6/3/10

Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983)

Watching a movie can elicit a number of feelings, but one that I always find very strange is unexpected nostalgia. By itself, the yearning for things and years gone by is something I completely understand. It’s what keeps me watching films like Heartbeeps or The Ice Pirates. What I’m talking about is somewhat different. This movie had the ability to take me back to my childhood even though it was never a part of it. That is exactly what I felt this week when I finally got around to seeing Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. The whole time I watched I was filled with a kind of childhood fondness I usually only reserve for when I break out my ancient “special edition” video tape and watch Star Wars as it was meant to be. When I got to asking around about Spacehunter, it turns out that many of the people I know remember it, and a few even saw the film in its partial 3-D theatrical release.

The same year that Spacehunter was released in theaters, Return of the Jedi was the highest grossing film of the year. By comparison, Spacehunter came in 44th only narrowly beating out an actual childhood favorite, D.C. Cab. So it might stand to reason why I haven’t ever heard of Spacehunter. In a year crowded with Jedi, Krull, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Wargames, Mr. Mom, Never Say Never Again and Octopussy, something was bound to slip through the cracks. For director Lamont Johnson, a veteran of television for almost thirty years with few feature film credits, it must have bee a bitter pill to swallow. Once again his attempt to jump from the small screen to the big screen had failed, and this time by the last chapter in one of the most beloved science fiction films of all time.

Looking at the sum of its parts now, Spacehunter looks like they took a bit of Star Wars, a dash of Mad Max, some Steampunk that someone had laying about, scrambled it up with Indiana Jones, and topped it off with a layer of finely melted cheese, or at least Michael Ironside. The movie kicks off with a spectacular explosion on a space faring pleasure ship. A good many of the passengers make it to the escape pods and launch. One of the pods, containing three Earth females, crash-lands on a barren planet ruled by the vicious Overdog (Michael Ironside). Soon, Wolff (Peter Strauss) comes to the planet to find the girls and collect a reward for their safe return, but he soon finds the planet and its people to be unforgiving. Wolff reluctantly accepts the help of Niki (Molly Ringwald), a young woman raised on the planet. Together they face crazed children, swamp dragons, and Wolff’s rival Washington (Ernie Hudson), as they make their way to the Forbidden Zone to rescue the damsels in distress.

Clearly, with a title like Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, the film wanted to bring to mind the same serialized science fiction that Lucas’ was mining for Star Wars. (Much like the more recent and similarly titled Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.) Where Star Wars was pure space opera chock full of massive battles, Spacehunter spends far less time in its titular locale than on the surface of the dusty planet. This is where the film gets really interesting. The first thing you are greeted with is a pirate ship running down a railway, and that pretty much sets up everything you need to know about the setting. There is going to be technology, but don’t be surprised if a fair of amount of fantasy hitches a ride with it. It makes for an interesting mix that I can’t say I have anything direct to compare it to. Spacehunter might be planet bound, but the film makes it an interesting place to explore.

The focus of the film lies on two characters, the young girl Niki played by Molly Ringwald and the rough and tumble space captain Wolff played by Peter Strauss. Strauss approached the role of Wolff like he wanted to see how much he could get away with acting like Harrison Ford. The whole character feels like an amalgam of Indiana Jones and Han Solo, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Strauss gives the gruff hero everything he’s got, and the slightly over the top performance perfectly matches the film. Likewise, Ringwald, best known for being the object of affection in John Hughes’ films, also got the memo. The character of Niki could have gotten very annoying, very fast, but Ringwald gives the character both a believable toughness and tenderness without being maudlin. In fact, all the leads seem very aware of the class of film they are making. Ernie Hudson, who everyone will recognize as Winston in Ghostbusters, is entertaining in his rival/partner role, and  Michael Ironside seemed to be having a wonderful time hamming it up as the cyborg dictator Overdog,

As I understand it, when the film was in its initial theatrical run, it had some parts in 3-D,  and watching it in a normal number of ’D’s, well, I have no idea how the effect would have enhanced anything. Spacehunter stands out from the other Star Wars inspired films because it looks way better than its pedigree might suggest. The combination of cinematographer Frank Tidy, the steady eye behind the award winning film Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, and Lamont Johnson should lead to a drabby film, but Spacehunter pulls from some interesting areas  that gives it a 4 color vibe like it was ripped from the pages of Weird Tales. If Spacehunter was a childhood favorite of yours, you can consider me jealous. It’s surely not a favorite of mine, and I’ll always remember it taking me right back to when I was seven and movies were so full of wonder.

Bugg Rating 

Sadly, no trailer is availible, but you can watch the whole film at Crackle!

8 comments:

  1. I remember when I saw movie back when it was a kid I was utterly heart broken at how quickly they cut away during the "Undress her" scene.

    Decades later I am still praying they'll release an r-rated director's cut...

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  2. Wow, that is funny, I totally saw this in the theater! I don't remember much, but will now have to hunt it down.

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  3. Wow, I remember seeing this in 3D in theaters back when it first came out. Yeah, it was a part of that short-lived 3D craze back then along with another childhood fave of mine METALSTORM: THE DESTRUCTION OF JARED SYN (great title!) which was also in 3D and also ripped of MAD MAX/THE ROAD WARRIOR. Ah, good times...

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  4. Never heard of Spacehunter, but I'm intrigued now!

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  5. Molly was such a little darlin` back in the day in fact i think she was even more gorgeous in this than she was in those ludicrously over-rated teen comedies that she appeared in a couple of years later.

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  6. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobJune 5, 2010 at 6:59 PM

    Al, i know what you mean, i desperately wanted to see those gorgeous sexy birds without their clothes on as well. J.D., Metalstorm was good but what i recall about it more than anything else was that it starred the stunningly beautiful Kelly Preston when she was only 20 years old...WOW...WOW...WOW.

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  7. Almost 30 years on and Spacehunter is still getting wonderful reviews like this. Guess that's the best testament to how good the film actually is. A definite lost gem of the 1980s!!

    Myself, I've been a fan since I was a child, back in '83.

    Some friends of mine have started a Spacehunter forum, would you believe, over at http://spacehunter.phpbbhosts.co.uk

    All are welcome!!

    But yeah, there's some fantastic tales behind the scenes and even more stuff that they didn't include!

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