Columbia Pictures shelled out about $12 million to shoot SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE in 3-D, one of several genre pictures to dangle their toes in such gimmicky waters during the early 1980s.
Shooting special effects, stunts, and explosions is tricky, even before the added pressures of filming in 3-D (using a two-camera process). Perhaps director Jean LeFleur (ILSA, THE TIGRESS OF SIBERIA) just couldn‘t keep up. He was fired during production in Utah and replaced by Lamont Johnson (THE EXECUTION OF PRIVATE SLOVIK), an acclaimed television director who had earned accolades from Emmy voters and the Directors Guild of America, but had little experience with science fiction.
Ditto star Peter Strauss, the Emmy-winning star of THE JERICHO MILE who made a name for himself in TV miniseries like RICH MAN, POOR MAN and MASADA, but seemed miscast as a wisecracking action hero. If you’re curious about how it all turned out, not to worry. SPACEHUNTER provides 89 minutes of dumb fun, its script—cobbled together by six different scribes, including MEATBALLS’ Dan Goldberg and Len Blum—a bouncing-ball medley of laser battles, fleshy zombies shaped like the Pillsbury Doughboy, sexy Amazons, a sea dragon, hang-gliding mutants, futuristic motorcycles, sadistic deathtraps, and sand. Lots and lots of sand.
Wolff (Strauss), a space-jaunting mercenary one step ahead of bill collectors and a vengeful ex-wife, learns about a hefty reward being offered for the safe return of three sexy party girls who managed to escape an exploding spaceship unharmed and float to rest on a plague-riddled desert planet called Terra 11. Upon landing on the planet and exploring it behind the wheel of his super-spacejeep, Wolff and his foxy robot mechanic Chalmers (Andrea Marcovicci) quickly encounter the three sexpots, who are being cared for by a large band of space pirates floating across the desert on a sail-powered ship. Really.
An elaborate battle scene finds the girls snatched by mutants under the command of Overdog (Michael Ironside), the perverted cyborg czar of Terra 11 who kidnaps children and sucks their lifeforce into his body to keep him healthy. Not that he looks very healthy—the makeup effects by Tom Burman (THE BEAST WITHIN) make Overdog look like a cross between Nosferatu and Doctor Octopus.
The rest of the running time consists of Wolff bopping cross-country in his 4x4 Wolffmobile, encountering one obstacle after another on his journey into the Forbidden Zone to rescue the chicks and get the reward. For company, he picks up Niki (Molly Ringwald), a foulmouthed desert urchin who serves as his guide into the Zone, and Washington (Ernie Hudson, whom executive producer Ivan Reitman next used in GHOSTBUSTERS), an old rival driving a huge tank-like craft with a sharp blade attached to the front.
While the screenplay isn’t high on logic (why does jaded man-of-action Wolff carry a bottle of shampoo in his pocket?), it does move incredibly quickly, creating a new menace for our heroes to fight every few minutes and keeping them in plenty of trouble until it’s time for them to battle Overdog. Johnson and his cast are aided by some remarkably imaginative sets designed by Jackson DeGovia (2004’s THE STEPFORD WIVES) and a rousing orchestral score by the great Elmer Bernstein (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN), whose heroic theme adds a morale boost to Wolff’s dusty journey.
Although clearly influenced by THE ROAD WARRIOR, the production design and art direction create a properly junky world for the action to take place in, one cluttered with rusty metal and weird shapes, such as Overdog’s lair, which includes a Maze of Death that looks like it came out of an overly sadistic Republic serial. The miniature and matte effects are pretty good, considering the budget, but are nowhere near as impressive as those of RETURN OF THE JEDI, which opened in the U.S. just five days after SPACEHUNTER in May of 1983.
The performances are as good as can be expected, considering the actors are competing with hang-gliders, rocket-launching Land Rovers, and sea monsters for attention. Strauss handles the sub-Han Solo heroics just fine, although, aside from a brief turn as PETER GUNN on television, he never again tackled an action-oriented role. Ironside is too slathered in prosthetics to do much more than leer and slobber, and I wonder how much further over the top he could have gone if not for SPACEHUNTER’s PG rating. Hudson is loyal and likable in the sidekick role, while Ringwald is properly annoying as a filthy tomboy in an uncomfortably inappropriate relationship with the much older Wolff. While there’s no overt indication of romantic interest, it seems unlikely that a loner like Wolff would get involved with a bratty teenage girl for paternal reasons, so…
Beeson Carroll (M*A*S*H), Harant Alianak, Cali Timmins, Aleisa Shirley, and Deborah Pratt also appear in this Canadian co-production, which was partially filmed on soundstages in Vancouver. SPACEHUNTER was not a big box-office hit (how could it have been, coming out as it did just before JEDI?), and Johnson never again worked on a big-screen project.