May 20, 1983-
SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE IN 3-D is a movie I’d never seen before now, but had been vaguely curious about for years because of its long title and mysterious status as an ’80s space adventure that never much caught on as far as I’ve seen. Now thanks to this review series I finally get to learn what it’s all about and how it differs from another long-titled 3D sci-fi movie we’ll be taking a look at in August.
That first part of the title refers to Wolff (Peter Strauss, THE JERICHO MILE), who’s kind of a Star Lord – a 22nd century mercenary who takes a gig rescuing three tourists from Earth whose escape pod crash landed on the hostile planet Terra 11 after the luxury space cruise ship they were vacationing on blew up. It’s a pretty great opening with charmingly goofy model spaceships (some of the miniature work is by legendary TERMINATOR animator/slide guitarist “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow) and a really cool design for the pod. It opens up and they have these weird gold encasings over their torsos, you’re not really sure who or what you’re look at until they lift off the metallic things and reveal that they’re three ladies who look like they could be Barbarella’s friends from college or one of Prince’s girl groups.
If they were, they might even have the same names: Nova (Cali Timmins, later on Another World), Reena (Aleisa Shirley, SWEET SIXTEEN) and Meagan (Deborah Pratt, GRAMBLING’S WHITE TIGER, later a writer/producer/actor on Quantum Leap). As soon as they show their faces they’re mobbed by natives in tattered rags and plastic bags, who then get scared off by nomads in amazing ROAD WARRIOR-worthy vehicles, and they’re captured.
Wolff lives on a beat-up old ship. A space hooptie. His seat is wrapped in duct tape, his socks are dirty with a hole in the toe, the communicator and the air lock don’t work unless you give them a kick. But he’s probly enjoying the solitude and freedom of living out there in space between jobs. Working class independent contractor space trucker type deal, with occasional swashbuckling. A romantic lifestyle.
When he hears about the missing tourist job he wakes up his chief engineer Chalmers (Andrea Marcovicci, THE FRONT, THE HAND, THE STUFF), who says “I’m entitled to four hours downtime,” but she doesn’t get that. I’m gonna report Wolff to the union. She seems like she might be his girlfriend, or at least they’re flirtatious and affectionate with each other, but he also barks orders at her and yes, she turns out to be a robot. I like her though. On the ship she has her hair slicked back like she just got out of the shower, wears a sequined nightshirt with no pants, and ballet slippers. She kicks her legs up on the dashboard, makes herself comfortable until they land. Not one of those formal androids.
They land and drive a cool all-terrain vehicle called The Scrambler to the escape shuttle, but they’re too late for the job to be easy – the tourists are being held prisoner on a pirate ship that rolls on train tracks. They get there just in time to see it stopped by a blockade and attacked by raiders in spiky black armor they call “Overdog’s trikers.” Wolff is still just watching and saying things like “Chalmers, take out that cannon!” and she does all the work until he finally bothers to prove himself capable.
“I’m going in.”
“On who’s side?”
“My side. Cover me.”
So he runs into the middle of this battle, climbs around on the ship, duels various trikers like a space age Errol Flynn. My favorite move is when he jumps up high and comes down stomping as hard as he can on a wobbly rope bridge, causing his opponent to bounce up and fall crotch-first onto the bridge.
But some guys called Vultures fly in on hanggliders blowing trails of red smoke around and there are jawdropping stunts where they swoop down, hook each of the women and yank them away to “The Zone.” (It’s never referred to as The Forbidden Zone, like in the title, or The Creep Zone, like in an earlier abandoned title.)
This is not only a STAR-WARSian space fantasy, it’s also a post-apocalypse movie. There was a plague on Terra 11 “during the stalemate.” Two doctors were sent in to help, but one of them, who goes by the very dignified name of Overdog McNabb (Michael Ironside, after VISITING HOURS, before SCANNERS), decided to become dictator of the planet. He lives in a place called Cemetery City, has giant robot claw hands and hangs from a larger construction equipment claw, entertaining people by forcing prisoners onto an obstacle course where they get chased by a vehicle called the Decimator, climb up spiked walls, get flipped onto beds of sharp metal objects, through a wall of flames, and into water where axes and saw blades swing at them.
The pirate ship was run by the other doctor, the nice one, and he gets mortally wounded in the attack, so his sons head to The Zone to kill Overdog for revenge.
I was bummed out when Wolff walked back to the Scrambler talking to Chalmers before she’s in view of him or the camera. You know what that means. She’s dead. “You were the best damn model they ever put out,” he says, and then pushes a button on a remote that makes her face melt away and collapse. (What, he keeps that in the glove compartment?)
Luckily he gets a new Platonic female companion real quick. While investigating a house inhabited by cobwebs and skeletons somebody tries to steal his ride, but he stops her. Niki (Molly Ringwald in her second movie, after John Cassavetes’ TEMPEST) describes herself as “a woman, an Earther” and repeatedly insists she’s “not a scav” (scavenger). She knows where he can buy clean ones, though, or if he’s selling she’s got takers who’ll buy. He tries to ditch her until she says she knows “about the new earth fraulies. They flew by here. They’re like you, there were three of ‘em.” She’ll track them for him in trade for some Earth food and nice clothes like theirs.
I imagine there are many viewers who hate this babbling, space-slang-using teenager. I think she’s great. Strauss has a decent presence but doesn’t have the right rough edge to be convincing as the Han Solo type they’re clearly going for (apparently Jeff Bridges almost did it – would’ve liked to see that). Still, he’s curmudgeony enough that it’s fun to see her bounce off and dance around him, and some of his reactions as he’s annoyed by her are pretty funny.
Later they encounter a scary smoke-spewing vehicle with an angled bulldozer plow. The driver turns out to be Washington (Ernie Hudson, LEADBELLY, THE HUMAN TORNADO, PENITENTIARY II), a guy Wolff used to be in “the service” with, now “Sector Chief,” out here seeking the same bounty. He wrecks his truck trying to run over Wolff, then tries to join forces, but Wolff and Niki ditch him and throw his gun in the water. Later they meet again and do team up. It’s kinda sweet when Niki gets mad that Wolff doesn’t consider her in the negotiated 50/50 split, and Washington tries to comfort her. “Don’t let him get to you,” he says. He’s a “space tramp” and a loner so he doesn’t know any better.
“Yeah, but us loners gotta stick together,” she says.
Washington calls her “partner” and Wolff feels bad enough to offer to fly her to another planet after it’s all done, like she’d wanted earlier. She pretends she has to think about it. They all like each other but have a hard time admitting it, ’cause of the cold harshness of space or whatever.
SPACEHUNTER has some of the usual weaknesses of a post-STAR-WARS also-ran sci-fi fantasy. The section about the cartoonish character “The Chemist” (Hrant Alianak, later in SWORD OF GIDEON) and his BATMAN FOREVER-esque laboratory full of rubber tubes seems like it comes from a different, cheesier movie, and the noisy climax, with the rescue of the tourists and final fight with Overdog in Cemetery City, isn’t as fun as the journey to get there. Also, with all due respect to the great composer Elmer Bernstein (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON), his “rousing orchestral music” (as the subtitles put it) make some of this seem cornier and more unfashionable than necessary.
But there are more than enough sights to behold and adventures in the Forbidden Zone to have, like the disgusting, slimy blob-people they find hanging in cocoons in an abandoned building that crawl out and slide through tubes to chase them, the Scav motorcycles with round rollbars, the mutant children who stand on the cliffs throwing molotov cocktails down at them, and the tough Amazons who rise out of the water and catch them in nets.
“Good breeding man,” one says.
“I bet breeding with us would kill him,” says another.
Wolff smiles and says, “I’ll take that bet.” But they get scared off by some kind of komodo dragon snake monster thing. Maybe some other time.
The STAR WARS influence is obvious with the bounty hunter and the hunk of space junk he flies, but it’s not the same tone. It leans more BARBARELLA and BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS. It also has a bunch of stuff that reminds me of BEYOND THUNDERDOME, which would come two years later. Even a little FURY ROAD! Of course only in superficial ways. But being superficially like FURY ROAD is better than just being a normal movie.
It was shot mostly in the United States, but the producers are Canadian. Ivan Reitman is executive producer, which explains why MEATBALLS/STRIPES/HEAVY METAL writers Len Blum & Dan Goldberg did rewrites, and why the voice of Harold Ramis is heard over an intercom in one scene. I wonder if this is where Reitman met Hudson, setting the stage for him to be in GHOSTBUSTERS? Writing credits also went to David Preston & Edith Rey (THE VINDICATOR), with story by Stewart Harding (who later wrote THE PEACEMAKER starring Dolph Lundgren) and Jean LaFleur (THE MYSTERY OF THE MILLION DOLLAR HOCKEY PUCK, ILSA THE TIGRESS OF SIBERIA).
LaFleur was also the director at first, but after two weeks of filming Columbia fired him and replaced him with Lamont Johnson, an actor turned director of TV shows (Have Gun Will Travel, Peter Gunn) and movies (THE GROUNDSTAR CONSPIRACY, THE LAST AMERICAN HERO). Coincidentally – or maybe not – a 1983 People article on RETURN OF THE JEDI named Johnson as George Lucas’ runner up when he chose Richard Marquand to direct. I’ve seen that disputed elsewhere, but he was definitely on the list, and since he didn’t get that gig he was available to take over SPACEHUNTER. It ended up being his last theatrical feature as a director, though he made a bunch of TV movies after it. His last acting job was dubbing the voice of Ogami Itto in SHOGUN ASSASSIN, and his last directing was season 2, episode 11 of a television show called “Felicity,” a special episode shot in the style of The Twilight Zone. They chose him for that because nearly 40 years earlier he’d directed eight episodes of the real deal. Or maybe because they loved SPACEHUNTER. Or both.
When Lamont came aboard SPACEHUNTER he didn’t like the script and immediately started on rewrites, confusing everybody, but pleasing Ringwald, who didn’t like her character as written and was relieved to be able to improvise her dialogue. She ends up being the heart of the movie in my opinion, so in that regard it definitely worked out.
Coincidentally I recently bought a back issue of Cinefantastique from 1983, with a cover story on the 3-D wave of that time. It has two stories on SPACEHUNTER, all about the technical side. What I learned is that producer Reitman decided pretty much last minute that it should be 3D, based on the reasonable theory that it would stand out both from the mostly low budget horror movies that were being released in 3D and the non-3D sci-fi fantasy of RETURN OF THE JEDI. But they really didn’t give themselves enough time to pull it off properly, even before they decided to push the release date up a couple weeks to beat JEDI to the screens.
They tried hard, though. They put all kinds of thought into things like how to make a star field or a rotoscoped laser blast have dimension. They had to shoot matte paintings for the right eye and then paint onto the original to add information for the left eye. They chose what they were convinced would make the best 3D, an unusual system using two interlocked cameras as opposed to one with a split lens. It was an update of what was used for HOUSE OF WAX 30 year earlier. They also paid $2 million to buy special projector lenses for theaters to present it properly. But after all that they fucked up in the shooting. As Cinefantastique explains it, “[3D consultant Ernie] McNabb apparently positioned the 3-D ‘window’ – the plane within the scene seemingly occupied by the movie screen itself – behind, rather than in front of, the main subject of a shot.” That may or may not look cool, but it requires you to turn your eyes in like you’re looking at your nose in order to focus, and that causes eye strain and headaches if you have to do it constantly throughout a movie.
I don’t understand how, but apparently there is a way to fix that problem in post – if you have the time. They only had time to fix some of it, so it was released with 3D that was widely considered terrible. And though I know there are people who discovered this on video, I suspect the main reason it never caught on is that initial impression. Reminds me of the CLASH OF THE TITANS remake, which I know people wouldn’t have liked anyway (I did), but it definitely didn’t help that it had a really notorious post-conversion 3D job in the days when they hadn’t really cracked those.
That said, SPACEHUNTER did play in 2D at theaters that didn’t have silver screens, and four cities even got it in 70mm. So maybe I’m just making excuses for it. I won’t argue that it’s a misunderstood classic, which would seem ridiculous when you hold it up next to RETURN OF THE JEDI. But I also think it’s a fun movie that anybody into these type of space fantasies should check out. As much as everybody was trying to cash in on STAR WARS in that era, there really weren’t very many that did it with this level of production, this many weird characters and vehicles.
I will leave you with a few screengrabs of some of the imagery I thought was cool.
May 18th, 2023 at 1:40 pm
I am not familiar with this one at all, but it sounds like the best movie ever made. CJ will have to let us know if there is a German word for “disappointment upon discovering an awesome-sounding movie is not available on any streaming services.” (And another German word for “Yes, I could pay a fee to rent it but I’m too cheap.”)