Friday, April 4, 2014

BAD MEANING GOOD #2 - SpaceHunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone (1983)

 Summer '83
     The 3D summer. 

     I was 10-years-old that year and somehow was able to catch Jaws 3D, Amityvile 3D, Friday The 13th (What can I say? It was a lot easier for a kid to get into rated-R movies back then) , Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn and, by far the most memorable… 
I typed that in all caps so you could better hear the dramatic echo behind each of those beautiful, generic, self-explanatory words. 
  Who's the hero here?   SPACEHUNTER (I didn't say to stop hearing the echoes yet). 

     Let's do the math. I'm 10. It's the same summer as Return Of The Jedi, the conclusion to an obsession of mine (and most American boys my age) that had begun 5 years prior. A couple years before that was my introduction to The Road Warrior (Mad Max 2, if you lived anywhere else in the world) and I was working my way through every Italian rip-off of that concept I could get my hands on (2019: After The Fall Of New York being the standout).  SPACEHUNTER was specially built with me in mind. 

     After repeat viewings, I grew to appreciate the elements of The Road Warrior that make it a great film, but as a kid, taking it all in for the first time, it was the vehicles. They LOOKED like cars and trucks and motorcycles of the apocalypse. Flame-throwers, harpoons, sheets of rusted tin and makeshift roll-bars fastened to Frankensteined dune buggies, jeeps and hot rods, racing through the barren desert in pursuit of Max's Interceptor made a tremendous impact on my impressionable imagination and, in one way or another, I've been thinking about those images ever since. Spacehunter takes many visual queues from the first two Mad Max films, in terms of the vehicles, costumes and even the way the desert itself is depicted, without ever directly copying the designs or mimicking strictly for recognition's sake. It even introduces a caged, trap-laden gauntlet, complete with acid pools, razor wire, broken glass, spiked pits and swinging blades, that spectators can climb for a better view of the carnage at their own risk; more extreme, but not totally unlike Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, which came 2 years later. The influences are obvious, but to write it off as a copycat, cashing in on the success of The Road Warrior and Star Wars is just lazy and dismissive. While elements of both are glaringly evident throughout, it always maintains its own identity. 

     And, on the topic of identity…
     Who's the coolest, most memorable character ever to emerge from the Star Wars universe? If you answered anyone other than Han Solo, you're absolutely incorrect. One of my biggest problems (but, by far, not the only one) with the Star Wars prequels is that there's no Han Solo character. No rogue. Everyone is either good guys or bad guys, and they're all single-minded in their respective alignments. They're also very bland, humorless and forgettable. Has any self-respecting kid ever said, "You got to be Eeth Koth last time. It's my turn!"?  
Eeth Koth

     Little boys in the ground zero demographic carpet bombing that was Star Wars fought over who got to be Solo when it was time to play. We wanted to be as cool in every way as the Devil-May-Care smuggler whose ship never quite ran the way it should, but always pulled through in the clutch; who carried a price on his head so large, every bounty hunter in the galaxy wanted a piece of him. He was quick to point a blaster at your ribs under the table and his co-pilot was an intimidating 8-foot-tall bear/dog guy who everybody understood, even though he only spoke in barks and grunts. He referred to the main protagonist in the movie as "Kid" and "Farmboy" and punked him out every chance he got. Luke Skywalker may have been the fish-out-of-water character intended to be the audience's avatar, but by the end of movie #1, a good cross-section of us had shifted our empathies over to Solo. Add to that, the fact that we were made to cry for him in the second film, then witness his rescue and return to cynical glory in the third, and it was a sealed deal. Luke went from humble farmboy to disciplined Jedi… Han went from kickass space-pirate to rebel commander AND he got the girl in the end.

     Why are we still talking about characters from other movies? Sorry, I totally forgot what this was…
     Oh yeah. Han Solo. For a lazerbrain, the guy rules and in the summer of '83, EVERYBODY knew it. The writers of SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE sure knew it. Wolff, the tentative "spacehunter" in question, is written as Han Solo to the Nth-degree. Critics of the film and the character are quick to point this out as a flaw and a cheap device. To a kid who dedicates a generous portion of his leisure time to personally furthering the exploits of the care-free scoundrel, this was less of a flaw and more of a selling point.

    Wolff (Peter Strauss) is a salvage operator, bouncing around the galaxy, dodging the law, his ex-wife and responsibility in general, who'd rather spend money on nightgowns for  Chalmers (Andrea Marcovicci), his sexy and tough engineer android, than on frivolous things like engine maintenance and the like. 
"...And the award for 'Sexiest Android Legs In A Feature Film' goes to..."

He travels to Terra XI in search of three hot chicks, who look like they were coming from a WhiteSnake video shoot when their luxury space cruiser was destroyed by "an unexpected condensation of molten gasses".
 Having crash-landed their escape pod on the planet below, they are almost immediately snatched by some scary locals on a sail-powered train. 

By the time Wolff and Chalmers catch up to the train, they're already locked in a fierce battle with a group of "Zoners", who grab the girls and fly off on "Vultures" (jet-propelled hang-gliders). One of the dying "Scavs" tells Wolff that the zoners are taking the girls to  "Overdog"  Mcnab (Michael Ironside, feasting majestically on whatever scenery will fit into his steel-toothed maw), a doctor sent to fight the plague gripping the planet, who instead runs it like a vicious gangster. 
Michael Ironside. No makeup required.
 These scavs don't like "Earthers" and warn him to go about his business and leave The Overdog to them. Wolff doesn't care about bringing justice to space gangsters, he just wants the girls. Well, actually, he just wants the 3,000 "mega-credit" reward.

     Now, that's a whole lotta quotation marks in one paragraph, and no, none of those goofy space words are crucial to the plot, but I'm pointing them out anyway, because to me, they're a big part of the charm of this movie. 
Scavs, Zoners, mega-credits (later, abbreviated to just "megs"), Earther… The film has its own lingo, but it never stops to explain any of it outside of the context of how its being used. It makes Terra XI and this whole universe all the more lived-in. We're never told flat-out, why the people of this planet (mostly Scavs and Zoners) dislike Earthers, but it becomes apparent that this is a colonized world, abandoned and avoided once the plague broke out. 
What 10-year-old boy wouldn't fantasize about showing up to school in one of THESE?
     Wolff returns to his "scrambler", an armored all-terrain vehicle, to find Chalmers, critically damaged in the firefight. After lamenting the loss of "the best damn model they ever put out", he activates a self-destruct mechanism that melts down her remains and is on his way. Their relationship, though never discussed beyond one line hinting that she can never get things fixed on the ship because he's always "interrupting" her, is established enough in her minimal screen time that we can feel the slight sadness he feels, along with a certain detachment, given that she was, after all, only a mechanical object.

     Trekking along through the wastes, theme music heroically marching along beside him, he meets Nikki (Molly Ringwald), or Nikki The Twister, as she refers to herself, when she attempts to steal the scrambler. Ringwald was only 14 at the time, but it's my favorite performance of hers ever. 

She's an Earther who was orphaned when her "medical" parents were taken by the plague and has been surviving as a filthy, matted-haired scav in their run down home. Nikki is the comic relief and the obvious relatable character for kids in the audience, but she's no Jar Jar Binks, coming across as a useful character and part of the story where HE seemed to be there only 'cause Lucas couldn't think of a more logical way to get that scary old dude voted as emperor (What did Jar Jar contribute to the rest of the trilogy? He's hardly even in 'em). She's seen the captured Earth girls go flying by and strikes up a bargain with Wolff: "So, if you take me wheeling and give me some nibbles, I'll track you to 'em." . She convinces him that without her help, he wouldn't find them in a "millonium" and would probably end up being "spewered" by the chemists so they "bone out" on the road together. Her dialogue is a smart-alecky mix of the planet's dialect and just plain ole' Earth speak, however mis-worded and mispronounced. When Wolff stops to cook hot dogs, Nikki is disgusted for the obvious misunderstanding and the joke would be groan educing in other cases, but she sounds genuinely confused and it's consistent with who she is. 
     Everything about her character could've misfired. When Wolff wakes up in his sleeping bag to find she has snuck in beside him during the night, her stink is so repulsive that he drags her out to a small pond and throws her in, first washing her then forcing her to wash herself. It's never awkward or rapey.
There are several moments throughout SPACEHUNTER (hunter…ter…er…) where Nikki lets on that she's becoming attached to Wolff, even a little sweet on him, maybe. At the very least, she fancies herself his partner. 50/50. Wolff definitely sees this and never shows signs of warming up to her, even though he assumes more and more of a parental role as they travel on. I'm not saying it's what I would do, but the dude did just lose his sexbot and there doesn't seem to be any law out in this end of the galaxy to frown on some 30-something-year-old, interstellar garbageman with a plucky, teenage girlfriend. He never even asks her name, only learning it when she insists on telling him while she "brainworks" him. It is a conversation that ends with him making it explicitly clear that they are, indeed, NOT partners.

Washington's SpacePlow is already busted up in this shot. I can't find a better shot of it online and ain't trying to get a screen-cap from my dirty old VHS. Just take my word for it. It's badass.
     Not even dry from the bath, a tankish, tractor/truck kind of creation chugs into their campsite, driven by Washington (Ernie Hudson). He and Wolff trained for military service together before Wolf (who surprisingly, doesn't respond well to authority) boned out. Now, Washington is head of the entire Terra sector, and, this being his jurisdiction, is headed for The Zone to rescue the girls and get the reward. He offers Wolff a small cut of the 3,000 and his answer is an incapacitated vehicle and a swim to find his gun.
"That's a big Twinkie."
     The plot bounces along episodically from here, with Wolff and Nikki getting in and out of adventures on their way into The Zone.
     In all this time, the Three Earth Girls have arrived at the lair of The Overdog and are presented to him, while he breathes heavily and repeatedly says, "Yes…yes…yessss…" until they're properly creeped the hell out. Ironside really doesn't get a whole lot of screen time, but still leaves a considerable impression. He spends most of the film attached to a mechanical crane that maneuvers him around his lair, probably cause he couldn't possibly support the heavy, robotic body armor and two giant, steel claws that he so gloriously waves about. He is the very definition of "villainous", growling all his lines through a menacing smirk, accentuated by his over-sized metal teeth. His skin is pale and diseased, pulled back in places to reveal metal plating, embedded either as armor or part of some make-shift enhancement he has performed on himself. It's never made absolutely clear what his plans are for the girls, but we are told it will make him stronger and leave them in ruin. Oh, and he's put off by scars and missing limbs, so there's that…

     After narrowly escaping an ambush by ravenous bat mutants (who, my cousin always described as "little Jabba The Hutts", which is, surprisingly, not entirely inaccurate),
a subterranean race of Amazon women and a nasty sewer serpent,
Wolff is rendered vehicle-less, carrying an unconscious Nikki across the treacherous, and highly toxic, desert.
They are saved by Washington and forced into a partnership with him, much to my own personal delight, because he's one of the funnest characters in the movie and that ultra-rare Black Supporting Actor In An Action/Adventure Film Who Lives. He's basically playing the often sought after "Ernie Hudson Character" from back then (as seen in Ghostbusters, No Escape, Leviathan, The Octagon, The Main Event, Airheads, The Crow, etc.), the wise-cracking, all-around good dude who's mostly just along for the paycheck but is loyal and heroic nevertheless… to an extent. He sympathizes with Nikki when Wolff warns her that he's not going to babysit her past the job at hand, even agreeing to make her a partner, but moments later, when the scavs that shunned Wolff earlier wind up dropping in on their campsite, Washington is quick to suggest that they frag those fools to ensure they won't lose the reward to the dirty chumps.
"Water, water, everywhere and not a drop to drink..."
     The conversation is cut short and the decision is made for them when they are all driven from the site by a band of deformed children; victims of the Overdog's chemists. They're in "The Zone" now, where, it seems, most people are pathetic, downtrodden mutants and scavs. You've seen 'em. They're the typical extras in this type of cinematic apocalyptic setting. Dressed in rags and blood-soaked bandages, either cowering in corners or glaring maniacally. They're easy, random set dressing and functional. They sell the image and The Zone is filled with them.
I miss matt paintings in sci/fi movies.
     It's a short jaunt from here to Overdog's lair, where our heroes are able to sneak in, undetected among the rabble of filthy scavs, who are being entertained by throwing unlucky prisoners into "The Maze", the treacherous gauntlet I mentioned earlier. Wolff makes Nicky wait in a parked vehicle, but her character compels her to go wandering around on her own and she's quickly captured and brought to Overdog, who like her… likes her for The Maze. 

      Meanwhile, Washington and Wolff are out and about setting bombs and causing general havoc, eventually freeing the three Earth girls amidst the confusion. They spot Nicky, who is evidently the first victim of The Maze to ever think to climb the railings on the side, avoiding obstacles until she is forced to walk a balance-beam through giant, swinging hammers and blades over a pool of acid, complete with flame-throwers spraying fire in every direction. The production value in this scene alone is fantastic, following her through a menagerie of spinning blades, jutting spikes, a jungle-gym of razor-sharp jacks (no giant rubber ball, though) and a growling, man-powered tank covered in more spikes, blades and flame-throwers, complete with a rotating combine blade on the front (As a child, I never approached another backyard swing set or jungle-gym the same again. All I could think anout was climbing around in that awesome, deadly maze. The crew that devised this devilish trap were obviously inspired and it shows. This must've been one of the funnest sets to build in b-movie history).
     Washington is ready to give up on her and haul ass with the Earth girls and collect his 3,000 megs, but Wolff is willing to jeopardize the reward to rescue the little "pain in the ass". He snakes his way through the spectators, firing his blaster into The Maze, sabotaging traps and opening up her path.
     Nicky defeats The Maze and her prize is to be held captive by Overdog, who puts her in his "fusion tube", absorbing her lifeforce. Ironside is glorious here, monologuing about taking her energy and how powerful he is. He is interrupted by Wolff, who comes barreling in, taking out his henchmen and sprinting straight at him while Overdog fires mini-rockets from his giant, metallic claws. This all looks incredibly heroic and badass, but ultimately just leads to Overdog grabbing Wolff in a giant, metal claw Vulcan nerve pinch and pinning him down, all the while explaining further about how mean and powerful he is.
This gives Wolff time to grab onto a sparking electrical conduit, broken loose from the rockets Ironside just blasted all over the room, and he raises it, jamming it onto one of the metal claws, essentially frying Overdog in his crane harness.
     Wolff grabs Nicky, Washington bursts through the wall in his tank/tractor/truck/snowplow contraption and they ride off to glory as the whole lair comes crumbling down and the soundtrack marches off triumphantly behind them! What more could you ask for? The miniature effects here are pretty impressive and are a lot more convincing than a lot of comparable scenes done in CGI. There's a satisfying sense of weight to the collapsing, exploding cliff-side HQ, complete with our heroes in the foreground, driving off in Washington's beast of a getaway vehicle.

    It is a battle well-won and, back at Wolff's ship, there is much triumphant laughter and celebration between Wolff, Washington, the hot Earther chicks and even the chump scavs who have finally warmed up to Wolff and the gang now that they've proven themselves by defeating Overdog (plus, they don't want to look like assholes in front of the Earth girls by dissing their saviors). Everyone's yucking it up and having a gay old time except for Nicky, who's getting her meager possessions together in preparation to walk back to her… home?
I guess, technically, the hole she was hiding in with the remains of her dead parents when he found her, could be called her home. What comes next is no surprise as Wolff softens up and invites her to tag along.
    "Trust words?"
    "Trust words."
    Did I mention I love the lingo in this film?

     So, there you have it. That's SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE (are your ears ringing from the echoes yet?) in all its 31-year-old glory. I hesitated to use this movie as an entry in the BAD MEANING GOOD blog, but, the truth is, besides my rose-colored glasses, this movie is widely considered a "bad" movie. Even long-time fans of it usually refer to it as a guilty pleasure or just a nostalgic gem from their childhood, albeit horribly dated and cheesy. The script isn't especially clever or self-aware, but it's not dumb and it never, ever insults the audience. The characters are, for the most part, pretty cut & dry, two-dimensional representations of the usual suspects found in a story like this, yet they are still good, memorable characters. There's no genre-busting twist that'll make you rethink outerspace adventures in a whole new light, but, if you're along for the ride, it's a guaranteed good time. The special effects won't melt your brain or show you something you've never seen before, however, they're extremely well crafted and consistent. They're the kind of effects I'll use as an example when I'm talking about the believability of practical over CGI. Even the weakest visuals in this movie feel like they really exist in the universe we're seeing. There's more than one convenient plot device that only serves to get our heroes in and out of fantastical predicaments. Yet still, I can revisit Wolff and the gang all these years later and still get swept up in the action every time. It feels genuine. Maybe it wouldn't have ever been made if not for the success of Star Wars and The Road Warrior, but that doesn't take away from the fact that it works on its own.
 The cast give it their all and no one's just phoning it in for a check (standouts are Ironside and Ringwald. As a kid, I remembered both of them from this film on).

     The score, by Elmer Bernstein is pretty much what you'd expect from an early 80's sci/fi romp. Big, heroic marches and creepy, tension-buiding strings. If you hate this kind of soundtrack, Spacehunter isn't gonna convert you, but it is well done and sticks with you afterwards. Fans of Ghostbusters will definitely recognize similar strains that Bernstein obviously carried over from this film and recreated in that one... 
    ...and that's not the only Ghostbusters connection. I've already mentioned Ernie Hudson's Washington character being alot like Winston Zedemore. The late, great Harold Ramis was an executive producer and also can be heard in the first scene as the voice on Wolff's answering machine and Ivan Reitman (director of Ghostbusters) was a producer here. 

     I'm obviously dating myself, reminiscing about pretending to be Han Solo and Wolff (I probably just called him Spacehunter back then) and going into the impact The Road Warrior had on my childhood and whatnot, so I might as well take the plunge and use that classic old fart mainstay:

They Just Don't Make 'Em Like That Anymore.
And, while I hate old dudes who say shit like that as a way to avoid trying to understand or give credit to anything new or, simply, to make themselves feel superior to younger audiences by discounting anything created after whatever year they've decided is the cut-off for worthwhile entertainment, this is a very true statement in the case of Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone ( time, i swear). I'm not some elitist old genre snob who can't appreciate new movies and the technology used to make them. I've embraced CG as any other art medium. In the proper hands, it can be magical. In less respectable hands, it's a lazy way to distract from lack of story and rehashed ideas. The same can be said for effects throughout the history of cinema. The fact remains, Spacehunter is from an era of practical effects, on-set stuntwork and a more light-hearted approach to sci/fi that you just don't see very much of today without it being outright farce. 
Some of the newer Marvel films capture this spirit (thank you Marvel, for not trying to Christopher Nolan-ize all your characters the way DC has. It makes me happy to see the overwhelmingly positive response to this. People notice, even if they don't know they notice), I find, and it's refreshing to see, in an age when most mainstream genre films are ultra-serious, with brooding protagonists or they strive to be hyper-realistic to the point of being boring and unimaginative (besides the afore-mentioned farces, which aren't intentional as, say, Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, Sleeper or Dark Star, but rather, just disposable one-weekend insults ala' Battleship or the Transformers saga)
     My next blog entry will be about this sad trend and the audiences who crave it over fun, imagination, fantasy and escapism. I'm not saying realism and more somber works shouldn't exist. My tastes run a little darker than most, actually. It just distresses me that more and more, this has become the criteria for what is considered quality and the audience is becoming increasingly boring because of it. Is it intentional or is it just supply and demand? Is it yet another volley in the ongoing War On Imagination that I've been ranting about for over a decade? Am I such a hopeless conspiracy nut that I'm accusing greedy, slimeball movie execs of accepting Illuminati kickbacks to purposely atrophy the imagination of mainstream movie, television and music audiences? Possibly, but probably not... But it is fun to say real fast (try it. it hurts). Am I looking way too far into something no one else takes seriously but me? How serious do I take it and can I be trusted? Am I a sleeper agent, planted by Adam Sandler and Michael Bay to spy on myself and sabotage any progress I make toward making the world NOT boring anymore? Does my paranoia have no limits?
     Until next time...True Beliebers (see? How can I trust myself?)

Peace...or the extreme lack there-of,