Tuesday, November 16, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983)


At the height of the early-1980s 3-D craze and not even a full week before the highly-anticipated release of George Lucas's Return of the Jedi (1983), American movie-going audiences were introduced to Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, a space-age pastiche of Old West cliches, post-apocalyptic designs, and desert planet tropes. 

The Lamont Johnson-directed film stars Peter Strauss as a space-going cowboy and gun-for-hire, Wolff, and a very young, very scruffy Molly Ringwald as Niki, a "scav" (scavenger) girl from distant "Terra 11."  These unlikely partners team up to rescue three female refugees from a damaged luxury liner who have fallen into the (prosthetic) grip of a planetary despot, "Overdog" (Michael Ironside).

I still remember seeing this low-budget film with my parents (at the tender of age 13, I guess...) and thinking that Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone was pretty godawful.  It didn't fit any of my pre-conceived expectations for a space adventure at that time (which today, I realize, is not necessarily a bad thing.)

And yet, simultaneously -- even as a kid -- I was highly intrigued by the film and the unusual "garbage"-punk-styled world it presented with such dedication and flamboyance.  To my young mind, the movie also somehow felt dangerous and transgressive in a way that bigger budget films clearly did not.  There was a overwhelming and unsettling feeling that the Spacehunter storyline might head in some...unsavory directions.

When I screened the film again last night -- without 3-D, obviously -- I enjoyed Spacehunter much more than I had in the past, and I was able to process some of the reasons for my initial reaction all those years (and decades...) ago.   The strengths of the film involve two thematic ingredients, in particular. 

First, Spacehunter is actually a kind of forward-thinking, early cyberpunk effort in shape and scope; and secondly, the film gets a lot of mileage out of its post-modern references to the history of science fiction; particularly what might be affectionately termed "pulp" fiction.

"They've come a long way since Monday Night Football..."

Unlikely partners: Niki (Ringwald) and Wolff (Strauss).
Spacehunter's narrative commences when Wolff and his sexy android companion, Chalmers (Andrea Marcovicci) receive a "Bullet-text" message that three women have survived a disaster in space, and crash-landed on a quarantine planet, Terra 11.  In hopes of earning the "mega-credit" reward for their rescue, Wolff sets course for the planet and lands on the arid, inhospitable world.

Unfortunately, Chalmers is killed -- or rendered inoperable -- during Wolff's first engagement on the planet.  He attempts to intercept the three marooned passengers on a kind of sail train, but forces of the local dictator, Overdog, intercept them.

In his all-terrain vehicle, "The Scrambler," Wolff navigates "the Zone" in search of his quarry.  Unexpectedly, he is assisted by Niki, a young girl with a tough exterior who longs for friendship.  An able "tracker," Nicki leads Wolff through deadly adventures with the Zone's residents, including obese bat creatures (!) and sexy Amazon women  seeking robust breeding stock.

Also on the planet is a soldier-of-fortune named Washington (Ernie Hudson), who once served in the military with Wolff and is also hoping to collect the reward for the safe return of the three women.  Together, Wolff, Washington and Niki infiltrate Overdog's headquarters, where he is conducting gladiatorial games, and attempt to complete the mission.

"Why can't anything be simple, anymore?" Spacehunter as Cyberpunk

On Terra 11, the forces of Overdog lay siege to a sail barge/train.
First, I believe it's fair to state that Spacehunter is, at least marginally, an early "cyberpunk"-styled film.  If you consider the essential  requirements of that sub-genre, it usually features loners functioning in a near future, dystopian setting. 

Here, the screenplay actually describes Wolff as a loner, the setting is the mid-22nd (maybe a hundred years from now), and the dystopian setting is not a failed state; but a failed planet.  Terra 11 has fallen into chaos and become a "Quarantine Restricted Planet" after the "PSI Plague" hit in 2021.  

Additionally, Spacehunter deals with such cyber punk issues as artificial intelligence: Chalmers is an android, an engineer and apparently a sex-bot too.  Also, in keeping with the cyber-punk format, prosthetics (artificial enhancements of missing human limbs) play a role in the story.  Overdog, like Darth Vader before him, seems more machine than man.

According to a good, general definition at Wikipedia, cyberpunk fiction and film are often-described as "high tech" and "low life" and Spacehunter doesn't precisely fit that bill.  It's got the low-life part down, all right, and outside of Terra 11 there are some examples of high tech.  But on the broken world of Terra 11, there is no real "high" anything (except as provided by the "mood-enhancers" of the plague-ridden villain called "The Chemist.")

Although the Internet and computer world do not play a meaningful role in Spacehunter either, there is at least, through bullet-text updates, the suggestion of an inter-connected universe.  And how that advanced technology is utilized certainly suggests the low-life.  For instance, a message at the beginning of the film reports to Wolff that he is wanted in association with failing to pay over a hundred parking tickets; and that he ran out paying on his ex-wife's alimony.  This is exactly the seedy vibe of some cyberpunk efforts or what author and scholar Paul Meehan might term "tech noir."

From the film's very first shot -- a view of rusted metal plate lined with rivets, subsequently smashed by the film's title card -- Spacehunter seems legitimately about breaking things open in the genre.  Blasting through the past, and creating -- in the best and most vivid terms it can -- a broken down future world.   To me, that seems very cyber punk-ish.

"I Love Your Planet:" Spacehunter as Pulp Science Fiction

Wanted: Breeding Stock.  Meet the Amazon Women of Terra 11...
Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone features android sex-bots, cannibalistic mutants, life-force draining machines, Amazon women in search of breeding stock and other touches that, as long time sci-fi fans, we should all recognize as being of distinctly "pulp" origins.

That means, essentially, the film appeals not just to the imagination and futurist in us...but to our glands.  This is the element I believe I picked up on as a teenager; the sense of lurid sexuality on display during two interludes in the film.

In the first instance, the evil Overdog instructs a guard to "undress" one of his captive women "...slowly."  The guard does so -- before our eyes -- and it's weird and disturbing.  Overdog is more machine than man, as I noted above, so what physical "interest" is he satisfying here?  Just looking?  Or does he have prostheses the audience hasn't seen?  Regardless, the implication is of a most abnormal and perverse appetite.

In the second instance, Wolff and Niki drive the Scrambler into a high-techcavern populated by scantily-clad, voluptuous Amazon women.  These sexy women surface from beneath the water, ogle Peter Strauss and decide that he is good "breeding stock."   In the film's funniest moment, one of the Amazon women wagers he would "not survive" the breeding process.

"I'll take that bet," Wolff replies, without missing a beat...

Yeah, it's sleazy and sexist, I suppose, but these scenes arise from a real and common tradition in the pulp magazinesof the 1950s; a tradition which frequently sees scantily clad damsels in distress held unconscious in the arms of a monster or an alien, to be used -- ostensibly -- for some unspeakable, inhuman pleasure

I can't argue that's nice or high-brow, or even inoffensive, but Spacehunter undeniably pay tribute to long-standing pulp tradition at the same time it looks forward to the next iteration of the genre: cyberpunk.

 "Us loners got to stick together."

Overdog (Michael Ironside)
A little sleaze goes a long way when a film features a sturdy and charming sense of humor, and that's the case with Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. 

I admire how the film creates its own "future language" and how the screenplay allows the barely-educated Niki to mangle the King's English more than any dramatic character since Mrs. Malaprop. 

I also got a kick out of Overdog's smiling admission that he is a liar, after promising to let Nicki go should she escape the gladiatorial maze.  It's a funny moment.

The dialogue in Spacehunter is quippy, creative and kind of funny, and the visualizations of the dystopic world prove stunning at points.   These images feature some nice, unexpected details too.  For instance, when Wolff boards the sail barge during a battle, down on the deck we see, briefly, cages filled with livestock.  The cages are uncommented on, but provide evidence that a production designer was imagining a larger world; one where food (and the transport of food) had to be accounted for.

So yes, this movie is low-budget, low-brow, lurid, action-packed and much more fun than I gave it credit for being some twenty-seven years ago.  There's a strong aura of a danger throughout, a great villain, and plenty of guffaws (not to mention a closing act cameo by television's favorite rock formation, Vasquez Rocks). 

For all its brazen political incorrectness, Spacehunter boasts "a very enviable life force," to quote Overdog.   I don't know that I can defend the film on many high-brow intellectual terms, but I also don't know that I need to.

The movie scavenges the new genre of cybyerpunk and the old traditions of the pulp sci-fi magazine in a manner that, on retrospect, seems pleasing and diverting.  In the final analysis, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone is assembled -- like Overdog himself -- out of a lot of interesting spare parts. .

14 comments:

  1. Spacehunter and the Overdog sure love the lolitas.

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  2. Davidfullam:

    Yes, you aren't kidding...

    best,
    JKM

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  3. wow, never heard of this until now. I can't believe molly ringwald was in this.

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  4. I remember seeing this as a kid in 3D and also being drawn to "the unusual "garbage"-punk-styled world it presented with such dedication and flamboyance" as you so eloquently put it. I'd be curious to see the film now, after all these years and see how its aged and if nostalgia makes me look at with fondness.

    I think that CHERRY 2000 mined similiar material/look/themes more successfully AND with better production values, cast, etc. but that's just me. ; )

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  5. Hello friends,

    Myra: This is a weird movie, and it IS strange that Molly Ringwald (a very young Molly Ringwald...) is in it.

    But if you like -- and have patience for -- 1980s genre movies, you might get a kick out of this. Guilty pleasure territory, perhaps...

    J.D.: I am not sure I ever saw Cherry 2000, and now I absolutely must do so! Especially because i have always liked Melanie Griffith. But we dig the same thing: the idea of a cobbled-together future; put together by scavengers.

    Any chance we'll see Cherry 2000reviewed at RH?! Please! :)

    All my best to you both, and thank you for writing!

    best,
    JKM

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  6. Hey John,
    What fascinates me more and more in hindsight as I get older with movies like Spacehunter, is the context in which they arrived. Someone watching this now might scratch their head a little but as you mention it came out on the heels of Jedi in the full boom of the 3D resurgence. In that context it makes sense that a movie like this, meant to capitalize on two trends, exists in the first place.

    I remember seeing this on opening day and being underwhelmed after my rearing on Star Wars. Now though I see this as the type of movie Star Wars was paying tribute to in the first place. Like you mention it recalls pulp sci-fi, in many ways more accurately than that which it seeks to imitate. As a result it ends up being a really fun movie when given a fair chance all these years later, removed from the shadow of the Lucas saga.

    And how about the cast. Strauss is a great bargain Han Solo (the character we all wanted to be), Ringwald is at her perky best, Ernie Hudson is there and reliable, and Michael Ironside as Overdog is perfection. The effects and production design also have that interesting cyberpunk quality you identify, making this all the more worth remembering.

    If there's anything to be upset about, it's that the 3D wasn't all that great as I recall (the norm for the vast majority of those films). But that hardly matters now . . . the kitschy comin' at ya moments just add to the charm. And its head and shoulders above its brethren (I'm looking at you Jared Syn) - I think we all can agree on that!

    As a bit of trivia I don't know if you remember this, but the movie definitely came out with some fanfare. I distinctly remember Starlog had a big Spacehunter contest where you could win one of the obese bat suits! Seriously what would you do with one of those things?!? That would be creepy as all get out to have displayed. Wouldn't you love to know one of the winners of that contest : )

    Long live Wolff (with 2 f's thank you very much) and Nicki!

    Best, Jim

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  7. Jim,

    Hello my dear friend! I think we probably shared a similar journey with this film, based on your comment.

    As a teenager reared on Star Wars, I didn't quite know what to make of Spacehunter.

    Now, I get it, and kind of love it for all the reasons I posted in my review, and all the reasons you enumerate.

    The movie is...cheeky. It's a little sleazy.

    But it really gets the pulp angle right; and it really points to the Cyberpunk direction of later films such as Hardware and Screamers.

    You're right that divorced from the context of the day (and a comparison to the Star Wars juggernaut), this movie seems a lot better (and a lot more unique) than critics and audiences gave it credit for.

    Great comment, buddy. And as always, nice to see your name here!

    Regards,
    John

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  8. I never saw this one. My reaction when I saw you covering it was immediately "so funny" because I had recently added it to my possible purchases list.

    I guess I never saw it for the same reasons you mentioned after seeing it at 13 years old or as Jim Blanton mentioned, because we were so influenced by Star Wars.

    Your picture choice of that steam ship boat train is indeed cyber punk. Right on!

    I definitely like the Mad Max or post-apocalyptic low budget look. I like that aesthetic but I'm still not sure. Based on your fine and most likely dead on the money review, I'm still not sure I want to part with mine. : )

    Thanks John
    All the best
    SFF

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  9. Anonymous2:36 AM

    This has to be one of my all time favorites! Quite good selection of films which I have looked http://bit.ly/d7JKuN

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  10. SFF:

    I totally understand your dilemma.

    I don't know that I would actually recommend a purchase of Starhunter, sight unseen. Maybe a rental first, to see if it is your cup of tea.

    Spacehunter is enjoyable and fun, and cheeky, politically incorrect and sleazy..so making a clear-cut recommendation on this is hard. It will probably strike different people different way. But knowing your love of good genre visuals, I do think you would dig the look of the film, and many of the vehicles (like the Scrambler).

    Great comment!

    All my best,
    JKM

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  11. JKM:

    And we also share an interest in Cyberpunk-esque futureworlds depicted on film! I might just take you up on that request to cover CHERRY 2000 now that you've got me thinking of it again and I just happened to tape a widescreen copy of it last time IFC showed it. Thanks for the inspiration!

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  12. It's always great to meet another who enjoyed Spacehunter, but utterly delighting when I read a review as well-considered and articulated as this one, John.

    An absolute pleasure to read!!

    As may be evident, Spacehunter is my all-time favourite film, for the reasons you have given above and some others not so evident...

    Peter Strauss has since become my favourite actor thanks to Spacehunter, so it comes as no surprise that the original script was a very different film from the final release. There were a lot more touching Straussian character moments in the original cut, but alas these were dropped in one of the studio's more creative moments. I can only imagine what a film this would be if they'd only left those scenes in!

    It was the studio's idea to release this right before Jedi, mainly to capitalise on the general sci-fi bandwaggon. Also, it was not intended to be in 3-D until the aforementioned studio got creative (why can't they leave film making to the film makers?) and hopped on the bandwaggon.

    The sudden leap in workload led to the dismissal of the first director and a large number of the crew. When production resumed a lot of other crew members had been forgotten and had to be replaced at short notice. In particular, 3-D expert Dan Symmes was one of those forgotten and although his last minute replacement, Ernest McNabb, did his best the results were inconsistent to say the least.

    Lamont Johnson took the helm with just five days to get acquainted, a release date already set and pretty much an entire movie to rewrite and get filmed.

    It's a miracle this film is still even around, much less being enjoyed to this day. As Michael Ironside said, when I asked him to sign my original Spacehunter VHS copy, "Oh my God - YOU'RE the one who bought this??!! I heard someone did!!".

    But as mentioned, this is still by far my favourite film. Even though the magic of Star Wars has faded and Lightsabres no longer blaze in my fantasies, Spacehunter still makes the same simple sense it always did. All I really want now in life - all I ever truly wanted is to be a galaxy-hopping garbage man driving a nice 4x4 (with a rocket launcher on the back) and a sexy robot companion... But if she happens to fail and melt, I'm sure Molly Ringwald will come along to fill the gap!!

    If it's OK, I'd like to take this opportunity to invite all who enjoyed this film to hop by our new Spacehunter forum and share your thoughts:
    http://spacehunter.phpbbhosts.co.uk


    Thanks again for writing such a fantastic review!

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  13. Kaitain7:31 PM

    No mention here for Elmer Bernstein's score, which is excellent. It moves between the rousing main theme, wistful flute cues that emphasize the broken-down nature of this world at the fringes of colonized space, and the jaunty, western-style tracks for which Bernstein is famous (and in many ways this is indeed a western).

    I always had a soft spot for Spacehunter. It's low-budget and slightly kooky, but it's full of memorable scenes, Strauss, Ringwald and Hudson are way better than the C-listers you usually get in this kind of fare, and there is real menace in the death maze and the final confrontation with McNabb. Lots to like: classic 1980s VHS genre fare.

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  14. Kaitain7:33 PM

    Oh, and I forgot to mention Ironside! There are no truly bad films with Michael Ironside.

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