The real Clone Wars occurred in the late 1970s and early 80s, when numerous low-budget SF films fought to be mistaken for the next Star Wars. One such film was Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. In addition to George Lucas's hit, this film also tries to cash in on The Road Warrior, and it features a Planet of the Apes reference in the title for good measure. As a final bonus, Spacehunter takes you on its adventures-- in 3-D!
Director: Lamont Johnson
Writers: Stewart Harding, Jean LaFleur, et al.
Peter Strauss as Wolff
Molly Ringwald as Niki
Ernie Hudson as Washington
Andrea Marcovicci as Chalmers
Michael Ironside as Overdog
Space adventurer Wolff, desperate for funds, seeks the reward for rescuing a trio of gorgeous VIPs who have crash-landed on a dangerous planet in the final frontier. He takes his partner along-- not a wookiee, certainly, but not what she appears to be, either. She'll leave this adventure soon after landing. Not to worry. Along the way, he encounters a spirited space urchin, an old military buddy, and movie serial adventures. Wolff has clearly been modeled on Han Solo, but Peter Strauss's acting ability mostly recalls the version frozen in carbonite. His character also presages Firefly's Malcolm Reynolds. Indeed, this entire film could have been an episode of that show-- minus the witty dialogue, superior acting, and high production values.
This is not to say that Spacehunter completely wastes your time. It doesn't.
Molly Ringwald, then fifteen, shows why she became a teen star in the 80s. She's a far better actor than most of her co-stars-- though casting clearly didn't hire the film's various space-babes for their dramatic ability. Attempts to make her relationship with Strauss amusing and touching often fail, but we see the potential. And yes, she can be whiny and annoying, but this is entirely in keeping with her character. She tries to be brave, and she has useful information for Wolff-- but what she really seeks is the family she's lost. She's in that sense a realistic space urchin, living in a cut-rate future.
I actually admire the low-budget/cannibalized-kit/clever location approach to filmmaking, which Lucas raised to an art form in the original Star Wars. This film isn't nearly so original and clever, but it does have to compensate for a far lower budget. Its interiors were shot at the same time and in the same studio as Brainstorm, and they were able to borrow some props. I've heard claims that they cannibalized other items from various films, and find this quite plausible.
The filmmakers couldn't afford Tunisia, so they shot the exterior scenes in the Utah desert. This generally works, and I didn't even notice the parking lot in one scene until someone pointed it out to me. The fair-to-poor effects can be overlooked; the characters get to explore the Mormon countryside in some impressive custom vehicles. And, of course, we have the film's special feature: the third dimension.
For most of the film, we aren't treated to an excess of the 3-D effects, which work best in the title sequence. Some ways into the adventure, however, the filmmakers recall that they are, in fact, making a three-dimensional effects extravaganza, and so our heroes briefly encounter
the trash compactor monster a water-snake and some aquatic space-Amazons. The scene has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie, but it looks pretty cool... in 3-D! Otherwise, the 3-D effects serve (as they usually do) as a cheesy gimmick that fails to distract from the film's faults.
Eventually, our heroes confront the evil Overdog, who has kidnapped the VIP women. More low-budget but passable special effects, post-apocalyptic costumes, robo-battles, borrowed props, and weird 3-D lighting effects head our way before the film reaches an exciting, abrupt conclusion.
Despite its numerous flaws, Spacehunter still manages to be an amusing, goofy b-movie. It also demonstrates that one doesn't need a huge budget to make SF. If they'd made the Wolff/Niki dynamic work consistently and had given a little more thought to the script, this might have become a fondly-remembered Sci-Fi kid's classic.
It's not. Nor can I deny that Mystery Science Theater 3000 missed an opportunity here. However, if you watch with the appropriate expectations and either a big bowl of popcorn to gratify your appetite or a drink to blunt your critical sense, you'll find Spacehunter a lot better than you'd expect.
I first wrote a version of this review for Bureau42.