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Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone – film review

February 20, 2014

SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE

Jaunty space western boasts outstanding design.

spacehunter - strauss and ringwald

Directed by Lamont Johnson. Screenplay by David Preston & Edith Rey and Daniel Goldberg & Len Blum, story by Stewart Harding and Jean Lafleur. Starring Peter Strauss, Molly Ringwald, Ernie Hudson, Andrea Marcovicci and Michael Ironside. Year of release: 1983. Running time: 90 minutes.

Peter Strauss plays Wolff (a roguish privateer in a colonized sector of space) who responds to a call to rescue a trio of beautiful women; who, after their spaceliner explodes – are kidnapped on a desolate planet by a deformed and evil warlord, Overdog McNab (Michael Ironside). Landing on the planet Terra Eleven, Wolff       and his sexy android companion Chalmers (Andrea Marcovicci) become involved     in a skirmish with the local Scavs (humans mutated after decades of toxic poisoning and plague) – during which Chalmers is killed. Wolff then meets and befriends Niki (Molly Ringwald) – a precocious feral teen who coerces him into taking her on as his personal guide through this hellish and forbidding wasteland.

Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone was a project initiated in 1981 by Canadian filmmaker Jean Lafleur (along with co-writer Stewart Harding) as a post-apocalyptic road movie/western entitled Road Gangs. To avoid comparisons to Mad Max 2, however, which was in production at the time; executive producer Ivan Reitman had the idea to relocate the action to outer space and retool Road Gangs     as a full-blown space opera/western – with the new moniker Adventures In The Creep Zone (Ironside’s character was originally named King Creep). Ultimately Lafleur was fired after only two weeks of filming when it was decided, after viewing his dailies (which had a distinct absence of master shots), that the movie wouldn’t cut together. Journeyman director Lamont Johnson (The Groundstar Conspiracy, Lipstick) was then brought in to replace Lafleur with only two-and-a-half weeks prep.

spacehunter - wolff's scrambler

Unhappy with the overly busy look of the film (Lafleur had been attempting to emulate the distinctive style of celebrated French comic book artist Jean ‘Moebius’ Girard     in the vibrantly colorful and highly-detailed production design) – Johnson scrapped some of the more outlandish vehicles, props, makeup and costumes and instructed production designer Jack DeGovia to simplify the overall look of the film. The aspects of design which the movie is best remembered for are its unique-looking vehicles; most notably Wolff’s jeep-like Scrambler and the steam-powered snowplough driven by Ernie Hudson’s character. There is also a major action set-piece near the beginning featuring a wind-powered ‘sail train’ – which sets a whimsical tone for       the rest of the film. DeGovia encouraged his design team to let loose with their imaginations (within reason) – and the results are truly unique; giving the movie         a look all its own.

Inspired by the popularity of the 3D release of Friday The 13th Part III in ‘82, and being mindful that Spacehunter would be opening head-to-head with Return Of The Jedi the following summer; director Johnson and the producers decided to photograph their film in the stereoscopic format in order to create a point-of-difference with Jedi and ensure their box office takings wouldn’t be harmed by competition with the Star Wars juggernaut. Just for the record: the 80s 3D craze began in ‘81 with the release of the spaghetti western spoof Comin’ At Ya! – a surprise cult hit. American indie schlock-meister Charles Band followed in ‘82 with the sci-fi horror film Parasite (featuring Demi Moore in her first major role), and Paramount jumped on the 3D bandwagon five months later with the aforementioned Friday The 13th Part III – a major success for the studio. Treasure Of The Four Crowns; a low-rent Italian rip-off of Raiders Of The Lost Ark and follow-up of sorts to Comin At Ya! was next out of     the gate (January 1983), followed by Columbia Pictures’ Spacehunter: Adventures     In The Forbidden Zone in May. Band’s Metalstorm: The Destruction Of Jared-Syn, Universal’s Jaws 3-D and Dino De Laurentiis’ Amityville 3-D rounded out the year; bringing this particular cycle of 3D to a close. While Spacehunter was the only major studio picture not to receive a 3D release here in Australia; critics in the US and England at the time praised the film’s use of the third dimension as being particularly immersive and less reliant on poking a bunch of stuff in the aud’s faces every few minutes.

spacehunter title

Interestingly, Spacehunter could easily be viewed as a live-action cousin to 1981’s The Heavy Metal Movie – as second-billed co-writers Dan Goldberg and Len Blum (who were also responsible for penning the screenplay for that classic animated film; as well as receiving story credit for the ‘Harry Canyon’ and ‘Taarna’ segments) – also imbued this movie with a similar sense of irreverence and fun. One scene in particular stands out as a classic example of Goldberg and Blum’s fratboy humor – when Michael Ironside orders his minions to undress one of the earth girls, he growls laciviously, “That one in the center, undress her – slowly.” It is quite evident in parts though that Goldberg and Blum were on set rewriting scenes during production. There is a scene early on where Wolff investigates a skeleton-filled bunker – which seems to have no purpose in progressing the story or enhancing character – other than providing a fairly uninspired 3D jump scare. The meandering – almost lackadaisical nature of the narrative; with its distinct absence of tension is a good indication the film was being rewritten on the fly. But having said this, it is amazing that the movie’s overall tone remains pretty much consistent throughout.

spacehunter - peter strauss as wolff

Peter Strauss plays Wolff as a less cynical, more laconic version of Han Solo – an ex-soldier, turned privateer. And while Wolff is undoubtedly a likeable character and someone we can root for; his laid-back approach to the threats he encounters gives us little reason to fear for him. This has the result of dissipating tension we would normally be feeling during (what really should be) suspenseful and involving set-pieces. As demonstrated by Indiana Jones in Raiders Of The Lost Ark; a hero who is unsure of himself and faced with insurmountable odds and whose plans don’t always work out for the better – is guaranteed to make for thrilling and suspenseful set pieces (as opposed to someone like James Bond, for example – a hero who takes everything in their stride). This is perhaps the biggest flaw with the movie – more to do with the less-than-ideal last minute on-set writing conditions, than with Strauss as a performer. The character of Niki (as played by the young Molly Ringwald) – with her constant complaining and whiny voice is terribly annoying at first – but thankfully becomes less so, as she develops along the way. Spacehunter marks the fourteen-year-old’s second movie role after appearing in Paul Mazursky’s The Tempest the year before. Ernie Hudson (best known as the fourth Ghostbuster) plays Washington – a man from Wolff’s military past who crosses paths with Wolff several times during his trek across the wilds of Terra Eleven. The friendly rivalry between Hudson and Strauss is nicely drawn; while the lively banter between the three leads provides much amusement (not surprising really; considering Goldberg and Blum were also responsible for penning the 1980 hit comedy Stripes starring Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and John Candy).

Michael Ironside (Scanners) – still recognizable under heavy prosthetic makeup as the half-man half-machine Overdog McNab; spends his scenes swaying back and forth on the end of a cherry picker arm – waving his clawed robotic hands around threateningly. Despite technical restrictions in the physicality of his performance; Ironside is clearly enjoying himself here.

spacehunter - michael ironside as overdog

The desolate Moab region in Utah has long been a favored movie location since John Ford filmed his western Wagon Train there in 1949 and the cinematography by British lenser Frank Tidy (Slipstream) really brings out the earthy tones of these locations. Contributing to the ‘otherworldliness’ of Terra Eleven is Tidy’s use of graduation filters to lend many of his skies a deep orange hue. Tidy had previously employed similar filters to darken the skies in Ridley Scott’s 1977 film The Duellists and this visual aesthetic would quickly become the convention with mainstream cinema in the 80s – contributing enormously to the iconic glam sensibility of many glossy Hollywood summer blockbusters; most notably the films of Tony Scott (Top Gun being the     most obvious example).

Best known for his rousing scores for the classic westerns The Magnificant Seven and True Grit; it comes as no surprise the legendary Elmer Bernstein was chosen to compose this particular score. The score features classical western motifs combined with swashbuckling fanfares and nicely conveys the sense of jaunty fun inherent in the film.

spacehunter - wolff's scrambler and ship

The prosthetic creature effects by Tom and Ellis Burman (Cat People, Halloween III: Season Of The Witch) are well-conceived for the most part; with the blubbery Bat People being suitably creepy and repugnant. And as one would expect from their     VFX work on The Terminator and Aliens; the practical miniature and matte effects by Gene Warren’s Fantasy II company are top notch – although the compositing of the spaceliner in the opening sequence is more than a little hokey. The highly-stylized look of the spaceliner, by the way, appears to echo the abstract design aesthetics found in Roger Vadim’s 1968 film Barbarella; very much resembling the city of Sogo – in space. And the chromed, copper-colored space suits, with their bulbous helmets (as worn by the three female survivors) – are also reminiscent of the fanciful comic book designs of Vadim’s film.

The contrast in the look of these designs compared to the rest of the movie is clearly meant to convey the existence of a larger universe beyond what we see in this film. And, much like the original Star Wars trilogy; Spacehunter was clearly intended as     an ongoing series – with scope enough to explore this larger universe. It’s just a shame the film’s less-than-spectacular box-office ultimately derailed any continuation of Wolff’s adventures beyond The Forbidden Zone. Despite its flaws, Spacehunter is undemanding, breezy fun and a film worth seeing for its production design alone.

3 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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7 Comments
  1. I’ve been hunting (see what I did there) for this film for 32 years. Finally found it via stack exchange, this is the story: http://justintuijl.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/post-apocalypse-movie-from-70s-or-80s_22.html
    Really enjoyed this review of the film, most reviews just say it is awful, but it is nice to read a balanced review of it.

    • gregory moss permalink

      Hey Justin. What a cool story! It’s always great to hear a happy ending. And I’m pleased you like the review (and thanks for posting links by the way). Just wondering, now you’ve identified the film – are you planning on tracking down a copy? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

  2. Oh, I found it on youtube and watched it today. Well, just had to!

  3. Ben permalink

    Great Review! Nice to read something positive about this unique film. Great info here about the film’s production. I live near Moab and have visited the site of the “sail train” scene and evaporation ponds. Canyonlands was a great place to film this as our part of the world here is certainly very “otherworldly” in appearance. Hope they make a sequel some day. Thanks again for a great article!

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks Ben! Wow – that is so cool you’ve been to the actual locations!

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