Ah, good old 1980s science fiction. You know it’s going to be somewhat cheesy, but it usually has such panache and a self-aware sense of humor that you don’t mind anyway. Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (dir: Lamont Johnson) is pretty obviously such a case just from the title, and the fact that it was released in 3D back in 1983 just cements the expectations here. Fortunately, it lives up to all expectations; cheese, yes, but also entertaining.
Part of this is due to the cast, though some roles obviously owe more than a little bit to Star Wars. The lead is Peter Strauss, who you probably don’t recognize but has had some significant roles in other minor works (as the President in the second xXx movie, and as the voice of Justin in The Secret of NIMH). He may not break any new ground with his performance, but by channeling a very healthy dose of Han Solo into his portrayal of Wolff, the space-faring salvage dealer, he at least makes him entertaining to watch. His technician, Chalmers, is played by Andrea Marcovicci, who plays her with just enough of a Princess Leia attitude that Wolff’s “pardon me, princess” demeanor towards her is entirely unsurprising. Michael Ironside, as the villain Overdog appears to be channeling Darth Vader, though he appears a bit more like a cross between Edward Scissorhands and the raiders from the Mad Max series (from which this movie also pulls a hefty amount of inspiration).
Well, if they’re going to borrow from other movies, at least they’re picking decent ones.
Chewbacca didn’t have legs like that, so score one for Spacehunter.
But the most entertaining character is probably Niki, played by Molly Ringwald in only her second film appearance. Niki is a wasteland scavenger picked up by Wolff who offers to guide him to his destination in the forbidden zone. She flip-flops between cynicism and naivete, friendliness and opportunism, so casually that she’s very believable as a teenager who grew up with proper role models but who lost them some time ago. Rounding out the cast is a pre-Ghostbusters Ernie Hudson, as Washington, a former army buddy of Wolff’s who, as the sector chief for the area, is after the same thing Wolff is.
What brings these characters together is a crashed life-pod which carried three Earth women to theoretical safety after their ship was destroyed in a freak accident. Unfortunately for them, the safety was only theoretical because while the life-pod’s automatic navigation was programmed to take them to an Earth-like planet, apparently nobody bothered to program in that it should be a planet that wasn’t under quarantine due to an outbreak several decades ago of a madness-inducing plague. While there are ragtag settlements of survivors, many of the people are subjects of Overdog, a former doctor who has become a psychotic abomination.
You say that like it’s a bad thing.
The plot isn’t particularly deep, but this doesn’t hurt it much. It could have stood to have a bit more characterization, and a bit better scripting, but it’s still solidly on the “good” side of the line between good and bad. The special effects are mostly pretty good; though the ships are obvious models, the make-up on the various mutated creatures is fairly convincing.
A slightly higher budget, and perhaps a bit of polish on the script, and this could have been, if not a great movie, at least a solid contender. Even as it is, though, it’s still an enjoyable film.