Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone

Look, I never said I was proud of the things I liked when I was kid, alright? And I’m even less proud of some of the things I watched now, some twenty years later, all excited about realizing how stupid they are only to realize that while, yes, they are pretty stupid, I still don’t dislike them nearly as much as I probably should. The fact of the matter is that those movies I saw as a wee sprout camped out on the floor of my friend’s house soaking in the warm glow of satellite television absolutely will not budge from their lofty spot of “fun” no matter how much rational thought and taste I apply in my vain attempt to dislodge them, and you all know that I am, if nothing else, a man of impeccable taste.

Nostalgia is both a blessing and a curse. Or more accurately, it’s a blessing to me and a curse to those around me who don’t quite share the same sense of nostalgia. While I can hoot and haw my way through a very enjoyable screening of something like Treasure of the Four Crowns, most people around me who were not among the group of friends I went to see it with one evening at a drive-in do not share the enthusiasm. Revisiting these films is an exercise that transcends criticism. There is no way I can accurately analyze these films. They have taken on a larger-than-life existence within the frightening recesses of my mind, and rather than combat or feel ashamed by this, I chose instead to simply embrace it and go with the mental flow.

Nostalgia is also a fickle beast, however, and the movie Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone will illustrate this point in the form of a single character, or rather, a single actress: Molly Ringwald.

Scarce are the members of my increasingly thirty-something generation that do not look back with fondness on the “Brat Pack” coming-of-age films directed by the Horned One himself, John Hughes. They are looked back upon through the dangerous haze of rose-tinted aviator goggles and have thus attained near godlike status among many of my contemporaries. I, however, cannot count myself among the many who worship at the feet of this man-goat and his vile abominations. Though my peers often stare at me with dumbfounded disgust, I absolutely cannot deny the fact that I hate the Brat Pack and their insipid movies. I hated them when I was in high school, I hate them now, and I hate the fact that everyone has decided for me that these were pretty much the defining voice of my generation. I maintain that no matter what the sociology books state, never in my life did I hear a single utterance from the mouth of Andrew McCarthy that had me going, “Yeah man, I know what you mean.”

Call me infidel if you must, but nothing is more excruciating for me than to witness any one of these demonic creatures, except perhaps witnessing one of these demonic creatures when it is being viewed by a group of people my same age getting all teary-eyed and misty as they think about prom, homecoming, and Pretty in Pink. Sometimes people ask the question, “Do you want to live forever,” and after giving it some thought, I generally come up with the answer, “Well, yeah.” But I am aware of the fact that I probably won’t be living forever, especially not with the crap I eat, and that when I die, if Christianity was correct, then I’m bound for Hell. What can I do? Not sin? Anyway, when I get to Hell, I have no doubt that, after the initial hazing that consists of things like the peeling of eyelids and skewering of the body, I will be placed in a theater showing nothing but Breakfast Club and other selected hits for all eternity. From time to time, someone from my past will wander in to beam about how these movies were the defining entertainment of our generation.

Molly Ringwald is, of course, the most towering icon of that nightmarish decade that gave us Ready for the World and pink polo shirts with the collars flipped up, that gave us Rick Springfield’s cinematic blockbuster Hard to Hold and legions of girls in cheap-ass jelly shoes. Molly Ringwald gave voice to the entire teen population, and that voice was grating, annoying, irritating, and incapable of anything beyond whining about “me, me, me.” In that, I suppose it’s not entirely unrealistic that she be the early mouthpiece of the generation that went on to give the world dotcom indulgence, new-age parenting and schooling, and endless Gap commercials. We took Robin Williams off the stand-up comic circuit and passed him off as a brilliant actor with a devastating mastery of the “smiling through my tears” expression. We bought single, white, sequined gloves out of vending machines at roller rinks. I’m well aware of the fact that my generation has not exactly done well with the responsibility handed to it by the previous generation of coke-headed disco fiends, and I think it all started to go wrong when Molly Ringwald became our spokesperson.

I never had any infatuation with Molly, preferring as I did genre queens like Pam Grier, Sandahl Bergman, and 1960s idols like Yvonne Craig. Partly my interest in punk coincided with the rise in Molly Ringwald’s power, and I think that helped insulate me from her world where the prom was everything and Ducky’s heart was breaking. But even I, with my long-standing hatred of all things Brat Pack, couldn’t resist the temptation of watching that godawful erotic thriller Malicious that promised us bare Molly Ringwald breasts and endless jokes about how she had, in the words of Sixteen Candles, “gotten her boobies.”

It was like watching your babysitter fool around with her boyfriend, or peeking in the window of the older girl down the block, or something like that. It was sort of a fitting way to finally put her career to a rest, because unlike Alyssa Milano, Molly didn’t even have enough sense to do a more exploitative or tepid lesbian scene. She did, however, play a grown-up version of the self-centered whiner character that made her so famous. Has-been teen actresses always try to salvage a tanking career with a “daring” nude scene or two in an “arty” or experimental film. Of course, the artiness of these films is rarely anything more ambitious than turning on some red and blue lighting, and they end up being experimental enough to earn them a place on late-night Cinemax, one of the most respected circuits in the circle of “guys too chickenshit to just rent a porno.”

Like those who came before her, Molly’s baring of the chest didn’t ignite her career the way she had hoped, nor give her an air of adult legitimacy, though it did give many a sense of closure and a few amusing screencaps. Men, of course, generally get far more respect for showing it all than women do. I’m not sure why this is, but idiocy is top on my list of possibilities. It’s silly for a female to think showing her boobs on-screen will somehow make her important (hell, it didn’t work for Lana Clarkson, and she hardly put a shirt on throughout the entire first Deathstalker film) or regarded as someone with more artistic integrity. It’s idiotic for it to work the opposite for any guy willing drop his drawers for the camera and earn instant respect as a bold provocateur. I mean, let’s face it — the reason men and women both like to see women take their clothes off is because your average woman doesn’t do it very often. There is something taboo about it. Men, on the other hand, will get naked at the drop of a hat, especially if beer or a dare during a sporting event is involved.

I bring all this up because while most people look back with fondness on Molly Ringwald movies like The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, or possibly thirty seconds in the film Malicious, my favorite Ringwald vehicle has always been the low budget sci-fi classic Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. And if you see hypocrisy in my lambasting misty-eyed nostalgia for Brat Pack movies while surrendering to misty-eyed nostalgia over this movie, well what can I do except throw down a colored smoke bomb and disappear, leaving nothing behind but the echoing remnants of my taunting laughter? While few consider this a legitimate “Brat Pack” movie, it at least has the good sense to not feature a shower sex scene between perky Ally Sheedy and the pasty, mealy worm-like Andrew McCarthy. It is, regardless of its failure to attain Brat Pack status, a time capsule of sundry other stupid 1980s trends. It rips off Star Wars and Road Warrior, as so many movies did during that decade of shame. It stars the “lovable” Molly Ringwald as a character who whines incessantly. To top it all of, it was made in 3D. You can’t get much more 1980s than this movie, folks.

It also has a typical 1980s plot in that it involves a group of supermodels. Pretty much 70% of the low-budget stinkers of the 1980s featured a group of models who either had to be saved or who were sold to us as one of the most elite fighting units in the world despite all on-screen evidence to the contrary. Movies like Panther Squad tried to convince us that the feathered-hair wraiths hobbling around the jungle in high heels, outrageous eye make-up, and vinyl mini-skirts were so amazingly adept at all things special ops that even the Israeli Mossad paled in comparison. It would make for some hilarious viewing if it weren’t for the fact that this trend of trying to pass off 70-pound skeletal heroin addicts as powerhouse elite fighters wasn’t still going so strong today. If I have to watch one more kungfu fight involving twig-like starlets who primary talent is actually finding a facial response to the command “pout for me, and be sexy, sexy like a marmoset!” barked in an effeminate Eastern European voice, then I’m just gonna swear off movies altogether. If nothing else, at least Spacehunter has the good sense to portray the supermodels as a bunch of ineffectual idiots who are, thankfully, kept out of the movie for most of its running time.

Peter Strauss stars as “Wolff,” because all heroes in these movies were named “Wolffe” or “Wullfe” or “Hawke” or something similar. Never were they named “Salamander” or “Naked Mole Rat” or even “That Weird Amazonian Barbed Fish That Swims Up the Human Urethra.” Wolff is one of the best bounty hunters in the galaxy, at least if you don’t count that guy from Critters. His task, should he chose to accept it, is to rescue a spaceship full of interstellar supermodels. Why this is such an important mission escapes me, but so does why we should all give a rat’s ass about how the pressures of superstardom have caused Mariah Carey to get depressed and lash out at us all by making the movie Glitter. The big problem with Wolff’s mission is that the supermodels were all taken away to the forbidden planet where no one can go.

Wolff, to his credit, doesn’t think this mission is all that important either, but it pays well, and he is strapped for cash. So he and his female android sidekick (says something about the guy, doesn’t it), Chalmers, decide it’s worth a shot. If you are like me, and I fear you just might be, then it’s difficult to hear the name Chalmers and not think of Superintendent Chalmers from The Simpsons, which makes this movie a lot more interesting, but also slightly more disturbing. Down on the planet, Chalmers quickly gets wasted and Wolff tools around in his armored SUV, fortelling that all the children of the 1980s would eventually want unsafe, gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles to shuttle them to and from The Gap. Wolff enlists the aid of spunky space ragamuffin Nikki (Molly Ringwald) to sit next to him while wearing a tank top. She also agrees to be his through the Forbidden Zone, where they will no doubt meet strange mutants, battle oppressive gorilla regimes, and discover the fate of Charlton Heston’s character, Taylor.

Well, they’ll at least encounter mutants, anyway. And amazons, of course, because whether your movie was scifi, action, or sword and sorcery, you had to encounter some amazons during the 1980s.

That’s pretty much the plot. A guy rides around with some jailbait space orphan, and together they fight mutants and blow stuff up. Not a bad life, really, but the same year this movie came out, Mark Hammil got to fondle Princess Leia in the metal bikini that has, and this time with complete and total good reason, become another of the icons of my generation. Peter Strauss, in the meantime, got to have a pubescent Molly Ringwald tag along with him and engage in one scene where animated glowing circles make her writhe about and disturb people. Look, Molly Ringwald may be annoying, but she does have a certain sort of “girl next door cuteness” about her. However, even an old lech like me gets slightly put off by watching a made-up Michael Ironside as the evil “Overdog” (more streetwise than the stuffier “Overlord”) employ magic circles that force her to wiggle around. There is a reason that Carrie Fisher in the metal bikini has remained a timeless image from our past while teenage Molly Ringwald chained to the wall and rocking back and forth did not.

Complicating matters is yet another staple of the 1980s, Ernie Hudson, aka “the black guy from Ghostbusters as he is destined to forever be known as (curiously enough, Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman was executive producer of this film). Hudson plays a space sheriff (not Gavin) who is also after the reward for saving the vapid supermodels. Naturally, in true movie fashion, the two will eventually learn to work together and the black man will be stuck yet again as whitey’s flunkie. How many black sci-fi heroes have there been? Not sidekicks, but actual leading heroes? I don’t know about you, but I fear for a galaxy without color, inhabited entirely by pale white Han Solo simulacrums and whining space orphans. We can’t survive on one Lando Calrissian, no matter how suave he might be.

Michael Ironside, looking like a cheap imitation of one of those guys from Hellraiser except that Hellraiser hadn’t been made yet, is over the top, as all good low-budget sci-fi villains should be. He, of course, sucks life out of people (much like Molly Ringwald’s subsequent film career would do), and of course has a fortress full of mazes and booby traps, just in case you need to rip off Indiana Jones as well. In the end, Wolff rescues the supermodels, Nicky pouts about how he probably prefers their legal-age lusciousness and feathered hair to her jail-bait cuteness and tom-boy ‘do, then they all brave the maze of death, blow stuff up, and have a big final chase scene across the barren landscape that attempts to be Road Warrior and ends up being slightly more successful than the scintillating car chase sequences from Mitchell starring Joe Don Baker.

This movie also teaches valuable lessons about how all planets in the universe are desolate, rocky wastelands not unlike what you find in Utah and other places where it’s cheap to film on location. Few and far between are the planets where the inhabitants eschew wearing cloaks and rags and living in caverns in favor of wearing comfortable footwear and living in decent homes with well-kept lawns. No, it’s the desert for them because it’s more enjoyable to scavenge for food and speed around in dune buggies that look like something out of Junkyard Wars than it is to sit in your den and read the paper. Surely somewhere out there are basically suburban planets, or at least planets that aren’t globes full of waterless, contaminated desert. When are they going to make movies about those planets?

In terms of special effects, they resemble the plot: they don’t try anything all that special, at least nothing that can’t be handled by the animation and latex make-up department. Personally, I prefer even bad “real life” make-up effects to good digital computer effects, but that’s just me. I also prefer yellow Zingers to Twinkies, so it’s not like I’m above criticism or anything.

Director Lamont Johnson’s career consists almost entirely of made-for-television fare involving spies, teens gone wrong, and trouble at airports, as well as the amusingly named Cattle Annie and Little Britches. Nowadays, he’s best known as a regular director of the television show Felicity, starring some girl’s curly hair. His background in television as opposed to film is evident in this outer space adventure, as it rarely rises above the level of a competently made special of the week. It’s not that this is an especially bad movie – in fact, as far as 1980s scifi goes that didn’t star Harrison Ford, it’s fairly quick-paced and harmless – but it fails to really achieve the grand scope of the films from which it steals. In effect, it is sweeping space opera done on a community theater budget.

The plot is serviceable. It doesn’t try for much, and it manages not to fail at what little it attempts. If only Star Trek: Voyager had learned a little something from Spacehunter. Compared to the convoluted, idiotically written mess that many 1980s science fiction films were, Spacehunter is alright, and if nothing else, had the writing services of Len Blum and Dan Goldberg, who also penned the scripts for hits like Stripes, Meatballs, and the over-rated but still interested animated puzzler Heavy Metal. Basically, these guys wrote pretty much nothing but movies bad kids delighted in catching late at night on cable television. If they’d written a ninja movie, they would have been the total package.

The movie is also aided by a decent enough cast. Peter Strauss may not be Harrison Ford, but at least he’s not Giancarlo Prete. He manages some degree of rakish charisma, which is more than most of the stiffs in similar movies could ever muster. Molly Ringwald is there simply to whine, and she does that. Michael Ironside is his typically hammy and evil self, somewhere between Klaus Kinski and Henry Silva. Even when he’s a good guy, you keep waiting for him to something phenomenally evil, like make Molly Ringwald run through a maze filled with swinging razorblades and axes. I wish they’d done that in Breakfast Club. It would have made the whole “escaping from detention” sequence a lot more interesting. And Ernie Hudson is Ernie Hudson. He never delivers a bad performance, and yet he’s only been in one decent movie. Go figure. At least he’s one up on Charles S. Dutton.

When compared to similar fare from the same era, specifically Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared Syn and other sci-fi films that combine two words into one, follow it with a colon, and then include some general statement about the action contained in the film, Spacehunter stars to look even better. It keeps moving along, is full if slightly goofy but “cool when I was ten” mutants, creepy caves, dumb future-vehicles that teach us in the future all vehicles will be sprayed liberally with that “faux rust” people use on new iron fixtures to make them appear antique, and enough action to help it succeed as a moderately enjoyable action movie even if the sci-fi trappings are a little derivative.

I loved this movie as a kid when I watched it constantly on cable and videotape (easier than getting on the five-month waiting list for the rental two copies of Star Wars available in the greater Louisville area). Looking back on it now, I still enjoy it despite its dopiness and Molly Ringwald’s never-ending whining. It’ll win no awards for originality, and it sure as heck won’t go down in history for much of anything other than being Molly’s big-screen debut (if it even goes down in history for that), but it lives within its somewhat meager means and ultimately succeeds as much as any goofy space adventure movie can. Of course, nostalgia makes this movie better than it actually is, but that’s okay since it’s my nostalgia protecting me. I don’t care what anyone says, Molly Ringwald lines like “”What do you think I am, you scruffy earthbag? I’m a woman!” are ten times more intelligent than any of the tripe she spewed in Breakfast Club.

Release Date: 1983 | Country: United States | Starring: Peter Strauss, Molly Ringwald, Ernie Hudson, Andrea Marcovicci, Michael Ironside, Beeson Carroll, Hrant Alianak, Deborah Pratt, Aleisa Shirley, Cali Timmins, Paul Boretski, Patrick Rowe, Reggie Bennett | Screenplay: David Preston, Edith Rey, Daniel Goldberg, Len Blum | Director: Lamont Johnson | Cinematography: Frank Tidy | Music: Elmer Bernstein | Availability: DVD (Amazon)