Spring 2018

Lost in Space

Dee Rees revisits Lamont Johnson's obscure '80s sci-fi pastiche Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and revels in its scrappy invention and underdog spirit


Ernie Hudson, Peter Strauss and Molly Ringwald in Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. (Photo: Mill Creek Entertainment)


As she drops into a seat in a screening room, Dee Rees has girlhood fright on her mind.

Over the years, as the Nashville, Tennessee, native worked her way from movie-loving kid to DGA Award-winning director—becoming a powerful chronicler of strivers and strugglers in a harsh, prejudiced environment (Pariah, Bessie, Mudbound)—she'd occasionally think about a strange, nightmare-inducing scene from her movie nights with dad in the '80s. "I remember being terrified by this villain, who from my memory, sucked energy from people," says Rees, who began a long Internet search typing in barely remembered aspects of the plotline, in the hopes the movie would surface. "It took me forever to hunt down the title."

That's because, when it comes to sci-fi/horror nostalgia, you don't see a lot of canon love for an obscure 1983 release called Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, a Star Wars/Alien/The Road Warrior knockoff—released in then-trendy 3D no less—which enjoyed one early-summer week as the No. 1 movie in America before the following weekend's Return of the Jedi consigned it to a space-saga Forgotten Zone. It's a fate that surely had no reputational bearing on the storied career of its director: multiple DGA Award- and Emmy Award-winning TV movie stalwart Lamont Johnson (That Certain Summer, Crisis at Central High).

But even discarded movies can make their mark. Rees is a fan of sci-fi: She directed an episode of the anthology series Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams, made a sci-fi-friendly Walmart commercial that ran during the Oscar telecast that looks as if it could have been subliminally inspired by Spacehunter, and is developing her own feature in the genre. Now she's thrilled to revisit Johnson's intergalactic action-adventure for the first time since grade school. "I just want to see why it made an impression on me," Rees says, a tinge of curiosity in her voice.

Spacehunter introduces us to mercenary intergalactic drifter Wolff (Peter Strauss), spurred by promise of a reward to travel to a once-colonized, now-failed planet to rescue three women captured by a warlord called Overdog. Early shots of now-quaint space-travel optical effects and miniature work still hold a certain charm. "It's got that tiny dash still of 'how did they do that,'" she says. "It required more ingenuity, doing effects back then. You had to do stuff practically, within the camera. I respect that skill."

The shabby interior of Wolff's ship triggers her fondness for dystopian design. "Old socks, taped-up chair, he's dirty Han Solo," says Rees. "It feels like a realistic future, cobbled together, with retrofit technology—technology that is not advanced."

That holds true for Wolff's first hostile encounter on planet Terra Eleven, too, a fight with approaching marauders aboard a massive pirate train with sails, after which the women are recaptured by figures on jet-propelled hang gliders and spirited away. "It's like a scavenger, DIY sort of anarchy. That would have scared me as a kid. You couldn't tell who was good or bad."

Shortly after, while exploring a cobwebbed crypt inside a pyramid, Wolff hears someone trying to steal his four-wheel vehicle. The culprit: a raggedy, short-haired, dust-caked orphan named Niki, played by a 14 year old who would take over the world the following year in Sixteen Candles. "Molly Ringwald!" Rees announces.

DEEP IMPACT: Dee Rees describes the steampunk look of Spacehunter as "retrofit technology;" (Bottom) the film's damsels in distress. (Photos: Everett)

In the wake of Strauss' forced attempt at a cranky antihero—"he sounds like Harrison Ford, I can't take it," quips Rees—Ringwald's scrappy energy feels like a personality injection. It's a barrage of whiny insults, boastful knowledge and motormouth hustling. "That's another reason I would have liked this," says Rees. "A badass teenage girl. I love that she's a dirty, scruffy girl. It's great. It's coming back to me."

The movie briefly cuts away to the temporary fate of the three captured women—paraded in front of a skin-crawling mad scientist type called the Chemist. "It's a buffet of sexist slavery: a brunette, a blonde and a black girl, and of course, the blonde is the prize," says Rees. When the movie returns to our protagonists bickering over rations and open-air sleeping arrangements, female representation is on Rees' mind. Niki inspires her. "Out of all the women, she seems the most safe, because she's so dirty and untouchable. She's mouthing off, she's funny, she's going to be okay."

Rees' optimism is quickly dashed, though, when the next morning, Wolff force-bathes Niki like a fed-up dad. "Oh right, this is fucked up," Rees says. "The bathing is traumatic. That was her whole power to me, that she was stinky and unapproachable. He's taking away her protection. Not cool."

Next, a bulldozer-like vehicle nearly runs Wolff over—"it's like they made the car a creature," Rees notes—and out pops Ernie Hudson as Washington, an old military pal of Wolff's, there for the same reason: to find the girls. "A black guy in space, that would have been striking," Rees says. "He's treated as a peer, too, which is rare, right?"

In the post-Lando Calrissian world that generated Spacehunter, though, Rees is still wary about whether the color line is getting broken. "Is he going to have more character? At that point, the best you could hope for was the noble black guy who dies so the white guy could live. I'm reserving judgment. But as I'm watching—three women in trouble, Molly Ringwald's dirty teen, and a black guy—these are reasons this film stuck in my head somehow."

After leaving Washington, our adventurers poke around a rusted station base, and are attacked by slimy, squawking Weeble-like creatures resembling obese babies. Rees detects something close to originality: mutants that pre-date a favorite of hers, 1990's Total Recall. "They're infantilized but dangerous, and the puppetry and costumes are scary. They're fat but they have motility. It's crazy!"

Another escape, from underwater amazon women and a dragon, leads to a wide-shot montage of wandering on foot—"they're playing the getting-thirsty music," she cracks—with distant cliffs mirrored in shallow waters. "The shots play with reflections, and I like that, especially on the landscapes." With many of the outdoor scenes saturation-hued, Rees suspects old-school filtration. "Maybe there was a chemical process afterward? I like that it's over the top and fearless, making the whole frame red or orange."

Reunited just in time with Washington, they decide to join forces in broaching the Zone, Overdog's stomping grounds, where the women are held. But the sudden appearance of two scavengers on motorbikes puts them on guard. Rees takes issue with the stereotyped blocking—Niki standing behind Wolff, who does the talking, with Washington holding a gun on the interlopers. "Why is [Wolff ] in charge?" she asks, a valid point if, only just before, he desperately needed Washington's help. "The woman is literally hiding behind him, and the black guy is the muscle. The black guy wasn't allowed to have the upper hand for more than 30 seconds. And the white guy gets to be in charge, even though he hasn't proven he's smarter than the girl, nor stronger than the black dude."

THE ZONE: (Top & Middle) Foreshadowings of Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome (1985) surface in the lair of Overdog (Michael Ironside), as well as a pirate train with sails and the onslaught of underwater amazon women (Bottom). (Photos: (Top and Bottom) Mill Creek Entertainment; (Middle) Everett)

The gang reach the Zone. Inside its mountainside complex is Overdog: Michael Ironside under Nosferatu-like makeup, outfitted with massive claws for hands, and attached to a crane arm as he oversees a maze of hazardous traps where the captured compete for bloodthirsty citizens. "This feels very Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," says Rees, discovering another way Spacehunter anticipated a later film. "The industrial, unspecific city hell." (Realizing that Escape From New York came earlier, though, she adds, "So the idea of games is not totally new.")

Rees muses on the impact Overdog had on her younger self: part human, part mechanical, physically constrained yet somehow powerful. "It was terrifying, this man-machine fusion, this omnipresent thing. How weird, for a kid, to see how he was helpless in a way, and yet everybody served him. How is he ruling? It's the rule of the invalid." Assessing it now, she likes how Johnson's first shots of Overdog aren't fully establishing ones. "He's propped up, suspended, but you can't quite make out how it's constructed."

Niki doesn't stay put in Wolff's vehicle, getting captured. Overdog sets her into the maze in a sequence made especially suspenseful because we know the possible fates (spikes, acid pit, fire). "But because she's a swamp rat," says Rees, calling back her belief in scrappiness as superpower, "she's uniquely fit to beat the obstacle course." And she does, heroically, seen from a variety of camera angles. Rees observes, "It's like it's the point of view of the works, of the hive, the machinery."

But Overdog reneges on his promise to release Niki, with a gleeful "I lied!" (Rees, her memory at full strength now, blurts out the line before Ironside does.) She's then tied to what looks like the mouth of an oscillating electric coil tunnel, so Overdog can drain her life force. "This is what I remember, her strung up, and him taking her power." Overdog explains needing her "vitality," and director Johnson adds a trippy reflective effect in which Rees sees metaphor. "See how she's superimposed over his heart?"

Wolff arrives to save her and vanquish Overdog with what amounts to sticking the villain's finger (claw) in the Zone equivalent of a socket. Though the tight staging and many close-ups in this extended climax tend toward the chaotic—there are few orienting master shots in this underground metropolis—Rees speaks up for the technique. "I like that '70s/'80s messy kind of style, where stuff feels like mistakes, and maybe they are, but where the discontinuous geographies are cool. You don't understand what's behind you, or what's in front of you—you only understand the immediate thing. It's a decontextualization, I guess."

Escape is complete; miniatures explode. But the coda's first shot is telling: Niki moping alone to the sounds of Wolff, Washington and the women making merry. The movie closes with her getting her wish—to be his space-traveling partner—signifying to Rees that Johnson knew who his real stars were. "It's totally her movie. And the planet's movie, with those landscapes and sets. What was the guy's name? The paternalistic pirate with the heart of gold? I don't even remember."

When refreshed that it was Wolff, she says, "He didn't earn that name. So yeah, for a director who executed, [Johnson] invested in her, and he put his investment in the right place. For a teenager to be at the heart of it, she'd have been an aspirational figure for me."

Asked if Rees can draw a parallel between a childhood sci-fi fave like Spacehunter and the earthbound, intimate and drawn-from-real- life movies she's made, she doesn't hesitate. "There's a dim view of humanity, you know?" she says. "That people are basically bad. And if I tend toward that philosophy, [this movie's] idea fits within that. It feels as if in this film, everyone is acting for themselves," she adds, "forming alliances based on what serves them."

In Bessie, Rees paints blues singer Bessie Smith's turbulent life as a series of relationships that yield short-term emotional or professional gains, but rarely provide lasting solace. Elaborating further on this theme, she says, "There's a certain comfort in companionship, but it's not to be totally trusted. It's maybe a scaffolding for something else. I think I share that worldview."

Screening Room

In this popular feature, a director talks about a film particularly close to their heart, why the creative choices are inspired, how it influenced their own work, and why the movie continues to resonate for them personally.

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