Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Films of 1983: Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone

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 decorum-shattering in a way that bigger budget films clearly did not.  There was a overwhelming and unsettling feeling that the Spacehunter story-line 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. .


  1. I ended up seeing this movie by accident. A friend of mine and I went to see Return of the Jedi on opening day, but the line was so impossibly long, I knew we would never get in, so we decided to bag Jedi and see Spacehunter. We actually needed an usher to escort us through the crowd lest we be mistaken for line crashers and pummeled to death. Anyway, we were pleasantly surprised at how good Spacehunter was, and the 3-D was not as hokey and intrusive as other 3-D movies of the time. Molly Ringwald seemed so cool as Niki, I didn't realize until years later that she was the same actress as the simpering girl in all those John Hughes films. When I finally got around to seeing Jedi a couple months later, I realized that my friend and I had made the right movie choice after all.

  2. Anonymous1:54 AM

    A very accurate assessment of the film in my opinion. I've always enjoyed this one. It's rather odd. Some very nice special effects, though most of the film takes place on the barren wastelands. Some nice sets. I felt an early battle on one of the wasteland vehicles was rather well done and fast-paced. And I loved the Overdog - when he says "I lied" it gets a laugh out of me every time.

    I missed this in the theatre growing up, but as a lifelong fan of 3D, I've managed to see the 3D version thanks to the 3D transfer on the VHD Japanese disc format from the 80's that never made it to the US. There were several of these classic 80's 3D films that were released in 3D over in Japan for home viewing, using true shutter-glass 3D, much like the new wave of 3D on today's 3D televisions. The 3D for this film was very competently shot, and very effective. It was full-color polarized, like most 3D films are, even today - not the red/blue style that most people think of when they think 3D. I'm hoping this eventually gets a 3D blu-ray release like a few of the classics have gotten recently (like Creature From the Black Lagoon) because this would look great in HD in full 3D.


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