In the wake of George Lucas’ world dominating, sci-fi/fantasy, Star Wars, the race was on to concoct as many movies as possible that copied that template as close as possible that didn’t incur the wrath of Lucasfilm’s lawyers. Among the predictable slew of Roger Corman produced efforts lay Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone, an American/Canadian production that was overseen by Ghostbusters’ Ivan Reitman and directed by Lamont Johnson, a man who seemingly doesn’t have a single other directing credit on IMDB I’ve seen.
Now, I freely admit that this could be blind nostalgia talking, but despite having a title as catchy as the name of a Welsh town, I vaguely remember Spacehunter low-key rocking during the many viewings during my childhood and I was eager for a rewatch.
Does this rarely celebrated serving of sci-fi scrappiness yield endorphin forming memories of my youth, or does the adventures of this “galaxy hopping garbage man” burn up on re-entry?
Jack Wolff, a small time operator living a day at a time in a spaceship that’s as unkempt as the back seat of a teen’s first car, gets wind of a rescue mission that requires the saving of three, nubile survivors whose escape pod has crashed after their space cruise blew up. Saddling up with his shapely sidekick/mechanic, Chalmers, they race to the toxic wasteland known as Terra XI, a former Earth colony that’s falling under the vicious rule of the lobster-clawed Underdog, a former doctor-turned-cyborg who has prolonged his life by turning himself into one big iron lung on hydraulics. If they don’t get to the women in time, Overdog with have them captured in order to simultaneously leech their lifeforce from them while leering at them like a weirdo on the subway; but after an altercation between two native factions, Chalmers is killed (but it’s revealed she’s a robot – so I guess it’s ok?) and the normally reclusive Wolff has to team up with whining teenage Skav, Niki, in order to navigate the dangers of this plague ravaged shit hole that looks like Jigsaw redesigned Tattoine.
I have to say, for someone who claims to be a tracker, Niki, may need to update her C.V. a bit, because on the way they fall foul to a procession of Terra XI’s nastier residents like a race of breeding obsessed water Amazons, a swam of obese mutant zombies, deformed children who use molotov cocktails as their primary weapon and, of course, the Overdog himself who gets his mechanical rocks off by feeding people into his impossible death maze.
Can Wolff, Niki and professional rival, Washington, save the girls, claim the reward and leave the planet while hopefully not catching anything too fatal from a planet that looks to be at least 80% tetanus?
So, while obviously not as awesome as my ten year-old self would have me believe, I was please to find out that Spacehunter still manages to barely hold together after all these years and is something of a spirited provider of 80’s era space-cheese. There’s obviously nothing here that can come within light years of George Lucas’ legendary space opera (no big surprise there), but in it’s own, malformed, rickety way, the movie quickly dkes what it says on the tin, chucks in a few child-scarring incidents for go measure and then cheerfully heads off on it’s own merry way without overstating its welcome like a drunken guest at 3am at a house party.
Creating a gleefully nonsensical future where humans deal in “megacredits”, yet things such as parking tickets and checks are somehow still a thing (how do you get a parking ticket in space?), Spacehunter skips all that “heroes journey” crap and shortcuts it’s way in by making its grumpy, antisocial, Han Solo character the lead as he flies across the universe in what must be the sci-fi equivalent of a banged up pickup truck. As Wolff, Peter Strauss has a nice line of spitting out world weary complaints through permanent five o’clock shadow as he makes his way through an episodic plot that feels less like a script and more like an itinerary for a fairground ride. Of course there’s a perfectly rational explanation for this aside from some ropey scriptwork as Spacehunter was part of that overexcited fad 1983 had for 3D which perfectly explains away the fact that the film rarely pauses for breath, yet has blessedly few moments where people randomly point things at the screen – I’m looking at you, Friday The 13th 3D!
As a result, the film moves like shit off a shovel, hyped up substantially by Elmer Bernstein’s wildly over achieving score, which is probably for the best as the longer the film goes on, the more perplexing questions it raises – if the Scavs travel everywhere by rails on their train-like transport, then why the hell does it have sails? How are Overdog’s misshapen mutant soldiers so good at hang gliding? And why does Niki use weird broken English such as saying “brain-work” instead “think” when saying the original words are far simpler?
Still, it doesn’t really matter, not when you have a bald Ernie Hudson as support as frenemy Washington and the mighty Michael Ironside made up as a biomechanical zombie as the truly impressive-looking Overdog. In fact, Overdog may be the best, forgotten, 80’s sci-fi villain that exists with his silver teeth, his kickass claws and the fact that he gets around on what looks like the arm of digger, however, it’s a little weird that, for a family film, he and his creepy underling, the Chemist, seem to be collossal perverts, positively drooling over the their three, glamorously back combed prisoners as the film’s big bad demands that they be undressed “SLOWLY!”. In fact, women in general aren’t treated particularly well in Spacehunter, with the ill-fated Chalmers literally bring demoted to a mere object after its revealed to us that she’s a robot after a round of gunfire hits her in the face. “You were the best model they ever put out.” laments Wolff as he callously programs her body to melt, presumably to freak out the children in the audience even more.
However, salvation comes in the form of Molly Ringwald (yes, that Molly Ringwald) who plays the excruciatingly annoying Niki and for years reviews have wished that she hadn’t ventured out into space and simply stayed back in Shermer, Illinois where she belonged. However, time has been ridiculously kind to this aspect of the story as the plot point of a grouchy adventure reluctantly taking parental duties of an outlandish precocious waif is all the rage now thanks to The Mandolorian and The Last Of Us and it truly refreshing that Niki is the only female in the cast who isn’t treated like a sex object.
Still, it ain’t art, but Spacehunter has enough cool, Mad Max-style vehicles, a endearingly swaggering lead and a truly awesome villain (seriously, Overdog is fuckin‘ metal) going for it to appease fans of creaky, 80’s space stuff or old bastards like me who want to relive some dopey/cool shit from their youth on a rainy afternoon.
Overdog = underrated.