“Nobody goes free!” | Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983)

Hollywood is, if nothing else, opportunistic. Take as an example Lamont Johnson’s 1983 science fiction adventure Spacehunter: Adventures In the Forbidden Zone. One-part space opera, one-part Mad Max pastiche, it took advantage of a then-new technique for shooting feature films in stereoscopic 3D – a novelty that had been popular in the 1950s but proved too cumbersome and awkward to use once the initial audience thrill wore off.

Spacehunter struck early in the new generation of 3D cinema, but distributor Columbia Pictures likely had their eye more on striking early for a different reason. Released across the USA in May 1983, it was precisely timed to hit cinemas one week ahead of the Star Wars sequel Return of the Jedi. Any viewers desperate for a science fiction hit could see Spacehunter first.

The film originated not with Johnson but with writer/director Jean Lafleur, who developed a science fiction film with the provisional title Adventures in the Creep Zone. In the far future an interstellar cruise liner is attacked, a small group of young women escape in a capsule and are captured on a desolate planet. When they are taken to the mysterious ‘creep zone’, a rogue mercenary would land on the planet to launch a lucrative rescue attempt.

The Canadian Lafleur had already directed two features – The Mystery of the Million Dollar Hockey Puck (1975) and Ilsa the Tigress of Siberia (1977) – and was keen to make Creep Zone his third film. He brought the project to producer Ivan Reitman, who had produced Ilsa the Tigress of Siberia – and they agreed to develop the film together. (Reitman was concurrently developing a directorial career of his own, having helmed the hit comedies Meatballs (1979) and Stripes (1981), and who would subsequently direct Ghostbusters (1984), Twins (1988), Kindergarten Cop (1990), and numerous other films.)

Reitman set up a limited company to make the film with fellow producer Don Carmody and signed a distribution deal with Columbia Pictures. The film’s title was also changed to Spacehunter, later with the added subtitle of Adventures in the Forbidden Zone.

It was only when the film was already in pre-production that Ivan Reitman decided to shoot Spacehunter in stereoscopic 3D. The technology had fallen out of favour in the late 1950s but was revived in the early 1980s thanks to new technologies that allowed 3D films to be exhibited from a single projector. A new craze was sparked off by 1981’s Coming at Ya and continued into 1982 with Friday the 13th Part III.

Specialist Ernest McNabb was hired to supervise the special photography, and ultimately built his own rig to shoot the footage. He adapted a system developed by Disney for 65mm film and shrunk it down to Spacehunter’s less expensive 35mm format. It used two cameras, rather than a special single camera lens, which made it a more versatile system for cinematographers to use.

The single-projector style of 3D required a silver-coloured screen to project on, and this limited the number of venues in which Spacehunter could be released. The production reached an agreement to deliver two versions of the film: one print for 3D, and another in a regular two-dimensional format for theatres and drive-ins unable to accommodate the format.

Producing the film in 3D may have seemed a canny marketing move, but it caused extensive problems for its visual effects team. Scale models of starships and escape pods could look effective when shot in two dimensions. Shot in three, and the scale models had to be very carefully shot with specialist lenses to avoid showing off their actual size.

Spacehunter was budgeted at roughly US$4 million, but cost overruns due to the 3D photography and effects would push the final budget to more than US$12 million.

In the leading role of the space mercenary Wolff, Jean Lafleur cast Peter Strauss. The actor had previously played the role of Rudy Jordache in the television miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man and its sequel. Science fiction was an entirely new genre for Strauss, who found it presented fresh acting challenges. ‘They never tell you in acting school what it’s like to fire heat-seeking missiles,’ he joked, ‘or to hang upside-down while 15 special effects people try to make a giant lizard’s head move.’[i]

Wolff’s journey into the ‘forbidden zone’ would bring him up against the planet’s diabolical ruler: a disfigured cyborg named Overdog. The role was played by Michael Ironside, then best known for his performance in the David Cronenberg film Scanners (1981).

‘Oh, that was fun,’ Ironside later recalled, ‘God, that was a lot of fun.’[ii] It took four-and-a-half hours each day to make Ironside up as Overdog – something Ironside found enjoyable: ‘You know, it was, actually. You get real close to the people that you’re working with when you share something like that.’[iii]

‘On that film it was interesting: nobody ever got to meet me out of make-up, because I was in four hours before anyone and it took four-and-a-half hours to take it off. Lamont Johnson, the director, I ran into him about five years after the film […] and I said “Lamont, how are you doing,” and he said, “Excuse me, I don’t know you,” and I said, “I lied!”, and he goes “Oh Michael! How are you?”’[iv]

On his journey, Wolff befriends a young scavenger named Niki. The role was played by a young Molly Ringwald – later to define 1980s teen drama via her partnership with producer/director John Hughes in Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Pretty in Pink (1986). Ringwald came to Spacehunter directly from playing Miranda in Paul Mazursky’s film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Production designer Jack DeGovia scoured a massive aircraft graveyard in Arizona to gather enough salvage to construct the forbidden zone’s central city. These were then shipped overland to the film’s primary location in Utah, and soundstages in Vancouver.

The Utah shoot was based out of the town of Moab, using a tract of disused land near a discontinued uranium mine. The production office hired a former furniture warehouse where props and vehicles were constructed, and where limited photography was shot when rain prevented a location shoot.

The film started principal photography in October 1982, with an eye to release the film in the USA some time the following June. The initial pace of production was slow, with the crew only managing to set up one or two shots each day. What was worse, when the footage that did get completed was sent to the film’s financiers at Columbia it was deemed too low quality to use. In what became known internally as ‘the Halloween massacre’, Reitman and Don Carmody stepped in and fired several key members for the film’s crew – including Jean Lafleur.

Replacing Lafleur meant running through a list of directors that the producers felt could not only handle an action-oriented shoot and special effects, but who could also step in at the last minute and take control of the shoot. They settled on Lamont Johnson, a director of film and television with a career dating back to 1955.

‘It was a pretty hysterical time,’ said Johnson. ‘At first, I wasn’t sure that I was going to be involved in Spacehunter because I’ve never enjoyed coming on in the middle of anything.’[v]

With the crew waiting in Utah, Reitman and Carmody were desperate for shooting to re-commence. Johnson, however, wanted to take his time. He disliked the screenplay and wanted to take a week to rewrite it and put more of a character focus on Wolfe and Niki’s relationship. This was a move supported by Peter Strauss, who already held reservations of his own. Johnson also insisted on re-shooting all scenes already completed and revising the bright and colourful aesthetic of Lafleur’s version for something more rusted-down and gritty. None of Lafleur’s material ultimately made it into the final edit.

Johnson was also not keen to film the production in 3D but acquiesced to his producers’ demands. By all accounts he did not emphasise or exploit the 3D, nor include frequent ‘gimmick’ shots like other 3D movies. ‘We’re not designing the film to over-emphasise dimension,’ said Ernest McNabb. ‘We’re utilizing dimensions in a relatively natural way. Space and distance are natural – they’re not forced or distorted, except artistically. There’s no need in this case.’[vi]

It is not easy to see Spacehunter in 3D so many years after the fact. Home video releases are presented in two dimensions, and in a slightly different aspect ratio: 1.85:1 instead of the 3D version’s 2.35:1. It is clear, however, that even in the two-dimensional edition there is a marked lack of objects getting pointed at the camera – usually a giveaway of a 3D movie presented in 2D.

The film used two ground vehicles that were required to be driven around the Utah location. The Scrambler, to be piloted by Wolfe throughout the film, was originally a bright purple in Lafleur’s version, but which was visually toned down before the main shoot. It was a fully-functional off-road vehicle. The second vehicle, referred to by the crew as the Ramrod, combined an ordinary truck with a heavy front plough. It was not a roadworthy vehicle and caused extensive delays in its use – in at least one scene it was pushed by out-of-shot members of the crew. The Ramrod ultimately proved so difficult a machine to use that it delayed shooting by three days.

Matching the location shoot with visual effects shots was also difficult. Explosive charges on a model of Overdog’s industrial lair caused the aluminium frame to melt, and film stock in the left-side camera was exposed to the light – making the critical shot both unrepeatable and unusable. The shooting of model shots set in space struggled to create sufficient depth of field to be convincing, due to the 2D nature of starfield backdrops. Art director Mike Minor explained: ‘3D starfields were a pain because they forced us to deal with what I like to call the “Viewmaster mentality”. People want stuff to pop off the screen. They want to see stars in depth. Now, how do you see stars in depth? Tell me how points of light against black suggest depth. I defy you!’[vii]

The use of matte paintings on location was time-consuming, since it involved shooting the right camera image first and then having the matte artist re-detail the painting to reflect the minor change in perspective for the left. Another technique used for a key shot of deep monster-infested silos was to produce multiple mattes on acetate film, and then to shift the overlaid paintings slightly from one camera to the other – effectively duplicating the multi-plane animation technique perfect by Walt Disney animation. All the paintings were produced by artist Ken Marshall.

While the film was still in production, Columbia Pictures executives made the decision to release the film on 20 May 1983 instead of 3 June – two weeks ahead of schedule, but also a week ahead of Return of the Jedi. The visual effects team, already strained by the need to produce their shots in 3D, were now also forced to develop them on a truncated schedule. Numerous shots were either completed in a way sub-standard to the team’s desires or were removed from the film altogether. ‘There was just no time to sweeten certain effects,’ said Minor, ‘or to clean up a few shots. We weren’t able to do a few things we had planned.’[viii]

Even the film’s regular footage suffered. Due to the last-minute implementation of the 3D technology, hundreds of shots required re-aligning in post-production. Without sufficient post-production time, many of these shots were simply edited into the release print in their native form. ‘There was just no time to fix every shot in the movie,’ explained 3D specialist Peter Donen. ‘We would have needed another month.’[ix]

Spacehunter was completed just in time for its 20 May release, but its creative ambitions were badly compromised in the process.

The film’s release strategy worked to an extent, with Spacehunter captured pent-up demand for Star Wars and grossing US$7 million in its opening weekend and relegating the previous weekend’s top film Blue Thunder to second place. While the film gained business, it also promptly lost it: the following weekend Return of the Jedi opened to a US$30 million gross and Spacehunter was relegated to fourth place. Its total US gross was a relatively modest US$16.4 million.

There is a certain feeling of tragedy to Spacehunter; a sense of an opportunity lost. It was produced under the most uncomfortable of circumstances, without the opportunity to showcase the visual effects, 3D presentation, or production design to the best of its crew’s abilities. While the overall narrative feels relatively stereotypical and weak, it is peppered with unexpected highlights.

The lead cast are clearly putting in a genuine effort to make their characters believable and engaging. Peter Strauss makes for an entertaining lead, with a nice blend of heroism and cynicism. Molly Ringwald perhaps applies a little too much effort, occasionally grating with her delivery, but she does inhabit the character with a dedication that largely rubs off on the viewer. Supporting performances by Ernie Hudson (who would work with Ivan Reitman the following year on Ghostbusters) and Andrea Marcovicci are rock-solid and supportive.

Michael Ironside is a tremendously pleasurable villain to watch, buried underneath extensive prosthetics and mechanical apparatus. Overdog has a wonderful scale to him, and a sense of proper menace. It is a shame that the film around him was prevented from providing a more convincing backdrop. The physical requirements of 3D cinema – as little camera motion as possible, no zooming into the picture, and so on – have put a dampener on the film’s photography. It is occasionally visibly poor, but mostly just workmanlike.

Now and then, however, the film pulls out an interesting action sequence. An early chase involves a bolted-together road train under attack from mutant shooters on hang-gliders. Later on, Wolfe finds himself tied up by a nicely bizarre horde of alien creatures. The film’s climax makes use of some large-scale sets that resemble an industrial nightmare.

Each tiny highlight adds up. They ostensibly provide some much-needed entertainment value, picking up affairs just enough to maintain a cheesy sort of C-grade appeal. It helps transform Spacehunter into what some call a ‘guilty pleasure’: it can be enjoyed and laughed at in the company of others, and nothing is going to occur so important that it demands the audience’s full attention. At the time these highlights point to a movie never completed, a much more successful and exciting picture that would have succeeded on its own merits with a great cast, gripping action, and dramatic visual spectacle. Sometimes it is fascinating to watch a film and imagine the result – if only it had been given the chance to come to life.

[i] Columbia Pictures, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone press kit, 1983.

[ii] Will Harris, “A chat with Michael Ironside”, Bullz Eye, 6 November 2009.

[iii] Will Harris, “A chat with Michael Ironside”, Bullz Eye, 6 November 2009.

[iv] Eric Shirey, “Interview: Michael Ironside About Sundance Selection Turbo Kid”, Cinelinx, 24 January 2015.

[v] James Van Hise, “Spacehunter”, Starlog #70, May 1983.

[vi] Columbia Pictures, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone press kit, 1983.

[vii] David J. Hogan, “Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone”, Cinemafantastique, Vol 14 No 6, 1982.

[viii] David J. Hogan, “Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone”, Cinemafantastique, Vol 14 No 6, 1982.

[ix] David J. Hogan, “The live-action filming of Spacehunter”, Cinemafantastique, Vol 14 No 6, 1982.

3 thoughts on ““Nobody goes free!” | Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983)

  1. Great read. I loved this movie as a kid, I just watched it last week for nostalgia and I feel it still holds up fairly well for what it was.

    I always wondered what happened to the Scrambler. I’m almost certain it is a heavily Fiberglass’d 1981 Jeep CJ8 Scrambler hence the name in the movie. Peter Strausss even has a line where he says “It’s a classic, I built it my self” suggesting it was a existing vehicle he modified.

    I always felt it was a Iconic Hollywood vehicle that never got labeled as such. When discussions of iconic vehicles come up, Batmobile, Mad Max intercepter, General Lee… etc, I’m like “The Scrambler!!” and the reaction is almost always “what is that??”

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