When Stuart Gordon died at the end of March I decided it was finally time to watch SPACE TRUCKERS, a movie I had been meaning to see for literally 23 years. You know how it is. You get busy sometimes.
Obviously I dig Gordon as a Master of Horror, director of RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND, as one should. And in recent years I’ve really come to love THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM and CASTLE FREAK. But I also think he’s under-appreciated for his sci-fi movies ROBOT JOX and FORTRESS. And ever since I first saw ALIEN I’ve loved those stories that are about space but the heroes are just working class people doing their job, not some royalty or chosen one or member of any federation or academy. As the title makes clear, this is about characters like that. Truckers. In space.
Streaming rental-wise, SPACE TRUCKERS is only available in standard definition, but it did come out on Blu-Ray in the UK, and I do have a region free player. So I ordered it, and it took months to arrive. According to reviews that’s not an ideal way to see it either – they say it’s cropped on all four sides? It didn’t look wrong to me, but I take their word for it. Save for those edges of the frame, I’ve finally seen SPACE TRUCKERS, and I’m glad, even though I think it’s the weakest of the Gordon sci-fi trilogy.
You wouldn’t necessarily know from the poster – either the shitty American LOST IN SPACE style one, or the overseas collage one – but Dennis Hopper is the lead. He plays John Canyon, space trucker. That means he pilots a ship delivering cargo from one spaceport to another, and his ship even looks like a semi with flames painted on like Michael Bay’s Optimus Prime. He prides himself on being independent rather than working for “The Company” like most space truckers.
At the beginning he’s delivering a load of “square pigs” – livestock grown to completely fill their cages, the ultimate disgusting crossover of factory farming and genetic modification. When Keller (George Wendt, FLETCH), the asshole from Interpork, won’t pay him what they agreed on, Canyon decides not to sell him the shipment. But while he’s regrouping at the truck stop (a clever cross between a diner and the rotating room from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY), some Interpork thugs try to steal it.
This precipitates a brawl that ends with Keller sucked out a window into space like a xenomorph, and Canyon flees with a new crew: the waitress Cindy (Debi Mazar, BATMAN FOREVER), who has agreed to marry him if he gives her a ride to Earth, and Mike Pucci (fresh-faced Stephen Dorff, JUDGMENT NIGHT), a recent graduate of the Space Trucker academy who almost accepted the job of driving Canyon’s pigs, not knowing they were stolen. Canyon takes them through a secret passage hidden in a toilet stall to an underground office where they accept one of those suspicious gigs where they’re being paid a whole lot to not ask any questions about what they’re shipping.
During the drive they end up captured by a ship called Regalia, which basically looks like a pirate ship (or the one from Star Blazers). The notorious cyborg pirate Captain Macanudo (Charles Dance, LAST ACTION HERO) and his thugs, including pony-tailed Mr. Cutt (Wez himself, Vernon Wells, who is in two different movies called FORTRESS), tie up and torture them to try to get access to their cargo, which turns out to be an army of dangerous killbots called Bio-Mechanical Warriors (BMWs) that he invented in his former life as a mad scientist before he got blown up. And of course the robots get out and start killing and what not.
I really like the idea of this movie. The plot could almost be a BLACK DOG type trucker action movie, but it happens to take place in space and it’s killer robots instead of stolen cocaine or whatever. And I like that it’s a futuristic sci-fi world with bright colored ships, billboards, diners, and normal citizens. Unfortunately the whole look of the movie kind of bums me out. The sets, costumes and FX are very chintzy in a way that rarely captures much of a space atmosphere. It’s very hard to buy into the world when everything looks too wobbly and fragile to be traveling in space. The diner has windows looking out into the stars, but you can clearly see the walls are made of wood. And I could be wrong, but to me, a layman, that doesn’t seem like a good material for a space station. They put effort into making the clothes interesting, but they end up so ugly, looking like whatever they could find at Goodwill oddly Frankensteined together with occasional pieces of plastic attached to them to look weird. The digital FX are of the type that require forgiveness to be appreciated. There’s a digital blood effect so bad that, combined with the number of visible wires during zero gravity scenes made me wonder if some unfinished FX shots had been used in this transfer, but Gordon in the extras mentions that they didn’t feel they had to use wire replacement (he’s under the impression you have to know where to look to notice them).
I still have my April 1997 Cinefantastique which has SPACE TRUCKERS on the cover and 12 full pages of coverage, so I know a ton of artistry went into this. Effects man Paul Gentry had not only worked on DOLLS and ROBOT JOX with Gordon, but also a ride film the article calls ALIENS AT THE SPEED OF FRIGHT, which “Stuart thought… was a training ground, a dry run for SPACE TRUCKERS.” It’s not made clear in the article, and I never knew Gordon had directed such a thing, but my research tells me it was actually called ALIENS: RIDE AT THE SPEED OF FRIGHT and yes, it was a motion simulation ride based on James Cameron’s ALIENS. It was shown at the TurboRide Simulation Theater at Pier 39 in San Francisco and the American Adventure theme park in Derbyshire, England.
The plot of the ride is that one Colonial Marine escapes an ambush by hundreds of xenomorphs during a routine recon mission, and returns with another team (and the audience) to try to rescue the wounded before their nuclear device goes off. The introductory part looks cheesy, and the best footage is all the stuff they take from the movie, but the APC POV footage is pretty cool – and reflected in a model shot at the beginning of SPACE TRUCKERS – and wouldn’t you know it… Gordon’s favorite actor Jeffrey Combs plays the lead Marine!
I definitely noticed the ALIEN/ALIENS influence on the BMWs in SPACE TRUCKERS. To me they looks like robot versions of xenomorphs with their pipe ribs, long fingers and heads, and lack of eyes. It was interesting to learn that they’re designed by Hajime Sorayama, the artist known for his sexy robots (who I remember from album covers for the band Autograph in the ‘80s) and built by Screaming Mad George (SOCIETY). Gordon says they were all played by beautiful six foot tall models. (One of them, Eugenie Bondurant, is in DARLIN’.)
Captain Macanudo and the (not particularly well integrated) advertising within the movie were designed by Bruce McCall, a commercial illustrator and writer for The New Yorker and National Lampoon. That makes Macanudo one of the few cinematic cyborgs designed by a writer from the first season of SNL.
I noticed that the stunt supervisor is GUYVER: DARK HERO choreographer/BROKEN PATH director Koichi Sakamoto. One of the Cinefantastique articles says he worked on A CHINESE GHOST STORY and was hired for his experience with wire work, to execute the zero gravity scenes. I thought that was cool, but I don’t see any Hong Kong work on his IMDb profile at all – they must’ve been thinking of his extensive Power Rangers resume. The same article quotes Gentry calling stuntman Tatsuro Koike “absolutely the most fearless stunt guy I’ve seen” and saying that he plays numerous characters throughout the movie. Koike is another Power Rangers veteran, and would go on to be stunt coordinator for Gordon’s KING OF THE ANTS.
I think this could use more Verhoevien satire – there’s plenty of room for it. The one amazingly prescient part is at the very end, on earth, when they go to visit Cindy’s sick mother (Barbara Crampton, PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH). The outside of the hospital is crowded with people waiting to get in, and riot police storm in and start beating the shit out of them to clear a path for the president of the privatized United States (Shane Rimmer, DR. STRANGELOVE, MORONS FROM OUTER SPACE) to come visit. More real than they probly realized at the time.
I wish I liked this one better. Maybe its strongest aspect is the novelty of seeing Dennis Hopper play the hero – off the top of my head the only times I remembered him playing good guys were TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 and TRUE ROMANCE, neither of which have him as the full-on lead. And this was just a few years after he’d played the villains of SPEED and WATERWORLD.
But the most purely Stuart Gordon-y part is a scene where Macanudo attempts to coerce Cindy into sex. Thankfully she gets away, making it easier to stomach the repulsiveness of the sequence. Hats off to Dance for being willing to play this over-the-top character. He offers “seven different forms of sedation” before saying he’s confident he can “make a good impression,” then stripping down to reveal his visible brain, robot buttocks and the ripcord that unexpectedly takes several revs to power up his “seldom used reproductive sequences.”
This is morally wrong but I would be excited if somebody good wanted to remake SPACE TRUCKERS. But ROBOT JOX has more potential.
July 20th, 2020 at 11:11 am
Great write-up Vern, I had no idea that this Alien-ish footage even existed!
And good to hear that Space Truckers is now available, ‘cos this is a movie that had an actual theatrical premiere here in Copenhagen – I remember seeing the poster and the names GORDON and HOPPER and naturally my interest was sparked. To this day I haven’t actually seen the movie though! :(