Will you PLEASE shut up? I'm trying to rescue you!
There was a brief attempt in the early 1980s to resurrect the 3-D fad that had been popular for a short time almost 30 years earlier. Probably the best-known entry is 1983's Jaws 3-D. However, a lesser-known entry from 1983 was a sci-fi romp entitled Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. This deservedly forgotten little space opera makes the jump to DVD. You won't get the full 3-D experience, but I don't think it would have helped that much anyway.
Facts of the Case
Wolff (Peter Strauss) is a down-on-his-luck space trucker/garbageman. He is dead broke, with more bills piling up every day. His luck appears to change when he receives a general distress call; a luxury liner has been destroyed, and three female survivors have landed on an inhospitable desert planet. There is a reward of 3000 megacredits for their safe return. This sounds good to him, so he immediately sets out to rescue them; never mind that the planet in question has been ravaged by years of plague and gang warfare amongst the human colonists. Accompanying him on this journey is Chalmers (Andrea Marcovicci), his highly skilled (and highly attractive) android companion.
Once they reach the planet, Wolff wastes no time in plunging into the ongoing violence; he just picks a side and dives in. As he attempts to rescue the Earth women, he finds them amongst a group of ragged nomads called the Scavs, who travel about in a bizarre Viking longship on railroad tracks. However, when the forces of the evil Overdog (Michael Ironside) attack the Scavs, Wolff starts blasting away. Despite his efforts, Overdog's men break the necks of two of the women and capture the third, taking all three of them away in rocket-propelled hang gliders. (Strangely enough, once they reach Overdog's lair, all three women are alive.) In the process, Chalmers is hit and ceases to function. It is up to Wolff to set out across the barren wastes of the planet alone to seek out the women and free them from Overdog's clutches.
Well, not completely alone, because he accidentally finds some companions to help him. One is an obnoxious orphan child called Niki the Twister (Molly Ringwald—Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink), who is a real pain in the neck but is able to guide Wolff to the Forbidden Zone, where he can find and rescue the women. The other is a man named Washington (Ernie Hudson), an old acquaintance/rival of Wolff who is stuck on the planet, and sees the rescue mission as his only way out of there.
So these three stumble through various random and unconnected pitfalls in order to reach Overdog's lair. When they get there, they must face new challenges, including a maze of death where captured slaves face terrible challenges in a gladiatorial-style arena. Finally, they face Overdog himself, in the ultimate showdown of good vs. evil. Or perhaps campy vs. corny, but you get the idea. In either case, the battle is remarkably anticlimactic and is over before it really gets interesting.
Spacehunter (or, as the full title goes, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone) is pretty much a wreck of a movie. The script is terrible, the plot is disjointed, the jokes are lame, and it is surprising that Molly Ringwald ever had a career at all after appearing in this. However, since cheesy sci-fi flicks have a special place in my heart, I already owned it on VHS and am very happy to see a DVD release. There is something joyously bad about this movie, from the clichèd characters, to Peter Strauss's smarmy, almost Bruce Campbell-esque delivery of his lines, to Molly Ringwald's bratty over-acting. The special effects are terrible as well, with cheap-looking models, and some very obvious matte paintings and bluescreen work. There are lots of amusing episodes as the story progresses, including a tangle with a tribe of underwater Amazon women and an attack by strange creatures wearing the most disgusting fatsuits I have ever seen. In some ways, this episodic, cheesy plot is reminiscent of the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s. (If you think that's a good thing, you haven't watched enough Flash Gordon, but I digress.)
As befits a movie like this, the video transfer is less than stellar. Spacehunter is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Almost the whole movie is terribly grainy. The image flickers a lot, and there is a lot of dirt and various scratches and blips. Blacks almost never hit the proper depth. There are also instances with a lot of bad background artifacting, as well as some major edge enhancement and aliasing problems. Several scenes have a dark, oily look. Colors are often muted or washed out, and some scenes have yellowed terribly with age. Shadow detail in many scenes is nonexistent, with darker areas of the screen fading instantly into a cloudy charcoal-gray mush. On the other hand, there are many scenes, perhaps even the majority, that are startlingly crisp and clear, with excellent detail and vivid colors. Still, these scenes cannot make up for all the scenes that look terrible.
The audio quality on this DVD is surprising. I had a little trouble identifying the mix at first, but it appears to be Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround. It starts out sounding rather flat and pinched, with poor response in the high and low registers. However, a few minutes into the movie, it improves dramatically. Sound effects have some but not all of the desired punch, and Elmer Bernstein's amusingly overblown score comes through nicely. Dialogue is mostly nice and clear, with a few scenes that were obviously looped and suffer for it. There is also some nice use of the surround channels, and a surprising amount of directionality, especially for things like spaceship flybys.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Having thoroughly bashed the movie and the DVD, we now turn to the studio. Columbia has really done it this time. The back of the DVD case proclaims that "Side A is a widescreen version that preserves the original theatrical aspect ratio, approximately 2.35:1." However, a funny thing happened on the way to the DVD. The transfer on this disc is actually 1.85:1. I double-checked at the IMDb, and sure enough, 2.35:1 would have been the correct aspect ratio. I wouldn't have caught this mistake if I hadn't noticed that certain elements in the opening and closing credits were noticeably off-center; before checking the box and the IMDb, I assumed that 1.85:1 was the proper ratio. I'm not sure why a studio would go to the trouble to create a widescreen transfer that did not preserve the original aspect ratio. I'm also not sure why they would then lie about it on the package.
It is great to see Columbia TriStar bringing some of their B grade titles from the 1980s to DVD. I'm a great lover of the Reagan decade, and a lover of cheesy flicks, so I hate to knock their efforts. A little truth in labeling and even cursory attention to video quality would certainly be welcome, however.
While Spacehunter the movie is a guilty pleasure, Columbia TriStar is just plain guilty. Guilty of inattention to even minimal DVD picture quality standards, and guilty of making false claims in their packaging. Somehow this isn't terribly surprising, but it is frustrating.
We stand adjourned.
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