Saturday, 11 October 2014

Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone Review

My first experience with ‘Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone’ was a chance discovery of a poster for it being sold on Ebay. As I’m sure you’ll agree, the poster’s pretty fucking cool. Having bought the poster based on that impulse, I realised that I’d probably have to watch the actual film if I wanted to display it; unless I wanted to be that guy and nobody wants to be that guy…

It’s an unusual experience these days to be watching a film based only on the poster and a weird TV spot with about 30 seconds of footage. It’s hard to avoid advertising for films these days, what with endless repeated Youtube adverts and twitter #’s. Marketing for films has become about media saturation rather than audience enticement. It’s nice in a way that a 31 year old movie poster is still bringing in an audience, a real credit to the handmade poster art of pre Photoshop Hollywood

The film follows Wolff, an ex-solder turned salvager, who intercepts a distress call and sets out to rescues three women stranded on a hostile planet. Now the hostile planet, Terra XI, is home to a group called the Zoners, who kidnap the stranded women and take them to their capital in the forbidden zone. The women’s only hope are Wolff and Niki, a teenage native of the planet who’s come along for the ride.

The plot is pretty much what you expect, or at least it will be if you’ve seen Star Trek, Star Wars, Mad Max or any number of other films it has been ‘inspired’ by. Wolff is Han Solo, to the point of being dressed the same way. The Zoners are just the Marauders from Mad Max 2. Although littered with stolen ideas and concepts, ‘Spacehunter’ feels more like a loving scrapbook of ideas than a calculated attempt at making quick money. It would be easy to imagine this film being made now as a loving homage to 1980’s adventure films.

Watching ‘Spacehunter’ reminds me just how much I miss practical effects in films. I miss model shots, pyrotechnics and genuine matte paintings. For those who feel the same as me, this film delivers in spades. Although the production team were clearly limited financially, no expense has been spared creatively. The miniatures in this film are particularly impressive; I had trouble at times working out what was shot full size on location and what was filmed miniature in the studio. The film in general looks really nice, the production design and cinematography is really strong and interesting.

I don’t like to criticise the soundtrack, as criticising Elmer Bernstein’s work seems wrong. The soundtrack is really nice but as with most of Bernstein’s scores it sounds incredibly old fashioned. You could easily take the soundtrack and attach it to a film from the 1960’s and nobody would notice. That being said he kept being hired because he was good, even if he was a bit too traditional at times. 

Now while looking and sounding nice is something this film does surprisingly well, the actual script content isn’t quite as strong. The dialog is kind of weird for example. The structure is fine and makes sense but a lot of the conversation is weird and unnatural. It doesn’t help that parts of the script are purposefully weird. Niki and the rest of the ‘Scav’ population speak in a weird planetary dialect. Now movies such as ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ handle this alternate talk with a reasonable level of skill, ‘Spacehunter’ not so much. We get random new words based on old ones thrown into the dialog. For ‘thought’ we get ‘brainworked’, for ‘truthful’ we have ‘trustwords’. I feel bad about knocking this language, as I really love this kind of attention to detail when creating a world. It does help make you feel the world is alien but in ‘Spacehunter’ it’s as much interesting as it is annoying.

The script is also a bit weird in terms of gender politics. Before the end we’ve had women kidnapped and put in cages, robot sex slaves and Amazonians. That being said the actual relationship between Wolff and Niki is more a father-daughter dynamic than anything else and saves the film somewhat. That being said, that’s only because Peter Strauss and Molly Ringwald play the relationship that way. There are some scenes where she is trying to flirt with him, which considering she was 14 and he was 35 when it was filmed, this is slightly weird to say the least. But as I say they play up the family angle and it works. It’s nice to have a film where the main relationship of the film isn’t romantic in nature.

As much as I like Molly Ringwald in this film she always seems a bit out of place. She has quite a distinct California accent that doesn’t work with her ‘Scav’ speak. In addition she seems a bit out of her league in some scenes, although considering her age and her large amount of lines she does a remarkable job.

The real issue is that Peter Strauss is clearly a more experienced actor than her and sounds more confident. He is meant to be the fish out of water in the film but sounds confident and she is meant to be used to the planet but sounds very out of place. Most of the dialog in the film has been re-recorded later and looped in. This only heightens the difference in experience as Ringwald’s lines often sound slightly as if they’re being read, not performed, when compared to Strauss's.

I suspect Ringwald was brought in as she was very popular with teenagers when the film was made. This is in much the same way that Kit Harrington, from Game of Thrones, is airlifted into projects to save them now.

The cheapness of this film is its biggest issue. Several edits in the film are noticeably bad and one part even uses reversed footage. These are the usual signs that reshoots were not possible. To the film’s credit it doesn’t let a lack of budget stop it from creating what it wants to create but this does have issues. Near the end of the film Molly Ringwald is being menaced by a cybernetic man who is trying to drain her life-force from her. With the budget being what it is however, it looks more like she’s being menaced by a Lego Bionicle with a human face.

I like this film; it’s from a different age of Hollywood. This is from the days when mid to low budget films could still exist without being horror films or stoner comedies. This film is not trying to sell anything but itself and for the most part it does that pretty well. If you like the poster you will like this film as it’s exactly what you expect and more. When a film is limited in its budget it tends to focus on character. I found myself genuinely caring about these characters by the end and wishing them well on their further adventures. If this film were given a 30 year later sequel, as Mad Max is getting I’d definitely give it a watch. Although I guess, like Mad Max, you’d probably need to do some recasting to get those kids in seats.

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