When Star Wars burst onto the scene in 1977, the world of movie Science Fiction changed. Action-adventure was king and Science Fiction became the more adaptable Science Fantasy. In the decade following that first Death Star explosion it seemed like everybody in Hollywood and around the world had a Star Wars knock-off in production; most of which were not really up to the standard that George Lucas set – in special effects, if not in storytelling. But every dog has his day, and many of the films that were dismissed as ridiculous and/or just plain bad at the time, actually had a little something something of their own. Here’s our Psycho 7 (+1) Greatest Star Wars Knock-Offs in dazzling chronological order of release! Starcrash (1978) Budget – $4 million US Box Office – $30 million As with the rest of the films on this list, Luigi Cozzi’s Starcrash probably would never have seen the light of day without the success of Star Wars. Unlike many of the other knock-offs that hit the theaters in Star Wars’ wake, Starcrash was an original production rather than a straight (or semi-straight) adaptation of another source (a la Flash Gordon or Battle Beyond the Stars, etc.), although that’s not to say Cozzi didn’t wear his influences on his sleeve. Thanks to the extreme success of Star Wars, producer Nathan Wachsberger wanted to cash in as quickly as possible, which meant having only three or four weeks lead time once the script was written (in a little over 10 days) to the start of shooting. Because of this, Cozzi opted to make the film more space fantasy than science fiction, with less-realistic, but still extremely innovative, designs and models for the ships and effects. Inspired mainly by the Ray Harryhausen films he loved in his youth, Cozzi crafted a space fantasy that not only included Space Amazons, Space Cavemen, both gigantic and man-sized stop-motion robots, and the most colorful outer space scenes in film, but some of the most imaginative twists and turns in a space opera before or since. With a budget half that of Star Wars, Starcrash is essentially a low-budget love letter to films like Barbarella, Jason and the Argonauts, and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Lead actress Caroline Munro was a rising star in cult cinema having first come to prominence with a non-speaking role as Vincent Price’s inspiration in The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Dr. Phibes Rises Again, along with a brief-but-bloody performance in Hammer Studios Dracula A.D. 1972. But it was The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter where she really began to shine, before appearing as a Bond girl in The Spy Who Loved Me. Starcrash was her first lead – Cozzi’s only choice for the role -playing space smuggler Stella Star. Munro was paired up with former child evangelist Marjoe Gortner as the mystically-enhanced navigator Akton (who was originally supposed to be an alien like the mutant in This Island Earth, but Gortner refused to hide his face). The smugglers are recruited by the Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe, the brilliant Christopher Plummer (who demonstrates his amazing ability to turn even the oddest dialogue into poetry, despite shooting all of his scenes in a single day – he was just in it for the free trip to Rome) to find his missing son (David Hasselhoff in one of his earliest roles) and stop the evil Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell) from conquering the universe. Legendary composer John Barry (best known for his work on James Bond films) is responsible for the score – parts of which he reused for his Oscar-winning work on Out of Africa. From the opening shot – which is admittedly a nod to Star Wars – straight through to Christopher Plummer’s haunting final words (“The stars are clear. The planets shine. We’ve won. Oh. Some dark force, no doubt, will show its face once more. The wheel will always turn; but for now it’s calm. And for a little time, at least, we can rest.”), every scene in this film is grin-inducing and just plain fun as hell. Sure, it’s disappointing that they couldn’t afford to fly Munro back over to Italy to overdub her dialogue (that’s the excuse, anyway) and Gortner’s wife at the time ended up providing the voice of Stella Star – a voice performance that’s kind of lacking, really. And I would have loved to have seen what Armondo Valcauda would have been able to do with more funding for bigger and better effects. It would also be nice to see an uncut version with the 17 scenes Roger Corman cut after picking up the US distribution rights. As it is, we have to settle with the special features packed DVD/Blu-ray release and imagine what could have been. With that said, though, the flaws and shortcomings of the film are really inconsequential. Starcrash, with a $4 million budget, eventually brought in over $30 million in the US and over $100 million worldwide, making it not only one of Corman’s most successful films ever, it was one of the most successful of any of the Star Wars knock-offs. And while every film on this list is worth a viewing (or twenty), Starcrash will always have a place in my heart as the most consistently entertaining of them all. — Paul Brian McCoy Jason of Star Command (1978) Jason of Star Command is easily dismissed as a cheap attempt to cash in on Star Wars by asking the question: “What does an approximation of the Han Solo character have to offer, particularly if robbed of his attitude, partner, and participation in a compelling narrative.” A deeper look indicates that Jason of Star Command, while awful in a way that only mid-Seventies Saturday morning Filmation programming could only achieve, stands up as a showcase for some intriguing actors and a charming reminder of bygone days in broadcast television. The reason for the casual fan to check out Jason of Star Command is the cast assembled for the show. Jason, as played by Craig Littler, was cast primarily for his looks, and perhaps more cynically, his resemblance to Harrison Ford. He gamely delivers dialogue, a portion of it to a wind-up toy that is passed off as a droid, and carries out his action scenes with physicality easily on the level of Battle of the Network Stars-era Gabe Kaplan. Jason of Star Command was arguably the high point for Littler’s career, but he had made a pretty impressive tour of television, landing small roles on Airwolf, Dallas, Riptide, and three-peating on The Love Boat, and starring in a number of commercials, including playing the Gorton’s fisherman. The true specialness of the cast, however, is in the supporting players. James Doohan, who was responsible for bringing the star power, was on for the first season as Commander Canarvin before departing to film the Star Trek movie. He was replaced for the final twelve episodes by noted cowboy actor John Russell, acting in blue face as a by the book alien commanding officer. In addition, the main villain, Dragos, was played by the incomparable Sid Haig, better known to modern filmgoers as the source of mirth/nightmares Captain Spaulding. And if that is not enough exploitation cred for a Saturday morning, Tamara Dobson, Cleopatra Jones herself, featured in the second season. Throw in Charlie Dell, who later showed up as Nub on Evening Shade as Professor Parsafoot, the inventor of the aforementioned wind-up toy droid, W1K1. Just as interesting is the cast that never was the show, as Jonathan Harris was to have reprised his role as Commander Gampu from Filmation’s Space Academy series, but a falling out over salary led to the casting of Doohan. Dragos was allegedly offered to Ted Cassidy, Lurch from the Addam’s family, who would have brought an entirely different vibe to the role. Making a trip to IMDB and looking up any one of these actors is a good way to lose an hour; though each found some measure of fame, their credits showcase what it must have been like to work in television in the Seventies. And that is the other charming thing about Jason of Star Command: it is a wonderful reminder of the halcyon days of network television, where practical effects ruled by necessity and there were not over a hundred options for something to watch. Kids of the Seventies had three to five options at most, given the local station situation. The output of studios like Filmation could never be called great, but there is a certain panache to their products; even if the acting is wooden, the sets are cardboard and the stories are paper thin, it is apparent that someone cared enough to reach for something that could not be grasped. — Mike Burr Message from Space (1978) Budget – $5-6 million Released in Japan on April 29, 1978 and in the US in October that same year, Message from Space was famed director Kinji Fukasaku (Battles Without Honor and Humanity, Battle Royale) entry into the Star Wars knock-off market and the most expensive Japanese film made up until that date. It’s a fantastical space adventure that begins on the peaceful planet Jillucia in the Andromeda galaxy, where the metal-skinned Gavanas Empire has invaded. The leader of the tribes of Jillucia sends eight magical seeds into space to mystically choose the eight defenders who will defeat the Gavanas leader Emperor Rockseia XXII (Mikio Narita) and his mother, the Dowager Empress Dark (a cross-dressing Hideyo Amamoto). So yes, Fukasaku beat Corman to adapting Seven Samurai (or The Magnificent Seven) by two years. But I have to admit, Battle beyond the Stars is a much more satisfying film. For adults, anyway. The story was developed by Fukasaku, Masahiro Noda, and Shotaro Ishinomori and scripted by Hiro Matsuda. As one might expect with Ishinomori in the mix, there’s a healthy dose of Kamen Rider DNA in the film. Rockseia XII and his mother would be perfectly at home fighting proto-Power Rangers and three of our heroes are remarkably annoying “teens.” But if we ignore the angsty mood swings and downright mood-killing tantrums of Aaron (Philip Casnoff), Shiro (Hiroyuki Sanada), and Meia (Peggy Lee Brennan) – as well as their remarkably hate-inducing “boss” Jack (Masazumi Okabe) – Message from Space has a lot to offer in pure child-like entertainment value. This is particularly the case whenever veteran American actor Vic Morrow or veteran Japanese actor Sonny Chiba are on-screen. Morrow plays General Garuda, a burnt-out career military officer who, after the decommissioning of his longtime companion/sidekick robot Beba-1 (who gets a space funeral at the cost of one of the Earth military’s expensive rockets), quits and takes up full-time drinking with the annoying-but-endearing Beba-2 (Isamu Shimizu) until one of the space seeds chooses him to return to glory. Chiba, on the other hand, doesn’t show up until the end and the film is poorer for it. He plays Prince Hans, the rightful heir of the Gavanas throne (it seems Rockseia XII killed Hans’ parents and turned his people into evil conquerors) and the seeds choose him to return from isolation and take back his throne. There’s an almost psychotic love on display here for model space-ships and an endless exhilaration in blowing them up. Plus we get one really nice sword fight as Hans and Rockseia face off – ending with Prince Hans stabbing the usurper IN THE BRAIN. Seriously. Don’t mess with the Streetfighter. In the end, Message from Space is fun, but might be hard for adults to sit through. The set and ship designs are fantastic, the costuming is garish, and except for Morrow and Chiba, the performances are more annoying than pretty much any other characters on this list. But young kids may just love it. The ending is upbeat and hopeful as our heroes fly off into the distance in their Space Galleon, looking for a new planet to call home, and the film spawned a 27-episode TV series called Message from Space: Galactic Wars that ran from July 1978 to January 1979. — Paul Brian McCoy The Black Hole (1979) Budget – $20 million US Box Office – $35.8 million Cracking the Star Wars formula proved to be a daunting task, a task that Disney struggled with in their sprawling sci-fi opus The Black Hole. The film was unique in many ways for Disney: at the time it was the company’s most expensive feature, it was the first Disney film to be rated PG and one of the first to target a non-kid demographic. Juggling so many new approaches it’s not surprising the studio stumbled, and what they have left us with is one of the more flawed yet intriguing entries in the “failed Star Wars cash-in “repertoire. The problem is clear from the start: pacing. What made Star Wars so fun and accessible was that it is essentially an action-adventure film in a sci-fi setting. The Black Hole, by comparison, feels like a NyQuil-induced 98-minute-long mildly psychedelic nap. Dialogue-heavy and action-light, the plot is delivered entirely via exposition at a glacial pace. This is particularly maddening because the premise of a good chunk of the climax, that the ships and everyone on them are being inevitably drawn into a black hole, should infuse the story with at least some sense of urgency. But no, instead we are served a glut of verbiage and one of the least exciting laser-gun shoot-outs ever filmed. It’s a shame, because at the core of the film are some pretty fascinating ideas. Essentially The Black Hole is an old school horror movie set in outer space, replete with a chilling mystery to be solved and an egomaniacal mad scientist at the helm. It begins with the exploratory vessel USS Palomino encountering what appears to be the derelict and long-thought gone spacecraft Cygnus in an inexplicable holding pattern within the gravity well of a black hole. It’s soon discovered that the craft is far from derelict and that the mad scientist in question, Dr. Hans Reinhardt, has been obsessing over the black hole for 20 years. He has harvested the ship’s original crew for organs and body parts to be used in his army of implacable faceless androids, and he plans to plunge the ship and all involved into the black hole, despite having no real idea what lies inside. It’s the kind of story that would have made an amazing episode of Star Trek, or even a decent feature film had a different approach been taken. But as is so often the case with film that wants to be considered cerebral, it falls into the trap of becoming an exercise in “tell” rather than “show.” It’s also not the right vehicle in the first place to try and grab a piece of the Star Wars pie, and you can’t help noticing how desperately it tries to weave in similar elements. The Cygnus androids are a clear analog to both stormtroopers and the faceless helmeted Death Star operators. Dr. Reinhardt has more of a Grand Moff Tarkin feel, with his watchdog robot, Maximillian, aping much of the look and menace of Vader, though in a deep crimson hue as opposed to black. The most glaring nods to Star Wars are the two robots assisting the protagonists, V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B. Looking very much like floating R2D2s, V.I.N.CENT has the pithy know-it-all chatterbox role of C-3PO while B.O.B. mimics the comic-relief aspects of R2 with an inexplicable Southern drawl in place of the droid’s beeping and booping. The DVD extras for The Black Hole DVD release via Disney even include a behind-the-scenes feature in which an FX supervisor discusses how they decided the robots should float simply in order to distinguish them from direct comparison to the Star Wars droids. Another element that seems tossed in just to generate some Star Wars-esque action is an extended laser battle between the crew of the Palomino and the Cygnus androids. The firefight takes place in a massive section of the Cygnus with the androids mostly clustered on a support beam above the protagonists. As they rain laser fire down on the crew, they are slowly but steadily picked off. Up to this point, we have seen the androids marching stiffly about and moving very jerkily in the classic “robotic” sense, but as they are struck in battle and “die,” they fall off the support beam like plastic mannequins being flung about in a manner that I will charitably describe as laughable. With this bit of action out of the way, it’s back to more exposition as the Palomino crew struggles to find a way off the Cygnus before being drawn into the black hole. It’s that eventuality that proves to be the film’s most interesting moment. What has been a rather plodding and bland if stylistically gorgeous bit of sci-fi up to this point suddenly looses the bonds of mundanity to accelerate into sheer batshit crazy mindfuck territory. Upon entering the black hole, a fever-dream montage of imagery ensues; a nightmare hellscape, depictions of angelic and demonic creatures, the resurrected form of Dr. Reinhardt joined in body to the robotic Maximillian, a heady brew of “what the fuck” indeed. It’s the only moment of the film that isn’t painstakingly expounded upon with dialogue and frankly it’s the one scene that needed it most. As with all films of its budget and ilk, there was an attempt to market The Black Hole in the form of toys (hell, even Alien got a line of action figures back then!) but kids simply weren’t into it. I can remember being intrigued by the action figures of Maximillian and the two protagonist robots, but once I saw the film my interest waned dramatically. It just wasn’t the Star Wars-level hit that Disney had hoped for and banked on. Jump forward 30+ years and we can find no small irony in the fact that Disney has acquired Star Wars and turned it into a merchandising juggernaut unheard of in even the modern era. Sometimes I wonder if we all shouldn’t have flung ourselves into that black hole…. — Adam Barraclough Battle beyond the Stars (1980) Budget – $2 million US Box Office – $7.5 million Through the history of Hollywood, one thing has been constant, the ability of studios to jump on a popular bandwagon and milk it for every cent it has. Roger Corman is the king here, making low-budget B-movies that turn a profit. When Star Wars set box office records in 1977, it was obvious that there was an appetite for epic space opera. The release of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 proved that /Star Wars/ wasn’t a fluke, and the bandwagon was confirmed. Corman, never one to start making a movie that wouldn’t make money, saw opportunity, and thus Battle beyond the Stars was made. Where Star Wars took inspiration from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, Battle beyond the Stars also went to the same source, this time The Seven Samurai by way of The Magnificent Seven. Akira, a pacifist planet, is visited by Sador, a warlord backed by an army of mutants called the Malmori. Sador threatens Akira with his ship’s superweapon, the Stellar Converter, which will convert the planet into a small star if the Akirans don’t submit to him. Akira is given a few days to decide. The Akirans realize that their way of life is over and send off young Shad to purchase guns and to recruit mercenaries to teach the inhabitants to fight. Shad leaves Akira in an older ship, with its AI Nell. The lone starfighter left by Sador engages the ship. Shad is unable to overcome his upbringing to shoot the mutants’ ship, but Nell manages to outfly the starfighter. Now out beyond the stars, Shad recruits several mercenaries; the space trucker Space Cowboy, the group mind Nestor, the assassin Gelt, the space valkyrie Saint-Exmin, Nanelia, and the repitilian Cayman. Each of the mercenaries has their own price, from cash to a home. With the mercenaries gathered, Shad returns to Akira to await the return of Sador. While Battle beyond the Stars takes The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven into space, there are elements that come right from Star Wars. The Stellar Converter is a planet killer, much like the Death Star’s superlaser. Destroying the Stellar Converter requires pinpoint flying through dogfighting starfighters, waiting for Sador’s ship to lower its shields before firing the superweapon. With the low, low budget of $2 million, or one-fifth of that of Star Wars, the editing needed to keep things brisk while not taxing what was money available for special effects. Corman had interns and film school students, including James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd, building sets and models in an old hardware store converted to a studio. While Battle beyond the Stars had the likes of John Saxon (Sador), George Peppard (Space Cowboy), and Robert Vaughn (Gelt, essentially recreating his role from The Magnificent Seven), each of them were only in for a few days to film their scenes, allowing Corman to pay for just the days they worked. The only big-name actor who was in for the full shoot was Richard Thomas. Thomas was finishing with The Waltons and was looking for a role that was different from John-Boy. He still had his salary from The Waltons coming in, so the pay cut to be in Battle beyond the Stars wasn’t an issue for him. Battle beyond the Stars may pull in from several sources, but the result is an enjoyable film that competes above its weight class. Even with the sources evident, the movie becomes its own entity. — Scott Delahunt Flash Gordon (1980) Budget – $20 million US Box Office – $27.1 million Dino de Laurentiis also wanted on the Star Wars bandwagon. Instead of using a film by Akira Kurosawa like George Lucas and Roger Corman had, de Laurentiis picked up the movie rights for comic strip, Flash Gordon. Lorenzo Semple, whose works include the 1966 Batman TV series and 1994’s Street Fighter: The Movie, wrote the script, keeping to the comic strip origins. The colours are bright, setting the movie apart when movies were aiming to be more realistic. The film’s production suffered from executive meddling from the start. De Laurentiis’ wife cast the role of Flash after seeing Sam J. Jones on a TV game show. Meanwhile, de Laurentiis himself had worked out a deal with Bob Guccione to use Penthouse models as extras. The director, Mike Hodges, worked out a way to keep the movie from out and out failing. Hodges handled the casting of the supporting cast, recruiting from the British stage. Topol, Timothy Dalton, Richard O’Brien, Peter Wyngarde, and Brian Blessed were all part of the cast, taking lines that would fall flat under lesser talent and delivering them with the right nuance. “Tell me again of this man, Houdini.” Max von Sydow brought an understated menace to Ming the Merciless, leaving much to the imagination of the audience. The movie itself tells of how Flash and Dale Arden are hijacked by Dr. Hans Zarkov as Ming toys with Earth, sending meteors raining down on the planet. Flash unites the peoples of Mongo to rise up against Ming, overcoming distrust in a common cause, all to a soundtrack by Queen. Scenes that shouldn’t have worked, such as the football fight in Ming’s court, transcended the movie, turning the film into a cult classic. The eye to details, the talent of the supporting cast as Jones learned the craft, the humour, all turn the film into an enjoyable watch. — Scott Delahunt Starchaser – The Legend of Orin (1985) Budget – $15 million US Box Office – $3.3 million As far as Star Wars ripoffs go, Starchaser: The Legend of Orin is actually… not really as bad as you might think. I mean, yeah, it’s a ripoff – holy shit is it a ripoff – and I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s actually good by any stretch of the imagination. But until the final battle (where it gets a bit boring) I sorta had fun with this one. While it borrows from Star Wars enough that Lucas could have easily taken legal action against them and won without a hitch, the beloved franchise instead chose to bide its time until the opportunity came to borrow back – that’s right, Starchaser isn’t without its own original ideas, at least one of which eventually showed up in The Phantom Menace. Namely, the main villain of this film dies by being cut in half via lightsaber and then falling into a bottomless pit, where his two halves slowly seperate and drift apart as he falls. Sound familiar? It should, since that’s exactly what happened to Darth Maul… fourteen years later. Like I said, though, this is definitely a ripoff. It features a lightsaber, a Luke, a Leia, a Han, a Vader, and a bizarre amalgamation of C-3PO and R2-D2 that combines the effeminacy of the former with the sassiness of the later, making for one very annoying robot. There’s also a “fembot,” called Silica, who doesn’t have any counterpart in the Star Wars franchise. She does, however, serve as a vessel for an unsettling amount of perversion in a PG-rated animated film. She has her “posterior” probed and is then sold into what can only be construed as sexual slavery, and is even entirely reprogrammed to change her from a seemingly sentient android with her own personality, to a completely subservient love slave to Dag (who is Han Solo, just significantly more assholish). To be honest, though, this movie isn’t that bad. It’s very well-animated, maybe even ahead of its time, and whether purposefully or not it asks some appreciated questions of religion. It would seem out of place for a children’s film except that this doesn’t really feel like a children’s film at all, despite its rating. Most of its themes are quite mature and some story elements are actually very dark (or, as stated above, creepy as hell). There is no denying, however, that Starchaser is what it seems like – an attempt to cash in on the success of Star Wars. Ironically, it’s the original elements of the film (few though they are) that make it stand out, and were really the most enjoyable parts. The “mandroids” towards the beginning, while they may not sound that interesting, were actually quite appealing, as was the main villain’s motivations and methodology – essentially, conquering the human race (in the name of evolution into machines) using religion to keep them ignorant of the reality of the world around them. I don’t know if I’d recommend it. It’s very long for an animated film and isn’t really engaging enough to excuse that length. Add on the fact that very few of the characters are in any way likeable and you have a film that manages to be easy on the eyes while also being pretty difficult to watch all the way through. — Alex Wolfe BONUS MOVIE!! Eragon (2006) Budget – $100 million US Box Office – $249.5 million Eragon is the story of a young farm boy who finds a mysterious long-lost power that is trying to be eliminated and/or controlled by an evil empire, headed by an evil emperor. With the help of an old man of the very order that used that power in the past, he sets out to join the rebellion to take down the evil emperor. Along the way there are hidden familial connections, unexpected betrayals, sword fighting, and dragons. If you haven’t spotted the reason I’m writing this article, then I really can’t help you. Eragon took all the main plot points from Star Wars, but added in a bit more of teen angst and dragons. Now the dragons I can’t really complain about, dragons are awesome, but the entire movie doesn’t even try to hide its sources. They even have scene of the farm boy’s uncle being burned to death by the evil empire. That is the catalyst that sets him out into the world from his middle-of-nowhere hometown. The old man, the relic of a lost age, is also a resident of that same village. Then there’s the teaching of his new magical powers, the lectures on a ‘more civilized age’ and the history of the evil empire. There’s a princess to rescue, and an evil base that must be infiltrated and destroyed. Now, to be fair, the movie contains some great effects, and Jeremy Irons is in it. Who doesn’t love Jeremy Irons? John Malkovich as the insane and paranoid emperor isn’t that much of a change from the insane Malkovich I’m used to seeing, but still, entertaining. Despite a cast that knows what they’re doing, nothing can really save Eragon from being what it is, the shameless fantasy step-brother of Star Wars. It’s so obvious as to be painful, and perhaps with a bit more clever writing it could have fooled someone for even a minute that it was original. Unfortunately that’s a bit much to expect from something written by a seventeen year old, and taken in that context it’s pretty obvious why Eragon fails where it does. Still, if you need that Star Wars fix, and you want to see the cutest dragon ever put to film, give Eragon a go. It won’t stop the shakes, but it might even make you appreciate the prequels. Maybe. Probably not. One can hope. Oh well, the important thing is your experiencing old things in a new way. woop woop woop! — Jeffrey Roth Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related One Response John E. Meredith December 24, 2015 Haven’t seen a couple of these, BUT NOW I WANT TO. Thank you all for the time, words, and movies to add to my list. It’s a Christmas miracle! Log in to Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.