The worst part about "Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone" (no relation to the trippy Richard Elfman musical "The Forbidden Zone") is that I can't even feel smug and justified about how much I dislike it. It's an incredibly zany post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventure with immersive production values and some genuinely memorable visuals. It also features the most aggravating leading couple in the history of film--the kind of couple who, if you were sitting next to them in a restaurant, would put you off your meal and provoke a "Tell-Tale Heart"-level hatecrush. This makes "Spacehunter" a point of some heated contention in my household, since it's a long-time fave of Baron XIII's. He'll argue for this movie's merits with as much passion as I'll use to defend "Dead Alive," a film he would bury at the bottom of the ocean if given the chance.
At the center of "Spacehunter" is Wolff, a planet-hopping bounty hunter who manages to blend elements of Han Solo and Mad Max into a wise-cracking tough guy character with the charm of neither. Wolff travels the galaxy with his ultra-realistic sex robot Chalmers (really) who accompanies him on his missions (no, really). When a trio of big-haired space babes crash lands on a remote desert planet, Wolff and his sex robot set out to save them and claim the reward money. What seems like a simple mission turns into an epic adventure after Wolff realizes that the girls have been kidnapped by a cyborg warlord named Overdog (played by Michael Ironside, an actor who I think needs his own John-Saxon-like "Mark of Class" badge). A cacophony of welded-together vehicles, explosions, and mutant encouters ensues.
Were that the sum of "Spacehunter's" story, I'd probably be zen with it, perhaps even a bona fide fan. But no--this film isn't content with the kind of pre-sexual wheelie-poppin' found in "Megaforce." Oh no. "Spacehunter" provides Wolff with a love interest in the form of spunky space waif Niki, played by Molly Ringwald. While Wolff's speaking voice is exactly like that of every video game hero from the mid-1990s, Niki's chief characteristics are "being squeaky" and "occasionally not understanding a turn of phrase." You'll need to at least double the amount of irritation you feel at reading that in order to grasp the scope of Niki's awfulness. The two develop that squicky kind of relationship found in vintage romance novels, which maintains that extreme dislike will mystically transmogrify into a passionate attraction, given the right kind of wind-swept action background. Adding insult to already-insult, the audience is supposed to just default-believe-in this budding romance, because Niki is the only woman on the planet who is not actively trying to kill Wolff. From where I sit, that just means she exercises bad judgement.
There are so many things that rankle me about this movie, but one of the chief and also least-sane ones is the use of Space Language right next to contemporary American cultural references. We're far enough into the future that there's an entirely new system of currency, the FUCK YOU'RE NOT EVEN TRYING-ly named "megacredits," but "Monday Night Football" is still a popular program (presumably watched on "astro-television" or something else that's been named in a similarly aneurism-inducing manner). I also have to state that "Overdog" might be my least-favorite villain name of all time. A combination of "overlord" and "underdog," I couldn't NOT think of the hapless General-Mills-sponsored cartoon canine. It's almost as if someone on the production wanted to take that rad-looking character down a peg or two by giving him an incandescently stupid name.
"Spacehunter" is an unabashedly dumb popcorn-muncher of a movie. Filmed in 3D and stitched together using aspects of other, more successful movies, it's designed to put butts in seats and provide escapist fun for 90 minutes. The heartbreaking thing about this movie--at least to this genre-film fan--is the fact that it's not entirely a cynical crap-fest, and it has a cult following that I can empathize with even if I don't agree with them. There's a bit of the ol' "Waterworld" about this movie; a certain dedication to a demented vision that I can't write off entirely.
Hell, I'll admit it: there are moments of awesomeness in "Spacehunter" that I'd be a jerk not to point out. Wolff's run-ins with the desert planet's mutants are weird little jewels within the crumminess of the rest of the movie. There's a segment where Wolff and Niki stumble into a hive of monsters that look like oversized, squishy, slimy infants that's legitimately creepy (or maybe that just further reveals my feelings about babies--only my therapist knows for sure). Sexy mer-women, sand pirates and deformed pyromaniac children are all given a sense of backstory that made me more curious about these folks than about the main characters. Also, Overdog is one frightening-looking monster: his steel teeth, robot claws and machine movements make me wish he was in a different, better movie.
Once Wolff and Niki have successfully infiltrated Overdog's lair, they discover that he's sending his prisoners into The Maze, a fiendishly creative series of traps that would make the "Saw" franchise's Jigsaw turn various shades of envy-green. No--let me amend that: The Maze is the kind of thing your Dungeonmaster throws at your D&D party when he really, really hates you and wants you all to die horribly. Between the acid pits, rolling blades, sharp pendulums and spike walls, it's an all-in-one, ultra-efficient death trap that only the most nimble can survive.
Various positive bits having been accounted for, I cannot find room in my black little heart to love "Spacehunter" the way its cult following does. It has got a bit of the "talented twelve-year-old" about it, like "Megaforce" or the Duncan Jax movies, but it's populated by such aggressively annoying characters and distracting textural elements that it's impossible for me to embrace it. "Spacehunter" becomes an exercise in how the details of a genre film can spell its downfall. I feel as though this movie needed more raunchiness to justify its meaner elements, like Overdog's thirst for "life essence" that plays out as uncomfortably almost-rapey. By standing firmly on terra-PG, these bits just feel a little gross and tonally off.
I guess the real take-away from all of this is that I can totally hang with "Spacehunter" fans, even if I disagree with them. I'd just recommend we watch the Luigi Cozzi "Hercules" to get our kooky sci-fi fix instead.
Check out more images from "Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone" here.