B Movie Inspirations: Spacehunter, Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983)
Having the name Ivan Reitman associated to a film usually does not put it in the “B movie” category, but even the great producers have bad movies every once in a while. Spacehunter was one of several 3D movies that came out, trying to capitalize on the success of movies like Star Wars as well as Road Warrior. Combining elements of both movies, Spacehunter is a fairly simplistic story with pretty decent set design and production value but poor scripting as well as story writing.
Starring Peter Strauss, Molly Ringwald, Ernie Hudson, and Michael Ironside, Spacehunter takes place in a future where Earth has colonized multiple worlds, some kind of intergalactic war has occurred, and an Intergalactic Consortium apparently has considerable power now. At one point, while researching the world at the center of the story, the computer says that the world was explored in 2013. Boy, were we optimistic in the ‘80s.
In the opening scene, we see a (rather cool looking) star liner stray too close to a very active nebula surrounding a blue giant-white dwarf binary system. Of course, something catastrophic happens and the liner explodes, with only one escape pod launching. These survivors land on a desolate world and are captured by locals. The Intergalactic Consortium sends out a general message to any ship in the vicinity, offering a big reward for the survivors (3 attractive ladies that do not seem to have any other purpose in the plot other than to be rescued).
The main character, named Wolff (Peter Strauss), is a cheap Han Solo knock-off, flying a salvage ship performing a mundane salvage job. He is accompanied by an android human synthetic who acts as his engineer. The script goes to great lengths to establish that Wolff is destitute and desperate for a good paying job. Of course he receives the message and heads to the crash site.
The desolate desert world is called Terra XI (original, huh?). It was colonized “a long time ago, before the war” but a plague devastated the population “during a stalemate” in the war. The timing of all this is kind of distracting to me and doesn’t make sense. The whole 2013 thing threw me, and my mind tried to figure out when this war was and when this plague was, and what a long time ago really meant. I just wanted it to make sense, at least from a ‘80s point of view, but that’s just how my mind works. In reality, that’s just nitpicking, I know.
What follows is a journey of meaningless encounters with various threats on this post-apocalyptic world. It never really answers the question, “What about contracting the plague?” Is it a threat anymore? Is it a concern? Can you only get it from bodily fluids? Obviously you cannot get it from drinking the water, because they do that some. The movie does mention something about a serum and a medical team that was sent here a long time ago but nothing beyond that.
Thus we enter the Road Warrior-phase of the movie. The world is a chaotic mess of mutants, barbarians on souped-up motorcycles, nomadic tribes on sail barges on rails, and more mutants. The threats they do face are contrived encounters that have no meaning other than to stretch out the movie, show off their set design talents, and make you say “oohhh, aahhh.” It’s almost like a video game. Forgive me for wanting more of a story.
The encounters include the aforementioned sail barge on rails being attacked by barbarian bikers. Then we move on to bloated cocoon-dwelling mutants living in a mysterious ruined tower, followed by water-dwelling mermaid-amazon women in some underground lake or reservoir, followed by mutant child-like creatures throwing bombs from a cliff, to finally the barbarian biker fortress. During all this, we meet Nikki (Molly Ringwald), a teenaged child of the medical mission and a competitor, Washington (Ernie Hudson), who has also come to save the three ladies who have a history with Wolff. Nikki annoys you throughout the movie with the silly way she phrases things, implying that she is uneducated and barbaric. Meanwhile, Washington eventually becomes an ally and helps the team for a split of the profits.
Of course, it would be negligent of me to not mention the bad guy – probably one of the few redeeming qualities of the movie. Michael Ironside plays the Overdog (very cheesy name), the tyrant rule of the barbarian bikers. Probably the best make-up and special effects set up in the movie, he is a cyborg with these huge claws for hands, encased in this enormous crane apparatus that lifts and lowers him at will. At the beginning of the movie, you just think he’s an evil pervert that wants the three women for his pleasure. However, in truth, there is more to this guy, and it’s perhaps the only redeeming part of the story.
Eventually we end up at the Overdog’s trash-punk super-fortress. Our heroes infiltrate it, intent on finding the three missing woman (who’s importance is never really explained, other than that they are survivors of the liner). Inside, we find that the evil Overdog is putting his captives through this twisted maze, Beyond Thunderdome-style (although this was before that terrible Road Warrior-sequel). There are various traps and perils that seem nearly impossible. Anyone to make it through is promised freedom. Of course, we see several individuals attempt it only to suffer a gruesome death somewhere along the way.
This all seems clichéd and boring, at least to me, but come to find out there is more to it. Unfortunately, you have suffered through too many clichés and manufactured story elements to care anymore. The maze is apparently a test to see who has the life force worthy of the Overdog. Planted earlier in the movie, the Overdog and his minion, the Chemist, use an elaborate machine to suck the life force out of viable candidates and maintain the apparently very old life force of the Overdog, in his attempt to gain immortality.
Of course, our heroes win out in the end and escape with the three woman who still never seem to have any other purpose other than be rescued (yes, that bothered me).
Now, from an RPG GM perspective, what is in this movie is not as inspiring as what is not. There was so much opportunity for deeper story, more adventure and epic ending. Perhaps because of budgeting, this was taken out, but with so many different beings encountered, I can’t help but think that perhaps it was in the script at one time.
Uniting the Clans: One of my favorite adventure stories is the one behind Flash Gordon. I couldn’t care less about the actual character but the fact that he united a planet of warring factions against the evil Ming the Merciless was what really grabbed me. This could have been a re-telling of that kind of story. And the various factions could be these weird mutants he met along the way. Instead of one action encounter after another, the heroes could discover that these disparate peoples all have a grievance against the Overdog and he could have found a way to unite them against him. The fat-suited Blob people are hunted by the barbarian bikers and are looking for some payback. Perhaps the mermaid amazon’s water ways are cut off or their water is being contaminated by the Overdog. Perhaps the child-like mutants are being enslaved for the bomb making ability. And the Sail/Rail Barge people, who were apparently decedents of the original medical mission, hold a secret that the Overdog wants.
Pieces of a puzzle: Couple the above idea with the puzzle plot. Each faction has a piece to some kind of puzzle or important artifact that will help the heroes in the end goal. Each of the various factions will have to be persuaded to give up the puzzle, if they know they have it.
The Liche in the Castle: The Overdog character was basically a cybernetic liche feeding off the people. But obviously, he can’t just feed off anyone. The maze is a pretty interesting mechanism to test the life force of people. There are other ways one can test for life force. Gladiatorial combat, for instance, or a Car Wars-style vehicle race. Any variety of competitions or challenges could be cooked up.
Plague World: The plague aspect of the plotline was barely touched on. Apparently the plague caused rampant mutations throughout the colonial population. Is it still viable? Or has it died out? Apparently this occurred during some war, so was it a bio-weapon by the enemy? Does the enemy still have a presence here?
So much unexplored. So much potential untouched. Instead, I was left with an empty feeling of unfulfillment and dissatisfaction.