Vintage Cable Box: “Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, 1983”

“Us loners got to stick together.”

Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, 1983 (Peter Strauss), Columbia Pictures

So three babes straight out of a Poison music video crash land on a planet of freaks who abduct them, as love-starved freaks are want to do. I’ve never understood that. Are women some incredible commodity in the future (or even in a galaxy far, far away)? Enter Wolff (Peter Strauss), a carbon-copy Han Solo, who picks up on a message rewarding a lot of money (or “credits” as the case may be) for the safe return of the heavy metal babes. His hot android engineer, Chalmers (Andrea Marcovicci) activates the drive system (if you know what I mean – heh) and they’re off to collect some space booty. Wolff’s ship houses a spiffy all-terrain vehicle that recalls James Cameron’s Aliens. The big problem is that Strauss seems too cultured (especially with his scholarly voice) to be a no-good, son-of-a-bitch, bastard salvage operator and part-time pirate. Maybe he was a disgraced Sociology professor.

They land on the alien babe planet in the middle of a skirmish. The visuals are strictly Mad Max, and it occurs to me now there was some effort set aside to make this a serious science fiction movie. Chalmers is killed (or deactivated) and the babes are taken away, but that doesn’t stop Wolff from finding his quarry. The alien freaks in this movie remind me of the mutants who crash Wyatt’s party at the end of Weird Science. Scrappy foul-mouthed (and stinky) orphan Molly Ringwald tries to steal Wolff’s wheels, but apparently she can’t drive a stick (a common problem with space orphans). With the promise of food, he takes her along as an adviser on the mysterious freak planet. Sick of her stench, he throws her in a lake and dumps soap all over her. Wolff hooks up with fellow countryman, Washington (Ernie Hudson) who offers a partnership to find the space babes, but nothing comes of it. What? Dispensing with Hudson’s character keeps the clash between Strauss and Ringwald more entertaining.

Of course all of this tension is meant to make us like the characters. Wolff, up until the point he saves a malnourished Molly Ringwald (the both of them suffering dehydration on a planet of poisoned water), comes over as an insufferable prick, but I blame the humor producer Ivan Reitman and his recruited writers, Len Blum and Daniel Goldberg, injected into David Preston and Edith Rey’s otherwise somber first draft. The script obviously parodies 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barbarella (itself a parody), Star Wars, Buck Rogers, and the Mad Max movies, but the material would’ve better served the comic timing of a Bill Murray or a Dan Aykroyd. Indeed, with Elmer Bernstein’s music, Spacehunter plays like a precursor to Ghostbusters. Meanwhile we have the great Michael Ironside (who really doesn’t need ghoulish makeup to look ghoulish) as some kind of a hideous, spider-robot creature with a taste for hot alien space babes, because why not?

In the end, Wolff rescues Molly and the space babes (with an able assist by Hudson) and dispatches Ironside, but the story feels lop-sided. Like 48 Hrs., we spend more time getting to know our protagonists than we do understanding or assessing Ironside’s motivation; as a spider-robot thing, he needs life essence to function and only women will do. Works for me! This is another in a series of hip and goofy space comedies such as Ice Pirates and the Reitman-produced/Goldberg and Blum written Heavy Metal made two years previous. While the movie was originally photographed and shown in 3-D, the film elements removed from the process hold up surprisingly well. In fact, this is one of the better-looking 2-D movies (even with some very cheesy animated visual effects) made from 3-D, unlike Jaws 3D and The Man Who Wasn’t There. Director Lamont Johnson directed several episodes of the classic Twilight Zone television anthology series, including “The Shelter” and “Kick the Can.”

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

Advertisements

Vintage Cable Box: Sixteen Candles, 1984

“You grabbed my nuts.”

Sixteen Candles, 1984 (Molly Ringwald), MCA/Universal

If ever there was a filmmaker so attuned to the yearnings, the vulnerabilities, and the desires of young people (specifically teenagers) in the 1980s, it had to be John Hughes. Initially a Chicago-based freelance writer and advertising copywriter, Hughes dived into assignments for the Harvard and National Lampoon, indirectly transitioning to screenwriting and then to directing with his remarkably self-assured debut, 1984’s Sixteen Candles. Hughes would have a corner on the market of teen angst for roughly the next five years before transitioning to films about children, starting with Home Alone. He would disappear almost completely from the public eye by 1998.

Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) has just turned “sweet sixteen”, but because of the chaos surrounding her older sister Ginny’s (Blanche Baker) upcoming wedding to the “oily variety beau-hunk“, Rudy (Hughes regular John Kapelos), her parents and visiting grandparents have forgotten. At school, she lets it slip that she has a crush on hottie Jake Ryan (Matt Dillon lookalike Michael Schoeffling), which arouses geek Farmer Ted’s (Anthony Michael Hall) curiosity and Jake’s interest. While fending off Ted’s unnervingly amorous and oddly confident advances, Jack’s annoying perfect girlfriend, Caroline (Haviland Morris) throws an after-dance party at Jake’s house. Jake corners Farmer Ted to get more information about Samantha.

Samantha goes home, dejected, only to be woken by her guilt-ridden father (Paul Dooley) so he can clear his conscience and apologize to her for forgetting her special day.  She confesses her crush on Jake.  He tells her, “If it’s any consolation, I love you. And if this guy can’t see in you all the beautiful and wonderful things that I see, then he’s got the problem.”  It’s a beautiful father-daughter moment and rings so true, for me, in the complex and frustrating relationships children can have with their parents even if their years create gaps in their understanding of each other.  Sixteen Candles stands apart from similar teen epics by analyzing Hughes’ sympathy for his characters, including Farmer Ted, Jake, even Ginny and Caroline.  Indeed Hughes’ themes extend to other works such as National Lampoon’s Vacation, Mr. Mom, The Breakfast Club, and Uncle Buck.

Populated with vividly written supporting characters, Sixteen Candles stands in strict defiance of the overused chick-flick designation.  This may be a movie about a young woman trying to learn and master the cues and clues of teenage anxiety, but it has a message that plays for boys and young men as well.  It speaks the ever-evolving language of youth and occasional rebellion, and it never insults the film’s demographic or the viewer’s intelligence, even with some easy throwaway gags.  This movie and the following year’s The Breakfast Club showcased Hughes’ propensity and talent for mixing moments of high hilarity with heart-wrenching drama and, in my opinion, he would never achieve that level of success with his work again.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.