Farmboy




-Plucky Smuggler

x X X
-Furry Bear-Person




-Princess X

x X
-Wise Old Mentor X x

x
-Non-Speaking Robot X X

X
-Cowardly Emotional Robot X X

X
-Other Robot
X X X X
Antagonists          
-Dark Helmet
x X x
-Emperor X


X
-Faceless Goons
X
x
-Giant Evil Space Base




Setting          
-Slightly on Earth




-Mostly on Earth X



-Earth Mentioned X X x X X
Tropes          
-Diverse Rubber Aliens

X
X
-Mysterious Mind Powers
X


-Lightsabers




-Light-weapons




-Stirring Orchestral Theme
X X X
-Leitmotifs
X
X
Texture          
-Used Future x X
X X
-Shiny and Chrome X
X


Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
1979/03
Too earth-based to qualify despite ticking a surprising number of boxes. The Draconians and their dynastic politics could be included without any issues. The political maneuvering is worth stealing. The rest, nah.

The Black Hole
1979/12
Look, I love this film. I really do. The Cygnus is one of the greatest haunted houses ever made. The score is bombastic. The robots should be corny but they feel real, not like props supported on wires. There's a chilling 3-minute-long unbroken camera flight through literal Hell. Yet, for all that, the film is less Star-Wars-adjacent and more of a sequel to Forbidden Planet. Some elements will make their way into Space: 1977.

Galaxina
1980/06
This film should be disqualified as a parody, but it's pulled out of the dustbin for two reasons: the bumbling crew, lead by Avery Schreiber's mustachioed captain in a uniform straight out of Rogue Trader, are clearly player characters, and the sets are pure Space: 1977. The film feels like someone's Traveller sessions.
C: Where did you get that egg McKinley? Is that an authorized egg?
M: I found it with the rock-eater's belongings. He probably stole it from somewhere. What do you think laid it, sir?
C: Let me have it.
M: Sure sir.
C: A real egg... you know, people used to eat these things. Difficult to imagine, isn't it?
T: It sure is.
M: I can't imagine it. In fact, the whole idea is revolting. Makes me nauseous. Turns my stomach.
T: Enough, private.
C: May I?
M: You're not going to eat it, are you sir?
C: Why not?
M: Well it makes me nauseous, turns my stomach, I really don't think you should eat it.
T: He's right sir. You don't know what kind of an egg that is. You don't know where it's been or who made it.
C: Nonsense. If people concerned themselves about where eggs came from they never would have eaten them.
[Cracks avacado-like egg, pours green goop into wineglass. Drinks. Giggles. Wipes lips. Convulses violently.]
Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone
1983/05
Alright, it's more of a Mad Max 2: Road Warrior film, and there's a grating teenage sidekick, and it's from 1983. Why is this on the list? First, the spaceships were clearly inspired by Stewart Cowley, which automatically bumps it up a category. Second, it's Canadian. Third, the sets are sometimes gorgeous. And fourth, it's got a very used-future PC-adventure vibe to it.

The Ice Pirates

1984/03
This really should be disqualified for being outside the date range, including elements from Alien and Mad Max 2: Road Warrior, and arguably being a parody, but come on! Fighting robots to combat the other side's fighting robots, repaired in the middle of combat! Piracy! Silly costumes! Ron Perlman!

Disqualified

The 4 films of Alfonso Brescia: 
Cosmos: War of the Planets - 1977/09
Battle of the Stars - 1978/02
War of the Robots - 1978/04
Star Odyssey - 1979/10 

The first of four attempts by director Alfonso Brescia (a.k.a Al Bradley) to cash in. Delightfully low-budget but, sadly, aside from the title, it's got nothing to do with Star Wars. The first film is a riff on Forbidden Planet or Planet of the Vampires; the rest are Buck Rogers in all respects. The aliens have golden bowl cuts and everyone has lightsabers.

The fourth film, Star Odyssey is the only one that even comes close to consideration. Earth gets sold to a despot, sight unseen. He turns up to collect it. Yeah, it's a Buck Rogers plot full of black-and-white stock footage, but it's got R2-D2, mind-powers, lightsabers, robots making an adorable suicide pact...

The Bunglers in the War of the Planets
(Brazilian Star Wars)

1978/12
Disqualified for being a parody.


War In Space

1977/12

Despite the name, this film has very little conceptual overlap with Star Wars. There are a few starfighter sequences, but it's almost entirely a blend of the 2 types of pre-Star Wars space films listed above: a Buck Rogers plot with 2001 space suits, with a Space Battleship Yamato twist.

Blake's 7
1978-1981
 

A classic British sci-fi series. So British. In the event of a murderous government coverup and brainwashing scheme, seek legal representation and go to your supervisor. Disqualified because despite having a rebellion and spaceships, it's really more of a slow-burn western in space.

The series has one really unusual trick. The alien spaceship stolen by the main characters is very advanced, but not so advanced that it can't be tinkered with or repaired by human experts. It's like giving Robert Stephenson a Haynes manual and telling him to change a head gasket on a modern car. Sure, it might take him ages, but he could probably figure it out. But do the same to Pythagoras? He wouldn't stand a chance. I like that... even if the sets do wobble alarmingly when the actors push buttons, and some of the panels are just gaffer tape on particleboard.

H. G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come
1979/05
Canadian, but that's not enough to save it. All Earth, all chrome and '50s robots with big pincher hands and dryer duct arms. Nothing to do with H.G. Wells' original story, and nothing to do with Star Wars iether.


Gamera: Super Monster
1980/03
Despite prominently featuring a knock-off star destroyer on the cover and in the title sequence, the rest of the film is standard giant monster fights and singing children.

Flash Gordon
1980/12
Don't get me wrong, I love the film... but it's definitely closer to a parody than to a serious attempt at worldbuilding.

The Man Who Saved The World (Turkish Star Wars)
1982/11
Disqualified for containing shots of Star Wars, sound cues from Battlestar Galactica, etc, etc, etc. It's absolutely bonkers and well worth watching, but as worldbuilding material it's got... issues.

If there are films or TV series that fit the criteria that I've missed, let me know. Some potential candidates (like the superb Kin-dza-dza! and the dreadful Space Mutiny) ended up being cut entirely. The rules can't be bent too far or every film will get included.

Future Posts

The Setting (synthesizing and tabulating the canon and canon-adjacent films).
Rules (probably based on SWN or Mothership or something).


25 comments:

  1. I just started listening to the Star Wars radio adaptation and it's got a lot going for it.

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    Replies
    1. I'll add it to the list.

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    2. Not anything mind-blowing, but little things to make coincidences and oversights in the movie have an "oh that's clever" added in.

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  2. Why did you have to do this to me, Skerples? I've been working on a project in a similar setting for weeks! I just have to hurry up and finish before you, I guess.

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    Replies
    1. Or we can mash them together! Encounter tables, loot, etc. are always useful.

      Delete
  3. Wow, interesting post! You might also consider the Filmation TV series Jason of Star Command, which started in 1978 and was kind of a mix of Star Wars and Star Trek, Jason being a Han Solo-ish character.

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    Replies
    1. There was also the related Filmation series, of which Jason of Star Command was a spinoff, Space Academy.

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  5. No Galaxy Express 999? For shame. But getting through that whole list must have hurt, so it's understandable.

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    Replies
    1. Well fine, I guess they did make a feature film. I can survive that. Probably.

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  6. I love this, man. Real big fan of deconstructing first pieces of narrative. Have you seen my post doing a similar thing with the Hobbit?

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  7. The only one I can think of offhand that you might've missed is Galaxy of Terror (1981), though like Escape from Galaxy 3 it's slightly outside of the original date range.

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    Replies
    1. I love Galaxy of Terror (the first 12 minutes are the best way to introduce a setting and characters): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxAQbFa04w8 , but it's definitely an Alien-inspired film.

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    2. Oh, that's a very good point. And movies like Barbarella are too early and don't show that Star Wars influence that you seem to be looking for. For that matter, Flash Gordon seems to have almost deliberately ignored anything that Star Wars brought to the table.

      If you're willing to take a look at such a late entry, Star Raiders: The Adventures of Saber Raine, with Casper Van Dien and Cynthia Rothrock, seems to me to have deliberately looked to that aesthetic, to whatever success—or lack thereof—it finally achieved.

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    3. Also, though I haven't seen it myself yet, Interstellar Civil War seems to be Albert Pyun's (of The Sword and the Sorcerer fame) attempt at the formula, though again long after the main sequence you're looking for.

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  8. I'm disappointed I can't find any retired stormtroopers in Sochi, Russia.

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  9. I had to Google a bit to remember the name of Starchaser: The Legend Of Orin (1985). It falls outside your date range, sadly, but it otherwise ticks your checkboxes.

    While I was looking for that, I came across The Man Who Saves the World (1982), a Turkish Star Wars knockoff; and, Star Odyssey (1979), an Italian Star Wars knockoff. I feel like there's a whole world of European knockoffs that I never saw in the pre-Internet days. Maybe it's time to binge some Amazon Prime Videos.

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    Replies
    1. Both The Man Who Saves The World and Star Odyssey are on the list (under the Rejected section). Will check out Legend of Orion.

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    2. So they are! I still feel like I have to check the German movies in that era (it's the only European language in which I am fluent) -- I find it unthinkable that the Germans (always quick to copy American ideas) would not have their own ripoff!

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    3. I don't think any German knock-off SW films were made in the time range listed. [i]Der große Verhau[/i] might quality (haven't watched it yet but the synopsis is promising), but it predates SW:ANH by 7 years. And a fair number of '70s Japanese films (e.g. [i]the War in Space[/i]) were released with German dubbing.

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  10. Just checked and Starchaser is actually on YouTube, the full version in all of its awful 80s cheesy glory. In case your wallet is feeling the B-movie burn.

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  11. How do you feel about Krull?

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