Can a film rise above crippling criticisms that it brought on itself and be a good film? Very few films that I know of can do this. Tim Burton’s version of Batman is such a film. Critics disliked it but it found it’s audience without them. Same goes for Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer. OK, I’m joking but you get what I’m saying. Space Raiders might fit the bill as well. It has two massive problems out of the gate but, by Jesus, it works hard to get me to accept it even with its problems.
Directed by Howard R. Cohen and produced by genre addict Roger Corman, Space Raiders tells the story of Peter (David Mendenhall), a young boy who lives on the planet Procyon III, who is playing in the warehouse where his father works for the all powerful Corporation. While he is there, a group of mercenaries, led by Capt. C.F “Hawk” Hawkens (Vince Edwards), break in to steal a cargo ship. In the firefight that erupts between the Corporation and Hawk’s people, Peter hides in the cargo ship. Hawk’s people steal the ship and Peter is suddenly lightyears from home with the mercs and Hawk. So far, so good, right? Except, Roger Corman is one of the best people in the business for getting the most bang for his buck. So after completing work on the 1980 movie Battle Beyond The Stars, he reused the musical score by James Horner and most of the special effects as well. When Space Raiders opens with the main theme from the first film, it’s a bit jarring to listen to. Remember, I grew up with Battle so this reuse of one of my favourite childhood film scores was a bit foreign. Also, no amount of gussied up footage can disguise Nell, Shad’s ship from Battle.
But do you know what? It doesn’t matter at all. The special effects for Battle were awesome and are a good example of 80’s SFX knowhow. So the film reuses a bunch of competent shots from another film? I am failing to see a problem. Next, the score. Again, I am failing to understand how reusing an epic space opera soundtrack is tantamount to treason in the critic’s eyes. Horner’s score is brilliant and fits the tone that Space Raiders has so as long as Horner got his residuals, why did people flay Corman alive? The word lazy comes to mind but that doesn’t work with Corman’s kind of output. He paid for an amazing score that is suited to sci fi films. If he had used for a period drama, I might have said THAT was lazy. In any event, after listening to the two main criticisms, I’ve decided that there’s no merit to them. On to the film proper, then.
The film takes a very short time to set up the particulars. Peter is OK in a non annoying way. He sure does get into a lot of trouble in a short amount of time. There are moments when Mendenhall plays Peter as just another innocent boy and then he knows when to shut up. After he finds himself on the pirate ship, a frantic scene unfolds where the crew run around trying to fend off an attack by the Corporation, who naturally want their cargo ship back, and Peter is thrown from one spot to the next as people move him around to deal with the threat. After helping the crew out of a problem that only a person his size could do, they arrive at a space station beyond the control of the Corporation. Here, the crew can relax and take a job from general evil curmudgeon and space godfather Zariatin. It’s only stealing a few fuel tankers and that’s about it. Too bad they also have to deal with a couple of deadbeats trying to kidnap Peter to ransom him back to the Corporation. Oh, and there’s the problem of the huge remote controlled ship that the Corporation is using to track Peter via the ID tag he’s wearing. It’s Sador’s ship from Battle but that’s not important since nobody’s aboard.
The film works more as a kids adventure rather than something like Star Wars or Star Trek. Sure there are aliens and ships, TIE fighters, er I mean Corporation raiders flying at the good guys. But the film judges the world from Peter’s eyes and rarely comes out of it save in exceptional circumstances. Breaking from other films, Hawk’s crew don’t consider him a pain, beyond the initial trouble he causes. They are glad to see him and actively worry about him when he gets in trouble. Cohen makes no move to state whether the crew do this out of concern for Peter or if the fact that Hawk is worried about him is enough to motivate them. Only Amanda, a tough as nails gunner, shows anything coming close to contempt for the boy. The reason? Hawk wants her to take him back to Procyon III and then get away from the Corporation, trouble and Hawk. She doesn’t want to go and abandon her friends and her CO but Hawk seems to realise that their luck can only hold out so long. After Peter proves himself (in battle no less!), Amanda trusts him and we see the same determination to help Peter from her as we did from Hawk. These elements make this a kids adventure where the protagonist’s friends didn’t ask to have him around but do anything to protect him. The final twenty minutes, the body count on the side of good is very high and Peter looks like he realises the cost it takes to get him home. Also, using the footage from Battle, the ending battle is pretty explode-y and awesome but is John Saxon-less which is unforgivable. Also also, the Corporation turns out to be pretty lame except for its Death Ship. Well, that’s what they get for having it built on Tatooine -er I mean Procyon III! Ultimately, Cohen’s script suggests that you are looking at a kind of pseudo-Magnificent Seven where seven mercs have to save one villager.
Lastly, I wanted to talk about Vince Edwards and David Mendenhall and their performances in the film. Edwards was a character actor and director who hit the big time with his portrayal of Dr. Ben Casey in the TV show of the same name and later became a TV director for such shows as the original Battlestar Galactica while maintaining an acting career. By the time he played Hawk he was 55 years old and a veteran of TV and film. Edwards plays Hawk with a sense of weariness that goes beyond the old gunslinger/soldier archetype. Hawk doesn’t see Peter and his survival as some kind of redemption; rather his code of ethics won’t allow him to abandon the boy to the mercy of the world. When it’s apparent that Zariatin wants rid of the boy off the station any way he can or failing that use him as collateral against Hawk, Hawk threatens to kill Zariatin and makes the promise sound serious. If I had to pick a tone Hawk has with Peter, it would be more like grandfather and grandson. He treats the younger members of the crew as his kids, looks out for them and worries about them. With Peter, he tries to impart his knowledge without making the universe seem like a worse place. Hence, the grandfather tone. David Mendenhall takes a lot of stick for his role in Over The Top but I tend to imagine that film is a documentary about professional arm wrestling that happens to feature Sly Stallone. Mendenhall is slightly annoying in that film but when you’re acting against Stallone and “GDM! I’m Robert Loggia!!!”, you’re going to come up short. Here, he’s even younger and while I would say the amount of grief he gets into is very high, he doesn’t know Unix systems and he doesn’t think that THIS is podracing. Here, he’s along for the ride and never looks worried that he won’t get back home because Hawk promised him and every child believes what adults tell them until they have cause to doubt them. Cohen directs his performance whenever someone dies around him as happening so fast that he doesn’t have time to take it in. The only times this doesn’t happen is when he knows the people who die and then he knows what’s happening. It’s a difficult thing to show as a director: a young child having the adventure of their life and trying to grasp the concept of death at the same time. By the time the film ends, Peter knows what’s happened to him and is glad to be home. Hawk and Peter’s best moment comes when Peter asks him a version of “Why is this happening to me?”. Hawk’s response is: “Things are always happening that we don’t expect. Now, you can think of them as an ordeal or you can think of them as a great adventure. It’s the adventurers who make it.” These little moments the two have make the film better than its scripted material might have intended. The rest of the cast work in that way that only Roger Corman casts can work. They look like they are having fun and certainly are under no illusions as to how low budget this all is. Standout performances, aside from Edwards and Mendenhall are Patsy Pease as Amanda and Ray Stewart as Zariatin . Pease sounds tough but really does care about the people around her and, eventually, even the new stowaway. Stewart takes what is essentially a villain in a rubber mask role and has some diabolical fun with it.
I know I’m in the minority here but I like the movie despite how it turned out. The cast seemed to be trying and the cheap sets and bad dialogue don’t mean anything to someone who watched every episode of the original Star Trek. Plus if you’re going to criticise the film for being a waste of your time then everyone (including myself) who went to see James Cameron’s sci-fi version of Dances With Wolves are worse having given their money for an even lazier script. People might criticise the film for being derivative and cheaply made but most similar things back then that didn’t have the words “Star Wars” were the same. Corman and Cohen make a decent stab of a space adventure and that’s all I want from a film most of the time.
“Space Raiders is a film that are the parts of its sum. Vince Edwards plays a older Han Solo-type against David Mendenhall’s Pawadan learner. With decent performances and a fun script, it is an afternoon matinee film knight to slay your boredom dragon.”
* I swear until I finished the review, I didn’t notice Howard R. Cohen wrote Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer. One of those weird coincidences.