No. 44: Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone

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Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

Do you like Star Wars? What about Mad Max? What if you took those two movies, combined them, traded out the actors for a bunch of nobodies, made the screenplay laughably bad and cut the special effects budget in half? You still want to see it? Then have I got a movie for you…

I knew at some point in this process, I’d run into my first camp classic and Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone is it. Loaded from end to end with bad acting, cheap special effects and one of the laziest, most brazen attempts at cinematic plagiarism I’ve ever seen, Spacehunter is the kind of movie that can really only be enjoyed by the cynical and sarcastic hipsters raised on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Believe me when I say, though, that I am not the kind of person who enjoys the camp factor of a bad movie. I might be amused by how bad it is but make no mistake, friends, this is 90 minutes of my life I will never get back. A sacrifice for the integrity of the blog.

The film opens with a confusingly shot effects sequence involving some cardboard spaceships hitting a meteor and exploding. An escape pod holding three women in spandex and New Wave hairdos ejects and crash lands on a strange planet where we will spend the rest of the movie. The premise here, though it is never fully explained in the film, is that this planet has been overrun by a horrible disease that has turned everyone on it into melty-faced mutants who apparently spend their entire lives making Molotov cocktails in preparation for the events of this movie.

Anyway, the three women, who are never named and never speak a word of dialog in the entire film, are captured by the mutants and taken to an evil warlord named Overdog (we’ll get to him later) for unspecified purposes. That’s when we meet our hero, Wolff.

Here’s where the plagiarism kicks in. Wolff is Han Solo, plain and simple. He dresses like him, he has the same haircut, he’s sarcastic, he’s a loner, on and on. The only difference is that while Harrison Ford oozed charisma in the role, Wolff is played by a TV actor (Peter Strauss) who looks like he was on morphine for the length of the production.

Even the name evokes Han Solo. Here’s how I’m pretty sure they named the character. Han Solo. Solo. Alone. Lone. Lone Wolf. Wolf. Add another f so people don’t suspect what we’ve done.

Anyway, Wolff receives a message about the three women with an offer of a reward if he can rescue them. Wolff and his sexy female assistant Chalmers (I love that name) zoom down to the planet, bury their spacecraft so the aliens can’t find it (Wolff’s best line: “Make it eat dirt, Chalmers!”) and embark on their adventure.

The first mind-blowingly stupid action set piece we encounter (don’t worry I won’t take you through all of them) involves a group of “land pirates” who ride a train in the shape of a pirate ship. I’m not even going to attempt to apply logic to that idea because I know the writers who came up with it didn’t. Anyway, the pirate scene ends with what has to be the most campy sequence in the entire film, an early death scene for the ill-fated Chalmers that contains a hilarious reveal that I admit I should have seen coming. Think Ian Holm in Alien.

With Chalmers dispatched, we meet the real female lead of the film, the much less sexy Niki, played by a pre-Sixteen Candles Molly Ringwald. I kid you not. At this point in her career, Ringwald was a newcomer, known only for her role on The Facts of Life. In her defense, she’s clearly giving this role her all. The character is meant to be obnoxious and dopey and Ringwald’s delivery is probably the best anybody could hope for with this screenplay, which I should mention is loaded with distractingly idiotic future-slang. Words like ‘brainworking’ (which means thinking) and ‘scavvy’ (which means disgusting). Marlon Brando would sound like an idiot with this dialogue. Ringwald had no chance.

As Wolff and Niki search the desert planet for signs of the three captured women, they encounter lame monsters, futuristic biker gangs and on a couple of occasions an old frenemy of Wolff’s named Washington, played by Ernie Hudson. Hudson must have gotten roped into the movie by his Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, who executive produced Spacehunter (weird) and it’s a fortunate turn of events for us as he’s far and away the most entertaining part of the movie. He too is given ridiculous dialogue, mostly focused on his love for his specialized bulldozer vehicle, but Hudson is such a likable actor that he seems to get away with it far more than the rest of the cast.

The film climaxes with a big spark-filled battle with Overdog, who looks strikingly like Darth Vader without a helmet. He’s sufficiently gross looking for an intergalactic villain but it doesn’t appear that anything was done to effect his voice, which basically sounds like a normal dude’s voice coming through a hideously disfigured half-man, half-machine.

So how did this piece of junk get a green-light from a major Hollywood studio (Columbia Pictures)? And better yet, how did this film end up in the Top 50 at the box office for the year? A quick glance at the film’s history answers both questions. Spacehunter was released on May 20, 1983, one week before the opening of what many correctly assumed would be the biggest hit of the year, Return of the Jedi. The first nerdlings were already setting up camp in front of their local theater when Spacehunter opened and Columbia must have figured that a low-budget, thrown together knock-off might be able to capitalize on the excitement preceding Jedi. It wasn’t a bad bet; Spacehunter finished with $16.5 million at the box office with a production budget of $14.4 million. Nothing to sneeze at in 1983 dollars.

Still, it’s films like this, low quality garbage with a clear intent to capitalize on the success of another well-made film from another studio, that give the ’80s a bad name when it comes to movies. I’ve flipped across so much campy trash like Spacehunter that it’s tainted my view of all films from the ’80s. I’m willing to excuse camp when it comes from a filmmaker who was legitimately trying to make a good film but failed. I’m less forgiving with films like this, churned out quickly and cheaply by a major studio with the resources to do better work. This is the first truly bad film I’ve encountered on the list so far. Looking ahead though, this might be a taste of things to come for 1983.

Next Up: Krull starring Liam Neeson.