Ah! That 1980s 3-D that was “new and improved” over the old-timey 3-D…that now looks decidedly old-timey itself.
By Paul Mavis
A “Welcome to Movies & Drinks” gift basket from my new editor (some welcome: no booze, and he wants the discs back…) included a bare-bones Mill Creek Entertainment Blu-ray of Columbia Pictures’ 1983 sci-fi 3-D epic, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, starring Peter Strauss, Molly Ringwald, Ernie Hudson, Andrea Marcovicci, and Michael Ironside. A perfect title for summertime viewing—work of art, no; lots of fun, yes—Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone actually played better for me “flat” all these years later, rather than when I first saw it in its murky, impenetrable 3-D process.
The Crinos Nebula, 2136. A starship explodes in deep space, but not before three beautiful Earth women survive via an escape pod. The pod puts them into suspended animation until a suitable E-type planet is found: Planet Terra 11 in the Galileus system. Upon landing and re-animation, the women are immediately set upon by “Scavs” (mutant scavengers), before Grandman Patterson (Beeson Carroll) snatches them. Meanwhile, space junkman Wolfe (Peter Strauss), behind on rent, alimony, and unpaid parking tickets back on Earth, is disinterested in the APB put out on the girls…until he hears there’s a reward for 3,000 megacredits. He directs his gorgeous robot co-pilot/engineer/sex-bot, Chalmers (Andrea Marcovicci), to plot a course to Terra 11.
En route, Wolfe learns that Terra 11 was colonized in 2013, but that a plague hit in 2021, turning it into a junked-out wasteland. The twin leaders of the 2022 medical expedition, Patterson and McNabb (Michael Ironside), became deadly enemies when McNabb, with the help of “the Chemist” (Hrant Alianak), transformed himself into a cyborg dictator of “the Zone,” where he ruled over a mutant, murderous mob. Overdog’s motorcycle assault team “Trikers” hit Patterson’s “sail train” just as Wolfe arrives, with Chalmers’s extension cord yanked out and the girls whisked away by engine-powered hang gliding “Vultures.” To get the women back, loner Wolfe (get it…) must reluctantly team up with dirty, mouthy, whiny Earthie pixie Niki (Molly Ringwald) and former army mate now turned Sector Chief Washington (Ernie Hudson), to make their way to the Zone and battle Overdog.
I was lucky enough to experience first-hand the short-lived (and now good-naturedly denigrated) 1980s 3-D big screen revival, one that began with actor/producer Tony Anthony’s goofy, incomprehensible Comin’ At Ya! (there were a few 3-D hits in the 1970s, but they were soft-core exploitation numbers like The Stewardesses). Anthony’s little foreign Western somehow raked in almost $14 million in its first two months of release, against a budget of $1.4 million, and the suits in Hollywood convinced themselves a trend instead of a one-off anomaly was in the offing. When Paramount threw up its hands the following year and said, “Why the hell not?” shooting their second Friday the 13th sequel in 3-D, the studio scored over $36 million samolians at the late summer 1982 box office (against a paltry $3 million budget). That’s when everyone at Spago frantically started looking around for potential 3-D projects (just as much fun as Friday the 13th, Part III that year were 3-D re-releases of classics House of Wax with Vincent Price and Hitchcock’s Dial “M” for Murder).
By 1983, a bumper crop of 3-D offerings finally worked their way through the studio production pipelines—six in all—before the phase faded at the end of the year, cooling enthusiasm for the process as a regular, mainstream format (until its next revival via IMAX utilization in the late 80s and throughout the 90s). First in theaters was producer Tony Anthony’s follow-up to Comin’ At Ya!: Canon’s Treasure of the Four Crowns. Released in January, 1983, it proved the old adage that nobody knows anything in Hollywood: it didn’t even crack the Top 15 at the box office its opening weekend. Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone was next, released on May 20th, 1983. With almost the largest budget ever for a 3-D movie ($14 million below-the-line, about a million less than Jaws 3-D), execs at all the studios were looking to see if more money thrown at the stereoptic format equaled bigger grosses. Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, with no other new competition in theaters that weekend, came in at number one with a respectable $7 million take.
However, even a small bump up in its theater count couldn’t protect it against the following week’s Return of the Jedi juggernaut. Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone’s per screen average dwindled dramatically until it was yanked out of theaters. It wound up taking in close to $17 million—pretty good if it had stuck to its original $6 million dollar budget, but not nearly enough to satisfy the accepted 3-to-1 gross-vs-costs needed back then for a movie to be considered truly profitable. The other costly 3-D movie of the summer, Jaws 3-D, did score sizeable grosses in July, but inexplicably, its screen count was slashed by Universal far too early in its run, significantly impairing its final b.o. tally (incomprehensibly, the movie was completely gone off screens within a month or so). The other three big studio 3-D titles—Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn, The Man Who Wasn’t There, with Steven Guttenberg, and Amityville 3-D—all died at the box office…and 3-D along with them (…for a few years, anyway).
From what I’ve read online, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone’s production was as rocky as its reception (few if any contemporary critics liked it at the time). Production was halted before principal photography even began when location shooting had to be changed at the last minute from Alberta, Canada to Vancouver (the Alberta unions overplayed their hands, reportedly). Then, the director, Jean Lefleur, who also co-wrote the story and first screenplay (with Stewart Harding), was canned after two weeks (apparently the guy who had helmed Ilsa, the Tigress of Siberia was having difficulty shooting any usable footage). Executive producer Ivan Reitman (Animal House, Stripes) and producer Don Carmody (Silent Hill, Lucky Number Slevin), searched for a steady hand to salvage the project and found Lamont Johnson, a fast, reliable shooter who had guided some interesting big and small screen titles (The Groundstar Conspiracy, You’ll Like My Mother, The Execution of Private Slovik).
Johnson was only given a week to get oriented before production resumed…while being informed by Reitman that now the movie would be in 3D. The McKnabb 3D system was chosen, which involved two cameras shooting into and through a mounted half-silvered mirror, a cumbersome system which caused delays due to lighting concerns (lots of light was needed…but one too many stray beams into the beamsplitting mirror caused havoc with the exposed film). Choosing this system not only added additional time to the shoot (which means money), it also caused problems in post-production with the special effects…along with necessitating a $2 million outlay for special projection lens that were shipped to participating theaters by Columbia. Lamont had sets and costumes redesigned, and brought in new writers David Preston and Edith Rey to soften Lafleur’s grittier, nastier storyline, while Reitman hired scripters Dan Goldberg and Len Blum, who had worked on the producer’s previous hits Meatballs and Stripes, to introduce a comedic undertone to the picture. Additional weeks of production were needed to accommodate Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone’s reboot, now shot in Utah—which of course added to the overall cost—further putting the squeeze on already-rushed post-production special effects deadlines, since an early summer 1983 release date was set in stone. By the time it was all said and done, star Peter Strauss probably summed it up best for everyone when he reportedly stated, “It isn’t the picture I thought I was making.”
When I saw Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone at my local multiplex back in ’83 (it was a date and yes, the nachos were better), I frankly couldn’t make much of it…since it looked like it was being projected through an algae-filled aquarium (so much for those special lenses). Even with the imperfect single strip over/under alternate image 3-D processes and the dopey cardboard glasses, it was still an exciting, novel “event” to catch a 3-D movie at that time (ironically, with pretty-near perfected 3-D projection now ubiquitous, my kids couldn’t care less about it). So when it proved to be an depressingly murky experience for me in Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, I recall tuning out on the picture itself (we might even have left early, if memory serves—a cardinal sin for me). Prior to watching this disc, I tried to remember anything from the movie—I hadn’t seen it since—and all that came up was Molly Ringwald: no plot, no sets (maybe a desert landscape that was particularly striking), no action, not even that Peter Strauss was the star. It’s not a movie that stayed with me in any way except as a frustrated miss of an opportunity.
Watching Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone now, though, in (relatively) crystal clear digital resplendence…I found myself having a pretty good time with it. With the irritation of faulty 3-D effects removed and a relatively bright image that was finally discernible, I simply went along with the derivative storyline and the capable performers, and just enjoyed the juvenile silliness of the whole thing. Of course it’s derivative as hell, combining a little bit of Star Wars with a little bit more of The Road Warrior, along with a whole lot of Westerns the writers watched growing up (when Strauss first lost his Indian android sidekick/tracker Andrea Marcovicci during the wagon train “sail train” attack, and then got separated from his trusty horse ATV “Scrambler,” all that was missing was a dust-up at the local saloon and a rendition of Shall We Gather at the River down by the ‘ol crick).
But then…when was it mandated that derivativeness meant a bummer? Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone isn’t one of those “so bad it’s fun” type movies, but there are a lot of goofs in the actual production that prove amusing. Those cheapjack opening titles reminded me of something from an early Glen A. Larson TV production, while composer Elmer Bernstein’s thin rah rah score inspired giggles rather than awe: it’s either barely contemptuous parody, or poorly orchestrated. It’s always beside the point to carp about outdated special effects in any movie (how dare something state-of-the-art become frozen in time!). However, I do draw the line at outright incompetence, so call me crazy, but I swear I see a support member underneath that first asteroid prop that goes by the ship (to be fair, most of the model work here is perfectly acceptable, and the practical effects are fine).
A surprising—and most welcome—amount of Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone is funny on purpose, though. A clearly disinterested, maybe even pissed-off Strauss is still enough of a pro to toss off his “James Bond Meets Han Solo” quips with assurance, the best being when a sexy Amazon-like water warrior states, “I’ll bet breeding with us would kill him,” to which Strauss sardonically throws out, “I’ll take that bet.” The running instructions spoken during the movie’s opening ship explosion and subsequent escape pod landing, delivered in ridiculously calm, measured corporate-speak optimism, is nicely absurd. The Chemist and Overdog characters are agreeably oversized, falling right over the edge into satiric bumbling (the Chemist burbling about liking his sex slaves with all their limbs intact is bested by Michael Ironside’s insistence on having his beautiful victims undressed slowly: “Yessssss,” he hisses hysterically, “Yessssssssss!”). And apparently against the critical grain with most viewers, I found Ringwald’s annoying patter of teenage wise-assery consistently diverting; at least she’s trying to inject some energy into the proceedings.
Probably the best thing going for Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone is its short run time of 90 minutes. With an incident-busy script, something is going on all the time. The action is tolerable low-grade Road Warrior approximation (Johnson’s staging of the “sail train” assault is pretty good), the set pieces are reasonably imaginative, and a lot of weirdo stuff is crammed into the fast run time: beautiful girls given “mood enhancing” injections, wormy “bat people” hanging from obvious bubble wrap (my kids hit the floor when they were “crapped” out of their sewer holes with an audible “plop”), big, sexy Amazon water warriors feed their pet dragon, and my favorite: those weird, chanting mutant babies throwing Molotov cocktails. It’s just too bad somebody edited these scenes with a chainsaw, cutting away from them before we’re given satisfactory pay-offs (the Amazon women scene in particular makes no sense: they’re not even shown trying to follow Strauss and Ringwald?).