Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983) — Wants to be Star Wars when it grows up

“What do you think I am, you scrawny earthbag? I’m a woman!”

Earth-Justin’s rating: Any proper noun sounds so much more science fictiony if you add the prefix “Earth-” to it!

Earth-Justin’s review: Imagine that you’re a film studio head that’s facing the reality that a competitor is about to release the most anticipated science-fiction movie of the year. Heck, the most anticipated anything-movie of the year, period. And you need to figure out a way to counter-program using limited resources and cheaper actors. What’s your solution?

This was the scenario in 1983, as Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was set to take theaters by storm for the summer blockbuster season. Columbia Pictures thought that a perfect solution would be to get its own scifi movie out a week beforehand. The film in question would star a Han Solo-like character and even, why not, utilize 3-D. That movie was, of course, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone.

Obviously, this wasn’t an attempt to make the most amazing story with an unlimited budget, but rather to pander, cajole, and entertain on the cheap. To that end, Spacehunter actually did fairly well, becoming one of the most popular videocasette rentals of the year. OK, it was at the bottom of the top 10, but it was still on there!

At the onset of the movie, a spaceliner experiences some unfortunate exploding during transit, and an escape pod with three women crashlands on the Planet of the Mad Maxians. It’s as if the entirety of Star Wars: A New Hope took place on Tatooine, with about as much whining. Our Han Solo stand-in for the film is Wolff (Peter Straus), a bounty hunter who answers the call to rescue the women for a cash reward. Along the way he picks up a scrawny kid named Niki (Molly Ringwald) and bumps into a frenemy named Washington (Ernie Hudson). The three team up to break into the fortress of Overdog (space Michael Ironside) and save the day. That’s pretty much it.

I’ve always felt that space movies that deliberately ground its cast due to budgetary restraints always let me down. By all means, visit planets, but take off from them once in a while, too! Having to spend 98% of this movie’s runtime in this dusty, rocky setting was no treat for the eyes.

At least it’s unintentionally and intentionally amusing. Reportedly, the making of this movie was a real mess, with script rewrites happening right and left throughout it. Even so, our main trio make the absolute best that they can with it, especially Ringwald, who jabbers at a high frequency as if she was worried this was going to be the only movie she’d ever be in and she wanted to make sure she crammed in all of the acting she ever thought she would do.

Overlooking the fact that Wolff has an actual spaceship that could take off and land wherever he wants, for some reason he elects to drive, walk, and swim his way to the (pause for dramatic effect) FORBIDDEN ZONE. At least it gives him plenty of opportunities for ridiculous encounters with sewer Amazons, underground fight clubs, bomb-lobbing children, and flesh mutants.

About my biggest complaint here is Spacehunter’s soundtrack, which alternates between blaring like a original series Star Trek episode and beeping and booping like a kid who just got a Casio as a Christmas present. They should’ve sprung for a better class of composer, but Ernie Hudson needed that second Ferrari.

I also would be remiss not to point out the slightly off-kilter relationship between Wolff and Niki. I think their connection is supposed to be something of an adopted father and daughter, but there are moments that suggest it’s more like a surrogate marriage. I don’t know why they needed to show cuddling during a camping scene, is what I’m saying.

Considering that it was made on the Canadian cheap with lots of 3D effects, Spacehunter is a… surprisingly OK time. Hudson, Straus, and Ringwald bounce off each other well, and more than once I found myself snorting out a laugh and finding myself looking forward to whatever the filmmakers were going to think up next. I’ve certainly seen a whole lot of worse ’80s scifi, and I could see renting this on videocassette more than once. If, you know, I was writing this from 1984 and only had a single TV and family VCR in the house.

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