❉ Mark Cunliffe revisits the gaudy, camp and tongue-in-cheek B movie released 25 years ago.
This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Space Truckers, though you perhaps wouldn’t know it. Stuart Gordon’s 1996 comic sci-fi adventure starring Dennis Hopper, Stephen Dorff, Debi Mazar and Charles Dance suffered the ignominy of gaining a straight-to-cable release in its native USA, making its debut on HBO that year instead. I don’t think it fared much better here in the UK either, as I feel sure I saw it around 1996 or ’97 on Sky Movies. But today, I’m here to commemorate the anniversary of a film so 1996 that it ends with one-hit-wonder/infernal techno hoe down earworm Cotton Eye Joe playing over the closing credits.
Gordon co-write the movie with Ted Mann. Both men had a particularly niche interest in sci-fi; not for them the stories of evil empires and plucky rebels, taking their cue perhaps from the Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton characters in Ridley Scott’s Alien, they found that they had a desire to tell a story set in space from the perspective of blue collar workers. In Mann’s own words, he wanted to make a science fiction movie with “no scientists, no techies, none of the unusual polished, sanitary environments we’re used to in our space films”, arguing that “Space is like anywhere else – the people who are there are underpaid and poorly regarded.” This mix of the recognisably ordinary with the fantastical is nicely blended in the use of the eponymous space truckers as the film’s main premise, with Gordon and Mann swapping the mythic notion of the open road for outer space.
Former Easy Rider Dennis Hopper, bringing the jaded weight of such cultural baggage to bear, takes the lead here veteran space trucker John Canyon. The part, portraying one of a dying breed of independent hauliers transporting cargo such as ‘square pigs’ – an incredible feat of animatronic design that will make you think twice about having a square sausage as part of your fry up – for InterPork and its obnoxious head Keller (Cheers‘ George Wendt), afforded Hopper the rare opportunity to play a good guy at this stage in his career and he seizes it with both hands. Arriving at his ‘truck stop’, Canyon reunites with diner waitress Cindy (Debi Mazar) who explains that she needs to visit Earth in order to see her sick mother. Canyon, who has always held a torch for the young woman, promises her he will take her to Earth, providing she marries him.
Whilst this somewhat iffy domestic deal is settled, Keller decides to welch on his deal with Canyon and gives up and coming trucker Mike (Stephen Dorff) the veteran’s rig and cargo. A brawl ensues in which a gun is fired, shattering the window of the diner and sucking Keller, arse-first, out among the stars. Knowing they need a way out and fast, Canyon agrees to take a cargo of sex dolls to Earth, no questions asked, with Cindy and Mike along for the ride.
With the police in pursuit, Canyon takes his rig into a no-go area known as the ‘scum zone’, a region of outer space controlled by space pirates. Needless to say, it isn’t long before our heroes are captured by the crew of the pirate ship Regalia, commanded by the hideously mutilated Captain Macanudo (Charles Dance) and his loyal second, Mr Cutt (Commando‘s Vernon Wells). In another life, the fearsome space pirate was known as Nabel, the Chief Scientist of intergalactic industrialist and now President of Earth, E.J. Saggs (Shane Rimmer). But when Nabel’s invention of deadly cyborg warriors proved too effective in Saggs’s plan for universal domination, the scientist seemingly paid the price with his life. Unbeknownst to Saggs however, Nabel rebuilt himself in his own laboratory to become the company-hating scourge of the galaxy known as Captain Macanudo – and Canyon’s no questions asked, ‘sex doll’ cargo just happens to be a fleet of the very warriors the scientist-turned-pirate once designed.
With its sense of campy fun, gaudy design (Gordon argued that research led him to understand that people yearn for colour in space, so everything other than the scenes on the Regalia is very bold and brightly lit) and grotesque animatronics in the shape of the aforementioned ‘square pigs’, Macanudo/Nabel’s rebuilt bio-genetic form and, most amusingly of all, an irate elderly woman sitting on a public toilet which turns out to be nothing more than a decoy and a key – if you pull her screaming mouth back over her head – to the underground lair of Mr Zesty (Birdy Sweeney) who secures Canyon’s transport off the truck stop when the police come calling, it’s relatively easy to cite Total Recall as an influence on Gordon’s film. But I feel that Space Truckers goes back a little further than that. It is one of those films you’d swear was a 2000 AD adaptation (I’d say like Hardware, but that actually was from 2000 AD; Richard Stanley just tried to pass it off as his own idea). This definitely owes a debt to the comic, which ran a similarly themed comedy sci-fi strip from writers John Wagner and Alan Grant with artist Massimo Belardinelli entitled Ace Trucking Co. throughout the 1980s.
This 2000 AD vibe is further enhanced by the decision to film the whole thing at Ardmore Studios in County Wicklow on account of the tax break incentives that the Irish government then had to offer filmmakers. This gives it a weird American/Northern European hybrid atmosphere, which is clear from casting that features familiar faces from Anglo-Irish telly like Ballykissangel (Birdy Sweeney was a regular on that cosy Sunday night favourite from the first series right up until his death in 1999) and Father Ted (look out for Pat Mustard himself, Pat Laffan as one of the pirate crew, suitably named Scummy) as well as British-based Americans like Gerry Anderson fave Shane Rimmer and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy‘s Sandra Dickinson, who lends her uniquely squeaky transatlantic tones to the role of Bitchin’ Betty, the voice of Canyon’s rig.
No one is ever going to convince me that Space Truckers is a good film, but it is a fun one. It could have been more fun, it does seemingly suffer from a predictable action movie narrative that insists on getting in the way in the most plodding of manners, but where it absolutely succeeds is in its eminently quotable and truly hilarious dialogue, most of which is delivered by Charles Dance’s sympathetic villain – a “sonovabitch gimp rapist murderer” (to quote Canyon) with “a low-amp electrical wang pulse” cock that he operates with a lawnmower-like ripcord! His attempts at seducing Cindy memorably fail to go to plan, resulting in another hilarious line “I pray you allow me a few moments to coordinate my seldom used reproductive sequences”. The joy of these scenes – which are essentially unsavoury; Cindy has agreed to barter her body for the freedom of her, Canyon and Mike, is that Dance knows full well to play the threat with his tongue firmly in cheek. It’s not many respected British actors who could pull off the line “If I had an anus, I’d probably soil myself” in their death scene!
Likewise Dennis Hopper is also keenly aware of just how to pitch it and mages to make his character more likeable than some of his actions and attitudes (particularly towards Cindy) would arguably suggest. In support, Debi Mazar takes the cues and holds her own, knowing the importance of playing both to the comedy (“Did you hear something back there that sounds like there’s something back there?”) and her inherent beauty, but Stephen Dorff struggles a little beyond looking good with some very flat line reading. That’s OK though, because he’s effectively the straight man, and his mid 90s appeal effectively placed the film in the public eye.
On the whole, apart from some pretty good animatronics and model work, the special effects and hokey CGI puts Space Truckers on a par with mid 80s Doctor Who, but I have to say that Nabel’s bio-mechanical warriors remain a deeply impressive design. The brainchild of Japanese illustrator Hajime Sorayama, renowned for his erotic paintings of feminine automatons, the stealthy, ruthless warriors were portrayed by fashion models, their grace and poise adding to their deadly precision. As a tongue-in-cheek B movie of a sci-fi action adventure, Space Truckers deserved a bit more of a chance but perhaps, it is as Gordon reflected, audiences struggle to laugh at science fiction. Nonetheless, if you feel you can buck the trend, this is a good dumb blast of a movie to kick back with a beer or two. It’s available on Blu-ray via Second Sight and includes extras such as interviews with Gordon, the composer Colin Towns and art director Simon Lamont.
❉ Watch ‘Space Truckers’ on Amazon Prime Video UK: https://amzn.to/2WqTEjX. All images © Park Circus Group Limited 2021.
❉ Mark Cunliffe is a regular contributor to The Geek Show and has written several collector’s booklet essays for a number of releases from Arrow Video and Arrow Academy. He is also a contributor to Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television In The 1980s, now available to buy in paperback, £19.99, and as a full colour Ebook (PDF format) £6.99.