Last of the Monster Kids

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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Director Report Card: Stuart Gordon (1996)

10. Space Truckers

It seems, at some point, Stuart Gordon acquired a reputation for doing two kinds of movies: Gory horror films and goofy sci-fi adventures. You might assume the horror movies are more Gordon's style but one can't forget that he has writing credits on both “Robot Jox” and “Space Truckers.” Gordon was apparently drawn to “Space Truckers,” primarily the work of former National Lampoon writer Ted Mann, by his childhood desire to become an astronaut. The resulting film is not discussed very much. While “Robot Jox” and “Fortress” have followings, “Space Truckers” has become one of Gordon's most obscure features.

It’s the future and man lives among the stars. But goods must still be transported from location to location. This is where the space truckers come in. John Canyon considers himself the greatest space trucker. After running into trouble at a truck stop, he takes a mysterious job from a corporation. A waiter Canyon admires, Cindy, and another male trucker, Mike, accompanies him. He’s told he’s transporting sex dolls. In fact, he’s transporting a fleet of bio-mechanical killer cyborgs. Soon, space pirates become involved and the cyborgs are unleashed.

With “Robot Jox,” Gordon sought to capture a tone comparable to a Saturday morning cartoon. I have no idea if he had a similar goal with “Space Truckers” but the movie's atmosphere seems to suggest as much. “Space Truckers” is very much a live action cartoon. The comedy is highly goofy. The characters are broad. The action is comedic. More over, the film takes its premise very literally. When I first heard the title, I assumed “Space Truckers” would concern futuristic blue collar workers like in “Alien,” hauling huge space platforms or minerals. Instead, the film transports modern truckers into space. They drive rigs with trailers, hauling hogs or other standard goods. They wear baseball caps and talk on CB radios. They hang out in “road side,” as it were, diners. It's not a futuristic version of the trucking industry as it exists now. It's literally the modern trucking industry moved into space.

Like a cartoon, “Space Truckers” is not especially concerned with coherent plotting. The story is essentially a series of random encounters. The central trio bumble into meeting each other. Afterwards, they are given a mission. Yet it's not a straight path. The rig is damaged in an asteroid field. The ship is abducted by pirates, leading to a lengthy mid-film digression. Lastly, the killer robots pop out as the characters (and script) wanders towards Earth. There's next to no connection between these events. They don't really build on each other. By the time the film ends, it feels more like the screenwriter ran out of ideas then the plot reaching a logical conclusion. That “Space Truckers” is the work of a comedy writer is revealing. The movie feels like a series of loosely linked sketches than a proper story line.

Though some of the cartoonish, sci-fi details are endearingly weird. John Canyon is hauling hogs but not typical pigs. Instead, he's transporting “square” pigs, hogs that have been genetically engineered to fit inside a confined space. That's a lovably weird touch. The space setting occasionally contributes an interesting moment. Canyon is introduced eating a hot dog, the squeeze-bottle of mustard floating through his cab. Futuristic billboards, floating through space on satellites, put in brief appearances. In a likely homage to “2001,” the waitress in the space-diner walk around in a loop, on a revolving platform. Weightlessness also comes in handle during a fight scene, where someone is punched across a room. Even if the film is very literal about its “truckers in space” premise, at least it utilizes the attributes of the sci-fi setting somewhat.

What I immediately noticed about “Space Truckers,” more than anything, was its production values. Most of Gordon's previous films have been made in the two-to-five million dollar range. “Space Truckers,” meanwhile, was made for twenty-five million. That's a significant step up and it shows. The film features some impressive model and miniature works. Canyon's cab and the other space rigs are pretty cool looking. The police vessels and the pirate ship are similarly memorable. The sets are large, filling lived-in and impressively detailed. There's even some CGI which looks very rough by modern standards. However, in 1996, just the mere presence of computer generated images was kind of a big deal. The director clearly enjoyed playing in this larger sand box.

Despite the increased budget, “Space Truckers” functions poorly in one very important way. For a comedy, it's simply not very funny. Many of the supposed gags come off as overly mean-spirited. The film begins with the fleet of killer robots murdering fifty soldiers. Later, someone – a jerk but not evil – gets painfully sucked out a window into space. The characters often snipe at each other in a way that is less than endearing. I wonder if the rating had something to do with this. “Space Truckers” was Stuart Gordon's first PG-13 effort. Maybe, if it was made within his usual R rating, the film would've been closer to the absurdly funny gore-fests of his previous pictures. By limiting the blood, the violence actually becomes more mean-spirited. The characters are snide even while people are dying around them. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. In fact, I only laughed once throughout the whole film. When two people attempt to kiss, they forget they're in space suits and they're helmets clink together. Otherwise, I didn't chuckle once.

I actively wonder if “Space Truckers” wasn't originally intended as an R-rated film. The movie is full of sexy shenanigans. While Canyon is outside fixing the overheating rig, Cindi and Mike are left inside. As the ship's interior gets hotter, they strip down to their underwear. Inevitably, within minutes, they are getting intimate. Cindi spends most of the rest of the film in her bra and panties.  Instead of being funny and sexy, it comes off as slightly sleazy and unpleasant. She's (barely) dressed like this when they get abducted by pirates. Which leads to the cyborg captain attempting to sleep with her. That leads to a deeply uncomfortable sequence where the captain activates his robot genitalia with a pull-string, like a chainsaw. “Space Truckers” is seemingly set in a future where women have to prostitute themselves to get anywhere. That's a pretty gross place to insert some light sex farce.

Other than the weirdly neutered violence, there's another hint that Stuart Gordon primarily makes horror films. The bio-organic killer robots in “Space Truckers” would probably be pretty cool villains in a monster movie. The machine soldiers were designed by Hajime Sorayama, a Japanese artist famous for his paintings of sexualized gynoids. While not blatantly erotic, the robots do have weirdly shapely hips. (And, while deactivated, they sprout testicle-shaped sacs.) Atop these vaguely human-shaped heads are heads like cameras, adding to their unnerving appearance. They are difficult to kill, shoot a laser beam that reduce people to goo, sprout giant blades from their arms, and produce tentacles from their chest. Gordon cast female dancers as the robots, giving the machines a fluid, unique movement. It all adds up to make memorable adversaries, even if the movie around them is forgettable.

“Space Truckers” was made during that weird period when Dennis Hopper was actually something like a box office draw. Weirder yet, Hopper breaks from the kind of roles he played in “Speed,” “Super Mario Bros.,” and “Waterworld” by being the film's hero. Despite the change in moral alliance, Hopper still hams it up like he did in those villain roles. Hopper's John Canyon is a bit of a rogue, who frequently thumbs his nose at authority and does what he wants. He gets out of tough situations by tricking and out-thinking people. It's a good role for Hopper, who could always be counted on to nicely ham it up when the occasion called for it. The material may not be the best but Hopper is at least enjoying himself.

Among the film's semi-heroic trio, Hopper ends up being the bright spot. “Space Truckers” was also made during that weird period when Hollywood was trying to make Stephen Dorff happen. As Mike, Doriff comes off as overly smug. It doesn't help the screenwriter wrote the character primarily as a bumbling idiot, who gets the heroes into trouble more often than he gets them out of it. Opposite Doriff is Debi Mazar as Cindy. Mazar is a more appealing performer than Dorff. The part of a sassy diner waitress, thrown into a crazy adventure, is certainly well suited to her abilities. Yet, as good as Mazar is, she still can't save the lackluster script. Too often, she's reduced to reacting to the situations in an unbelieving way.

There are a few recognizable faces bouncing around “Space Truckers'” supporting cast. Charles Dance appears as Macanuda, the cyborg pirate captain. It's honestly odd seeing a classically trained performer like Dance playing a horny robo-pirate with a pneumatic dick. Considering how much make-up he's under, it's honestly hard to recognize Dance at first, if it wasn't for his immediately recognizable voice. Dance plays the ridiculous material straight but can't manage to wring any laughs out of it. George Wendt, who worked with Gordon on-stage, has a small role as the owner of the shipping company badgering Hopper. Vernon Wells shows up in one of his trademark henchmen roles, this time as a space pirate. Minutes before the movie is over, Barbara Crampton appears in a surprise cameo. It's nice to see her again.

Despite its fancy special effects and somewhat star-studded cast, “Space Truckers” would be a disastrous box office bomb. The film only grossed a little over a million dollars in theaters, against a considerably larger budget. I'm not even sure the film was released theatrically in America. This might explain why Gordon has never returned to the science fiction genre in the years since making this one. Yet the people who have seen the film seem to consider it a campy delight. I wish I could share that enthusiasm. I found the film frequently annoying, weirdly paced and tonally odd. [Grade: C]

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