"Maybe you don't think I'm nothin', but there's plenty of people who think different, and they're lookin' for me, even, so I
don't have to go around beggin' no Earthy for no warm place to snooze or nothin' to eat!"
-- Molly Ringwald, emoting as Niki the Twister in Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone
As should be painfully evident to those depraved enough to continually click on my incoherent ramblings here at DVD Talk, I seek out bad movies. In high school, I'd scour cut-out bins for obscure, no-budget titles and grab whichever ones had a cover awful enough to make me laugh out loud. Now, the selection process has evolved into something incrementally more scientific, and I can turn to sites like Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension or Cineschlock-O-Rama for painstakingly detailed reviews. Place the emphasis on can; I often still pick up movies based solely on a tagline or reputation, and for every wildly entertaining A·P·E, there's a Spacehunter. This, the movie that executive producer Ivan Reitman followed with Ghostbusters, generally garnered praise from the "So Bad, It's Good!" cabal, and the quotes from Michael Ironside's sinister cyborg sounded to be worth the price of entry alone. Make no mistake -- Spacehunter is a terrible, terrible movie. It was produced during one of the darkest hours of motion pictures, near the tail end of the Star Wars-fueled pulp sci-fi revival and smack dab in the middle of the rekindling of interest in gimmicky, poorly conceived 3-D flicks. This is a movie that's far too wretched to be good, but manages to hover a fraction of an inch from scraping the bottom of the barrel. Of all of the movies Columbia/Tri-Star has at their fingertips, why Spacehunter, and why now? CTHV was apparently embarassed enough that the poster art took a 180° turn, and the 'Adventures In The Forbidden Zone' subtitle was excised outright.
Peter Strauss stars as Wolff, a grizzled, cash-strapped space captain presented with an opportunity for some phat mega-credits when three Earth girls crashland on a desolate wasteland of a planet. Cybernetic monstrosity Overdog has some sinister plans for the ladies deep in "the Zone", and Wolff, led by the spunky Niki (Molly Ringwald), has to battle his way through a series of calculated fight scenes and bond with his scarcely-pubescent sidekick as their journey progresses. Charo guest-stars. I'm fully aware that my plot summaries are traditionally unnecessarily long, but Spacehunter doesn't warrant anything more than a two line TV Guide-inspired capsule.
Despite having a mind-boggling six writers penning Spacehunter, the plot is about as paint-by-numbers as humanly possible but still manages to be a largely incoherent mess. Even past the halfway mark, I found myself muttering "What the hell...?" every few minutes. Nothing makes much sense. Why does a captain who spends months, if not years, at a time by his lonesome on a spacefaring vessel need an apartment? Why would the designers of robot women provide a remote option to melt said robot's artificial skin, and what compelled Wolff to take advantage of that feature after one of many uninvolving fight scenes? Conceptually, I'd imagine the oft-referenced maze was far grander in scale. What's presented on screen seems to be smaller than your average American Gladiators obstacle course. There's nothing remotely maze-like about it, consisting of a marginally menacing soapbox derby reject, a collapsible wall replete with foam rubber spikes, an acid pit, and the usual rotating saw blades. I also fail to see why "the maze" would so capture the imaginations of the denizens of the forbidden zone, seeing as how most contestants don't even make it past the array o' spikes. Presumably Spacehunter was intended for kids, as it's far too campy for adults, despite the infrequent bits of sexual innuendo. The acting is horrendous, particularly second-billed Molly Ringwald and her screeching, grating 14-year-old voice. Peter Strauss tries far too hard to be suave, and his dialogue is peppered with bad one-liners. Michael Ironside is hopelessly over the top as the cyborg Overdog, but his screentime and mobility are kept to such a bare minimum that what fun he might've offered is entirely squandered. The space-lingo is laughable, reminiscent of '60s sci-fi television, where every conceivable word was prefixed by "space-", "star-", or "mega-". And to think that between a choice of this and Sheena, I opted to grab one of the most insufferably dull movies of recent memory. A scantily-clad Tanya Roberts galavanting about would've been a far less bitter pill to swallow.
Video: Originally presented theatrically at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, this anamorphic DVD release of Spacehunter comes closer to 1.78:1, lacking the 3-D elements that were probably largely responsible for its $16.5 million take at the box office. There is no explanation in the liner notes or elsewhere on the disc's packaging for the disparity, nor does the back of the case even provide the correct aspect ratio, claiming to boast a scope appearance. Some reviews sites have opined that Spacehunter was shot flat at 1.37:1 on 35mm, matted to 1.85:1 theatrically for standard showings, and further matted to 2.35:1 for 3-D screenings. I'm unconvinced that this is the case, at least judging from the full-frame version on the opposite side of the disc, which is unquestionably cropped horizontally, despite offering a bit more at the top and bottom of the frame.
The composition of the 1.78:1 version doesn't appear to be compromised length-wise, though I'm curious about the theatrical 2.35:1 presentations. The framing didn't strike me as loose enough vertically to offer that sort of additional matting, and the lack of distorted flares in Spacehunter would seem to rule out filming with an anamorphic lens of some sort. The print used is fairly dirty in the early moments of the film, though the specks clear up greatly after the first few minutes. The level of grain is noticeable but not particularly intrusive, and shadow detail is decidedly murky. The color palette is skewed towards the ruddy, though given the hues of the desert environment, this was probably an intentional decision on the part of cinematographer Frank Tidy. Interestingly, the full-frame version appears to have been culled from alternate source material, at least judging from the few minutes I devoted to a comparison. The image is a bit crisper, and colors are sharper than its widescreen counterpart. The difference in sharpness may not leap out from the resized caps above, but the shade of blue in the sky borders on, pardon the pun, night and day. The quality of the video is neither stunning nor remarkable, but it's more than adequate for a relatively obscure catalog title teetering on twenty years of age.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 4.0 track was apparently designed to accentuate 3-D effects, and the few times when audio pans from the fronts to the rears came through as forced and wholly unnatural. Ambiance is rare, usually coming in the way of a stray laser blast or two. Bass response is generally anemic, though my subwoofer did rumble respectably briefly during a couple of space scenes. A French track is also available for those who are interested, along with a variety of subtitles.
Supplements: The only extras are trailers for Starship Troopers, Men In Black, and Krull. There are no supplements directly related to Spacehunter itself.
Conclusion: Spacehunter is a mainstay on HBO Family, and any curiosity about the movie can easily be satiated by setting your recording method of choice to record at any given morning at 3:45 AM. Actually, Spacehunter is probably best suited to late night viewing, when my faculties are at their lowest point and I find nearly anything entertaining. Outside of that, I wouldn't recommend Spacehunter sight-unseen to even the most diehard sci-fi faithful. Only worth considering if you're a Molly Ringwald completist, and if that's the case, I feel for you. Rent It.