Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Spacehunter is coming at ya in 3D!

Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone is designed as a operatic space action film, but never quite finds its center. It features some clever moments and some interesting characters but suffers from the intent to be relevant, rather than actually having something to say.

First Impressions

The trailer for Spacehunter wants to ensure that the audience knows the film is presented in 3-D. Other than that, it seems a simplistic space action film, with “three unlikely heroes” who must save three stranded women from an evil overlord. It promises to put the audience into the action!

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone

Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone title card.

The Fiction of The Film

The starliner Eridani Princess is struck by space lightning and destroyed. Only one lifeboat manages to escape with three Earth women aboard. It crash lands on planet Terra XI and the women are captured by Scavs, one of two groups living on the planet. Years ago, two doctors, Patterson and McNabb traveled to the planet to fight a plague outbreak, but had a quarrel. McNabb assumed a dictatorial role over the planet as the plague wiped out most every one. Patterson assumed the name of Grandman (Beeson Carroll) and control of the group of surviving Scavs, while McNabb became known as Overdog (Michael Ironside), leader of the Zoners.

Wolff (Peter Strauss), an ex-military man, scrap-collector, and mercenary, gets word of the accident and the 3,000 mega-credit reward for the women. He and his partner Chalmers (Andrea Marcovicci), who turns out to be a female android, land on Terra XI to find the survivors. They find a Scav caravan with the women just as Overdog’s trikers (motorcycles) and vultures (jet-powered hang-gliders) swoop in and steal the three women, killing Grandman (and destroying Chalmers) in the process. Two of his Scavs, Jarrett (Paul Boretski) and Duster (Patrick Rowe) swear to go after Overdog and kill him.

Wolff heads into “the Zone” where he discovers a dirty, teenage urchin named Niki (Molly Ringwald) trying to steal his Rambler vehicle. She claims to be an Earther, just like him, but uses strange words in her speech, obviously a product of growing up somewhere other than Earth. She says she’s a tracker and will help Wolff find the girls, if he’ll take her off planet. Wolff appears to agree without actually committing to anything. He teaches the young teen girl how to eat hot dogs, bathe, and sleep in her own sleeping bag.

Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone

The special effects from the film are pretty good for the time. Miniatures shot outdoors provide for realistic looking lighting and atmosphere.

Meanwhile the three Earth women are brought before Overdog’s Chemist (Hrant Alianak), a scarred and mutated scientist that leers at the women before drugging them, making them more pliant to transport to Overdog’s citadel. Niki and Wolff run into Washington (Ernie Hudson) an old squad mate of Wolff’s, who is the Sector Chief for the area, and also trying to get the reward for finding the women. Wolff gets the drop on him, leaving him weaponless and stuck.

Wolff and Niki continue on their journey encountering some blobby humanoids in cocoons that attack them, as well as some female warriors that capture the pair and attempt to feed them to an underwater dragon-snake. Escaping without weapons, vehicle, or water, Wolff and Niki wander until they are picked up by Washington. Even though he is upset at being left earlier, Washington and Wolff agree to split the reward 50/50, which in turn upsets Niki for not seemingly being a part of “the team.”

The women are brought before Overdog, a scarred cyborg with giant metal claws that hangs from a crane-like structure. He has the women undressed for his pleasure. Wolff, Washington, and Niki meet up with the two Scavs, and the five of them formulate a plan to get the women back. They sneak into Overdog’s fortress and begin planting bombs to blow it up. Niki decides to ignore the advice to stay put and is captured and placed into “the Maze,” a dangerous metal obstacle course made of spikes, flamethrowers, and other things designed to kill. She makes it through but Overdog renege’s on his promise to free her.

Niki is placed in a device to siphon her vitality into the older, damaged Overdog. While Washington and the Scavs hold off Overdog’s security, Wolff attacks Overdog and eventually electrocutes him, freeing Niki. The group free the captured women and all eight of them head back to Wolff’s ship. Niki starts to leave, embarrassed and sure that Wolff hates her, but he asks her to stay, and they all fly away safely. The End.

I am not losing my edge. I’m just trying to do things a little smarter these days.” – Wolff

Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone

The cobbled together train/tank/ship is very reminiscent of vehicles from the Mad Max trilogy.

History in the Making

At the beginning of the 80s, 3D film began to make a comeback. Sequels such as Friday the 13th part III (1982), Jaws 3-D and Amityville 3-D (both 1983) capitalized on the ability to entice a new generation of filmgoers. This trend led to Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone which was a big-budget 3D film release, and the most expensive 3D film at the time, made by Columbia Pictures. It was released on May 20, 1983, just five days before the release of Return of the Jedi, in what was probably a bid to satisfy the thirst for science-fiction adventure, aka Peak Star Wars Fever.

It’s a memorable film for being thoroughly unmemorable. It was one of many films released in 1983 that tried to capitalize on the success of the Star Wars franchise. Some were better than others. Many were not. Spacehunter is often confused with another release from August of that year called Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn, also released in 3D. Spacehunter also featured early roles for a number of well recognized actors including Michael Ironside, Ernie Hudson, and Molly Ringwald. It was not the first role for any of these actors, but a film that did elevate them to a larger and wider audience.

Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone

Niki instructs Wolff where to go and how to find the women, all while being thoroughly irritating to the mercenary.


Spacehunter takes some of the most genre defining elements and uses them to craft its story. In some sci-fi films, the use of previous elements can define a brand new style and make something special. Unfortunately here, the combination of these disparate and expected elements creates something rather ordinary. The film has its moments but they’re not enough to set it apart from dozens of other similar films.

The title, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, is quite an ambitious start. It speaks to space, adventure, forbidden areas, but also comes off as the sort of title that a studio turns to focus groups about. “How does the term ‘Forbidden Zone’ make you feel?” That in conjunction with the anticipation for the big blockbuster in May 1983 (Return of the Jedi) and the invitation of 3D was enough to get the butts in the seats. From there the film included spaceships and desert planets, android assistants (reading “R.U.R,” which was the first usage of the word robot, no less), laser guns and cobbled together machinery. The Scavs train/ship, and the Zoners motorcycles and hang gliders all look like things straight out of The Road Warrior. The villains are mutated cyborgs, the heroes are dashing rogues–with Wolff being totally modeled on Han Solo, and they are searching for three beautiful women (stand-ins for princesses). As with the title, it seems like the filmmakers looked at popular sci-fi tropes from film and television and cobbled them all together to “make” a film.

Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone

The three surviving women are brought before the Chemist in his crazy laboratory.

Societal Commentary

The characters in the film are relatively black and white. The bad guys look like monsters and act horribly against everyone else. They put people into a death maze for their perverse enjoyment. They attempt to suck the life force out of people to prolong their sick and depraved lives. They overtly sexualize the women prisoners, leering at them, with the filmmakers camera voyeuristically taking in every moment. These are not people you want to hang out with. The heroes are good guys, or at least on that path, that try to do the right thing. Wolff is a mercenary and initially takes the job for money, which seems to lead all of his decisions. But after reconnecting with Washington and spending time with Niki he sees that there are better things to life than just money. He becomes like a surrogate father to Niki and begins to think with his heart rather than his wallet by the end of the film.

The film also sets up a slightly convoluted backstory for how the characters got to where they are. For Wolff and Washington, all that ends up being revealed was that they were in some sort of military service together, and they didn’t get along too well together. Overdog is another matter. His backstory is revealed in a short blast of dialogue from the computer at the beginning of the film. It describes both he (McNabb) and Patterson as prominent doctors, coming to Terra XI to save the populace from a plague outbreak. Somewhere along the way, they too became upset with each other and McNabb decided to take over the planet as a dictator, using his skills to prolong his life. While not necessary to the overall plot of the film, it does show a little of the dystopian nature the film tries to portray. As normally good men make bad decisions, which lead them down an evil path.

Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone

Washington, Wolff and Niki head off towards Overdog’s fortress to save the women.

The Science in The Fiction

Spacehunter has a dystopian element to its story thanks to a plague that threatens the central planet in the film. It’s unclear what the results of this plague are (other than the desolation of the planet apparently), but may also conceivably lead to disfiguration seen in the leaders of the Zoners. To cope with this issue, Overdog (or perhaps the Chemist) has devised a device that can drain the life from one person into another. He uses this to keep his decrepit body alive. Unfortunately the information about this process doesn’t arrive until late in the third act, making any potential tension weakened. Why this wasn’t done with the hostage women earlier in the film and was saved for Niki is unexplained, and just some of the disparity in the plot of the film.

At the time of this film, which is in the mid to late 21st Century based on the dates given for the histories at the beginning, robots have achieved an amazing similarity to humans. In fact when Chalmers is introduced, only some viewers might suspect that she was an android of sorts, equally on par with the ones from Alien or Blade Runner. They also must be as disposable as razor blades, because when Chalmers is struck by blaster fire, causing a gash on the side of her face and disabling her, Wolff self-destructs the android which melts into a pile of slag. A most curious case of introducing an interesting character, that could surely have aided the heroes, only to remove her 20 minutes into the film.

Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone

Overdog lays the smackdown on Wolff.

The Final Frontier

One very odd thing that stood out in this film, that’s extremely specific, is Wolff teaching Niki about hot dogs. She of course thinks that they’re made from real dogs, and refuses them initially. The reason this stands out is because there’s a scene that is almost exactly the same in Battle Beyond the Stars, with George Peppard’s character teaching the characters about hot dogs. This can’t be a coincidence, right?

Spacehunter makes for a great Sci-Fi Saturday viewing as an ultimate popcorn flick. It doesn’t require much of an investment and has some interesting moments. It’s also the 2nd film role for Molly Ringwald, just before she joined with John Hughes for Sixteen Candles and all the other teen romance films that made her career in the 80s. Michael Ironside is also an enjoyable matinee-style villain, as he gets some scenery to chew on before his larger roles in the second V miniseries, The Final Battle, Top Gun and later in Total Recall and Highlander II. The enjoyment for this film is really about what the viewer puts into it.

Coming Next

V: The Miniseries

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