The structure has changed! Now, in the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th, 30th or 40th anniversary of initial release this year — four from 1983, four from 1993 and four from 2003. The self-imposed rules of the column remain the same: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
Blue Thunder was director John Badham’s inaugural installment in a three-part suite of high-concept technology skepticism in the 1980s. It was followed (literally weeks later) by the nuclear-anxiety parable WarGames and three years on by the comparatively lighthearted artificial intelligence adventure of Short Circuit.
The title is taken from the nickname given to a $5 million military helicopter built with inch-thick armor, a six-barrel turret gun that moves in tandem with the pilot’s helmet and fires 4,000 rounds a minute, infrared and night-vision scanners, a “whisper” mode to hover quietly and microphones so powerful “you can hear a mouse fart at 2,000 feet.” Blue Thunder’s sophisticated target selection means it can cut down 10 criminals for every civilian. Acceptable odds … if you’re not a civilian. Designed to resemble a beast with indomitable tactical adaptations, Blue Thunder is filmed with all the awe, reverence and fear of an apex predator.
Naturally, corrupt city fathers in Los Angeles have eyed Blue Thunder as the ultimate evolution in authoritarian omniscience and obedience. The only ones who can stop their plan are a grizzled, frazzled LAPD air-unit officer (Roy Scheider) and his greenhorn partner (a baby-faced Daniel Stern). They must contend with an eminently punchable and psychotic corporate stooge (Malcolm McDowell), a cynical captain (grumpus emeritus Warren Oates in his final role), tenacious assassins and, in a battle over the city, no fewer than five heavily armed aircraft.
An expertly assembled combination of miniature and musculature, Blue Thunder’s exceptional effects have endured the test of time — complemented by outstanding aerial photography to sell its sprawl and scope (namely in a low-deck flight over the Los Angeles River). The film blends lean-and-mean pacing, swoon-worthy urban bioluminescence and coolly confident, cobalt-tinted cynicism. Think Michael Mann meets John McTiernan, or what had to walk so RoboCop could run.
In the ’80s action pantheon, Blue Thunder’s thrills are largely unheralded. This month’s essay was meant to herald them further. Alas, the clarity of its chaos carried out over the L.A. streets will keep that from happening. I learned late in my planning that Blue Thunder was justly Oscar-nominated for Best Editing in 1983, giving Badham’s work four total nominations that year alongside the three given to WarGames. And in keeping with the long-established column rules, somebody will understandably start tapping the sign if you go longer than 382 words on a top-10 box-office finisher or an Oscar nominee in any category. (But seriously, folks: Give Blue Thunder a try. OK, OK! I SEE THE SIGN.)
To keep the rest of this year’s evenly distributed schedule on target, this month must feature another film from May 1983. So, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone fits that bill and hails from the same studio. Of course, that’s where all similarities end.
Spacehunter was Columbia Pictures’ attempt to cash in on a rejuvenated interest in 3D as a moviegoing gimmick, following the success of Friday the 13th Part III a year earlier. Indeed, 1983 was chock-a-block with 3D titles, from long-toothed threequels (Jaws 3D and Amityville 3D) to invisible-man movies starring Steve Guttenberg (The Man Who Wasn’t There) and other “word-colon-gobbledygook-subtitle” sci-fi films like Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn from heralded schlockmeister Charles Band. After Jaws 3D, Spacehunter was the second-most successful of these five … topping out at $16.5 million. It scraped together whatever it could by dropping the week before Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi. Wondering why interest in 3D cooled for a quarter-century? Here’s the answer. (Except for the Avatar films, contemporary 3D has also thankfully been put out of its misery.)
Spacehunter follows a Han Solo knockoff named Wolff (Peter Strauss) trying to pocket a 3,000 “mega-credit” reward for rescuing three comely Earth women stuck on Terra XI, a colony planet ravaged by plague and civil war. Wolff travels alongside a cyborg engineer / friend with benefits, but she gets zapped during the first confrontation with unfriendlies and Wolff melts her down in an unusually gruesome sunsetting process. He eventually teams up with Niki (Molly Ringwald), a spunky scavenger who claims she has seen the Earth women and can lead him to them. Ernie Hudson plays Washington, an old space-army service buddy of Wolff’s, while Michael Ironside plays, ahem, Overdog McNabb — a doctor who was supposed to combat the plague but instead profited from it and now controls Terra XI from a graveyard lair with giant robot arms.
Just say it aloud: “Overdog McNabb.” Kind of fun, right? Alas, that’s about as entertainingly goofy as Spacehunter gets. Very little of the film takes place in space. Frankly, it’s more of a Mad Max knockoff with big, belching vehicles and a slightly larger budget than Italian schlock from the same era trying to mimic the same thing. There’s even some Thunderdome-ish bloodlust in the final reel; “we’ve come a long way since Monday Night Football,” Washington says, confirming football’s endurance into the 22nd century.
As for the subtitular forbidden zone, no one really gets there until an hour of this 90-minute movie has passed. Adventures on a Quite Leisurely Jaunt to the Forbidden Zone lacks zip, though. “Adventures” is perhaps also charitable to describe the manner in which Wolff and Niki encounter people defined by poverty, physical deformity or intense horniness before just running away. “I bet breeding with us would kill him,” says one woman of Wolff. His reply, and perhaps the only legitimately funny quip in the script: “I’ll take that bet.” Throw in Overdog McNabb drooling over the three Earth women and Niki’s befuddlement that Wolff doesn’t want to sleep with her, and the libidos here are off the charts.
Indeed, Spacehunter looks cheap enough that it could plausibly pop off into porno territory at any given point. Outside of the cool cyborg / mech design of Overdog McNabb, Spacehunter is a PG-rated pissing away of studio money to chase a fad. (Robbed as existing copies are of 3D capabilities, there can be no such contemporary commentary on those effects; that said, they would presumably favor more depth-of-field effects than blips and blasts popping off a screen.)
With reported hindsight regrets, Spacehunter was shepherded by executive producer Ivan Reitman — a year before Ghostbusters but after Meatballs and Stripes. Included among its sextet of credited screenwriters are Reitman’s creative collaborators Dan Goldberg (who went on to produce the Hangover franchise) and Len Blum, who later co-wrote Private Parts. (If you listen closely, you’ll catch a voice cameo from another Reitman collaborator in Harold Ramis.)
Director Lamont Johnson lays bare his TV roots with competent coverage and nothing more. Elmer Bernstein’s incredibly genericized score is notable only for moments in which he seems to workshop what became spookier segments of his Ghostbusters score the following summer. And although Strauss’s jaw was never more square, neither was his demeanor; an Emmy winner for The Jericho Mile (an early TV film from Michael Mann) and acclaimed star of the Rich Man, Poor Man miniseries, Strauss is stuck with second-tier Solo material and you feel him straining. A year before she became John Hughes’ muse, Ringwald does what she can with regional outer-space dialect as rudimentary as her character development.
Spacehunter isn’t good but it’s not without its pleasures as a morbid curiosity. Even if few of its ideas pay off, there is a recognizable verve for pulp-fiction possibilities — such as the hang-gliding scavenger Vultures (read aerial Jawas) or the pudgy pupae-mutated people (read Bobo and Li’l Debbull from Nothing But Trouble).
In fact, Spacehunter is slightly reminiscent of my beloved Dan Aykroyd boondoggle in several ways. Like Alvin Valkenheiser, Overdog McNabb is also a deformed man living in defiance of his decayed body and forcing interlopers to run a gauntlet of fire, metal and junk as mutated freaks cheer on his sadism. Just five years later, Jackson DeGovia would establish the corporate-monolith bonafides of Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard. Here, he brings the same sort of scrapyard specificity Valkenvania had to Overdog McNabb’s hellscape lair. It makes you wish that Wolff, Niki and Washington had just been trapped in its bowels during the first act and forced to fight their way to the top across the rest of the film.
Hey, at least that version would have had even more people saying “Overdog McNabb.”