Forty years after George Lucas’ plucky sci-fi/kids’ fantasy flick (that 20th Century Fox initially had no faith in whatsoever) broke all manner of box-office records and pretty much minted the term “blockbuster” on its own, the Star Wars franchise remains a cultural juggernaut. Now that Episode VIII has rocked the box office, again, and its director Rian Johnson has signed on to deliver a brand new trilogy over the next decade, we will all be dead and gone before this thing even begins to wrap up. In fact, after the nuclear apocalypse disintegrates almost all life on the planet (which might happen sooner than we think, thanks to Jabba the Hutt’s orange cousin), I fully expect the remaining cockroaches to get into bitter bidding wars for the rights to produce an all-roach reboot of the original trilogy.
But before we ponder the future too much, let me take you to a simpler time when Star Wars was known only as … Star Wars—one movie, no secondary titles, no episode numbers. Crazy, right? After the first Star Wars performed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations in 1977, it was only a matter of time for studios, big and small, to rip-off as much of it as possible without getting into any legal trouble. Here are five especially entertaining rip-offs of Star Wars that were produced between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back.
1. Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)
Director: Jimmy T. Murakami
Finding out that this “original tale” about a lowly farmer boy (Richard Thomas) in a far-away planet hooking up with a space cowboy (George Peppard) to beat an evil galactic ruler is a Roger Corman production will more than likely cause one to envision cheapo cardboard models and an embarrassingly cheap overall look. But that’s forgetting how efficient Corman is when it comes to squeezing every last cent out of his budgets, especially if that budget is uncharacteristically large for his studio, as is the case with Battle Beyond The Stars. The design of the spaceships and the optical effects that meld them to the backgrounds are actually executed surprisingly well, and then-novice composer James Horner’s rousing score carries a lot of the film’s dramatic heft. Unfortunately, the cheesy and overblown line readings from the actors and the horribly uninspired fantasy-sci-fi cliché lines that go with them, turns Battle Beyond the Stars into a bit of a slog. The narrative structure is also painfully episodic, with many sub-plots and ancillary characters that could have been cut without any adverse affect on the story. However, without it, James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd, who later went on to make The Terminator together, would not have met as lower-end crew members. So if Skynet wants to make sure the Terminator franchise never existed, they can just go back in time and make sure Battle Beyond the Stars is never made. You can watch it here in its entirety.
2. Starcrash (1978)
Director: Luigi Cozzi, a.k.a. Lewis Coates
It’s an unfortunate coincidence that the success of Star Wars coincided with the second coming of disco, so it was only a matter of time before someone was going to apply the gaudy Studio 54 aesthetic to groovy galaxies far away, and far out. And who better to do that than the Italians, the kings of cheesy rip-offs of popular Hollywood blockbusters. It’s downright amazing that Starcrash wasn’t filmed with a disco ball filter, since everything, from its explosion of pastel colors, soft focus Vaseline-drenched look, and holy shit those costumes, are as disco as they get. The central dynamic between the two heroes, a cocky smuggler and his sexy alien companion, seem to be more inspired by the Valerian and Laureline comics, but you did just read that the main character is a cocky space smuggler, so the rip-off is still strong with this one. Also, every technical move, from the wipe transitions to a full-fledged lightsaber battle make direct comparisons to Star Wars that much easier. It’s also fun to watch David Hasselhoff as an emasculated pretty boy prince, knowing that he was about to be considered the most manliest man who even manned during the ’80s. You can put on your bellbottoms and watch the whole thing on the new season of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, with snarky commentary from Jonah and the bots to boot.
3. Star Odyssey (1979)
Director: Alfonso Brescia, a.k.a. Al Bradley
Our friends the Italians are back again, but this time the nonexistent budget and the shoddy production found in Star Odyssey makes Starcrash look like The Force Awakens in comparison. With the spaceship sets composed entirely of randomly blinking lights, and the characters’ costumes looking like aluminum foil wraparound versions of Starfleet uniforms, this super cheap cash grab is almost more reminiscent of a Star Trek: The Original Series copy than a Star Wars clone. However, the overall tone still carries the more breezy sci-fi/fantasy approach of Star Wars, and many design choices are clearly “inspired” by it, albeit suffering from obvious budgetary issues. The film’s version of R2-D2 is literally a walking plastic garbage bin with traffic lights and aluminum pipes glued onto its body, the evil robots make the Cybermen from the original Doctor Who look like design marvels, and the lightsabers are almost too sad to describe. The light effects of the swords are done in-camera, with our reliable friend aluminum coming back to work as a reflector. When it comes to Star Wars rip-offs, this is as lazy as it gets. You can watch the whole embarrassing ordeal here.
4. Message from Space (1978)
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
The plot of Star Wars was heavily borrowed from Arika Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, so it only makes sense for Japanese cinema to take as much inspiration from Star Wars to bring the whole thing full circle. Out of all of the blatant copycats, Message From Space is the one that’s the most refreshingly original and, in true Japanese genre fashion, delightfully batshit crazy. For starters, the spaceships are literally pirate ships that float in space. The evil empire is made up of space samurai with chrome-painted faces, an unholy mashup of old Japanese chambara films and Mad Max: Fury Road. The model designs and special effects are pretty spectacular for its time period. The way the space battles are photographed, with a heavy emphasis on zoom effects, turn Message from Space into a jolly live-action anime. This is daring and fun stuff, tailor made for midnight movie audiences looking for some intentionally cheesy fun. No wonder, since the director is Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale), who loves bringing a sense of playfulness to his genre work. Turn off the lights, turn on the lava lamp, light a bowl, and enjoy. (You can watch the whole movie here.)
5. Hawk the Slayer (1980)
Director: Terry Marcel
is still raking in dough. We need a piece of that action.
Desperate Director: But we don’t have any money for space effects.
Executive: Who cares!? Just make the same movie, but without space.
Director: So, a generic fantasy movie we’ve seen a billion times before?
Executive: Yeah, but with an obviously sleepy Jack Palance as Darth Vader. Make his costume and mannerisms just different enough so we won’t get sued. Also, make sure his helmet is all fucked up and skewed to one side of his head for some reason. And add some effects that look like laser fire and laser swords, but, you know, fantasy versions, not sci-fi.
Director: I hate you so much.
At least future generations can soften the blow by watching it via Rifftrax.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.