I’m a fan of Molly Ringwald, having come of age in an era when she bestrode the Earth like a colossus. Before that, however, she made a movie called Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone which plays like a parody of itself. She apparently opted to make her mark in it with a shrill, piercing tone of voice that feels like a dentist’s drill burrowing into your soul. Lots of other things happen in the film too, but it’s hard to remember what they are once she gets going.
The weird thing is, I don’t think recasting it would have helped. The film delivers a pastiche of swashbuckling space opera clichés, trusting in its use of 3D to sell us where its plot, action, effects and characters couldn’t. Even worse: the producers in their infinite wisdom decided to release it five days before the single most anticipated science fiction epic of all time. And audiences stayed away in droves you say? Knock me over with a feather!
The apparently irony-free script posits a Han Solo clone named Captain Wolff (Peter Strauss) who sets out to rescue a trio of human women stranded on a far-away planet. Said planet bears a suspicious resemblance to Ventura County, and is inhabited by the kind of mutant scum created by raiding the abandoned Star Trek wardrobe department with cannibalistic efficiency. On the other hand, Michael Ironside is there too. He plays a villain named Overdog McNabb, and if you don’t see the secret joy of that equation, you’ve been missing out for far too long. Ironside makes efforts like this tolerable, if only for the divine glee he expresses when chewing on every piece of scenery he can find. It ain’t Shakespeare, but with movies like this, you take what you can get.
McNabb sets his sights on the Earth women, which means that Wolff sets his sights on him. A wretched series of set pieces and challenges follow, which Wollf dispatches alongside stalwart buddy Washington (Ernie Hudson), copilot Chalmers (Andrea Marcovicci) and shrieking waif Niki (Ringwald). Director Lamont Johnson doesn’t bother with subtle build-up or fast-paced energy. Instead, he tries to imitate the pacing of old Republic serials… which means a lot of disjointed scenes and false climaxes with no sense of progression at all. The 3D effects do little to help – rendering everything a muddy brown, much like it does today – and while you can see signs of the technique in subsequent video and DVD releases, the film certainly doesn’t miss it.
Which beggars the question of why they bothered with making it at all. It carries nothing to distinguish itself, no interesting hooks or clear ideas to separate it from the legion of Star Wars rip-offs choking the theaters at the time. It developed no clear vision, its hero didn’t display a single viable character trait and once you get past Ironside’s B-movie vamping, the remainder of the cast shows no ambition to do anything besides cash a check. Not even the resurgent 3D craze could save it, since other science fiction films of the era sported similar grindhouse sensibilities. (We’ll get to Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn in good time.)
That leaves the audience dangerously vulnerable to Ringwald’s nasal intonations, since we have nothing else to distract us. The actress redeemed herself with Sixteen Candles just one year later. Spacehunter, unfortunately, has no such excuse. It arrived hoping vainly to ride on Return of the Jedi’s coattails and suffered ignominious dismissal as a reward. Those of us who were children at the time may remember it fondly, and its unmistakably 80s atmosphere does evoke a certain nostalgia. Sadly, that’s all an illusion. Beneath it lies a justly forgotten piece of sci-fi flotsam, too tired and derivative to earn even footnote status.