Monday, April 1, 2013

White Elephant Blogathon: Space Truckers

Paul of Silly Hats Only is once again hosting the White Elephant Blogathon. I've missed the last couple of year, but I'm glad to be a participant again. You can check out the links to all of the entries over at Paul's blog. Thankfully, I received a title that resulted in a surprisingly pleasant viewing experience. 

With a title like Space Truckers, you know you’re in for a wacky time, and Stuart Gordon’s film doesn’t disappoint. In fact, Space Truckers is exactly the kind of movie one wishes for during a blogathon such as this, and it almost makes me feel bad that I picked something for someone else to watch that is infinitely more of a depressing time than Space Truckers. Yes, I have written the title of the film (that’s Space Truckers) four times now, for it is one of the primary things about Gordon’s film that makes me smile. Just try it. Stop reading this for a moment and say aloud the title of the film (Space Truckers). It makes you happy, no?  Okay, seriously, though, Space Truckers is an odd experience. There’s enough self-awareness here to keep Space Truckers from being something like Space Mutiny bad — the film’s worst scenes seem clearly to have tongue placed firmly in cheek — but it doesn’t always work. This is, after all, the movie where Norm from “Cheers” gets shot ass first through a porthole, a half man half robot gets his “electrical wang pulse” started by pulling on a chord like he’s starting a lawnmower, and where Dennis Hopper and Stephen Dorff struggle with some truly awful banter.  Still, it’s breezy and fun and kind of charming in its B-movie ways.

The plot is simple enough: in the year 2196, a base on one of Neptune’s moons is under attack. Nabel (Charles Dance), the second in command, tells his boss, Saggs (Shane Rimmer), that their defense has been breached, and that the cyborg killing machine they were trying to keep out is outside of their locked-down door. As the cyborg enters the room, Nabel shuts the cyborg down. Knowing that all he needs is a switch to turn this killing machine off, Saggs has it destroy Nabel. We then cut to John Canyon (Hopper), one of the few remaining independent truckers left in the galaxy that is willing to compete with the major corporations. However, when he delivers a cargo of squared pigs (because they’re easier to stack that way), he finds that his greedy boss (Wendt) is siphoning off his profits. After realizing this, Canyon heads off to do one last big shipment (containing “sex toys” but really they’re just a bunch of those killer robots) to Earth. Along the way, he teams up with Cindy (Debi Mazar), who plans to marry Canyon once they get to Earth, and Mike (Dorff), a young apprentice trucker. As they go off course, the trio is taken prisoner by space pirates (one of the pirates being the guy that played Bennett in Commando) led by none other than a half man/half robot version of the thought-to-be-dead Nabel (who know goes by Captain Macanudo). This leads to Canyon/Mike/Cindy having to battle all Macanudo’s men and more of those killer robots before the film’s inevitable conclusion of the three saving the day and being declared as heroes by the President.

Plot, though, is not one of the things we concern ourselves with when we’re watching a movie called Space Truckers. Written by Ted Mann — who is probably most famous for his work on “Deadwood” — the former editor of the National Lampoon, the film is at times pretty sharp and funny about the science-fiction genre. As previously stated, the banter between Hopper and Dorff is bad, but whether it’s intentionally bad or not is the questions. There are times when the cyborg version of Nabel is about ready to kill Mike, who has just said something insulting Nabel, and Hopper tries to save him by saying, “He didn’t mean that, he appreciates the brave way you confront your disability.” That’s a funny line. However, what’s not funny are the countless scatological jokes about penises being cut off, fat people farting before being shot ass first through a porthole, or other jokes that fall with as big a thud as those horrible mid-90s Disney movies like The Big Green and Heavyweights (and, yes, there are even scenes in here with wacky sound effects when people get hit in the balls). When you make a comedy like this, some things will work and some won’t. I get that, and, really, Space Truckers is a lot fun because it’s obviously not taking itself seriously.

Stuart Gordon, most famous for his cult horror classic Re-Animator (From Beyond has a pretty big following, too), is an interesting filmmaker. I don’t know much about his post-From Beyond period, but it seems that he’s been content working with small budgets on genre films even though his Re-Animator is considered a horror classic. Films like Castle Freak, Fortress, and King of the Ants never really interested me (I had never even heard of Space Truckers until I received my assignment for this blogathon), but I have to say: I’m intrigued. The careers of filmmakers that start in horror and make a splash with their first film usually means they’ll get some kind of assignment with a bigger budget. Gordon remained in the margins, though. Fans love From Beyond, but it didn’t make much money, and his follow-up, Dolls, was panned by critics. Box-office and critical reception aren’t the be-all-end-all barometers, but they’re a good indicator of the trajectory a filmmaker’s career will take — the confidence a studio and its investors will have in someone — and with Gordon’s career, it’s interesting that Space Truckers was the biggest budget he worked with; it just seemed to come at such an arbitrary time in his career.

And that’s kind of the amazing thing about Space Truckers. Where did Gordon get this money? Nothing about his previous films (especially Robot Jox and Fortress) suggests that he could make enough money on a B-movie to warrant this kind of a budget. Gordon has always been adept at making the most of small budgets, and he’s made a pretty successful career for himself (he certainly has a cult following) following that model, but that success has never been monetary; rarely do his films make a profit. So, Gordon’s film had a budget (his biggest ever), and it wasn’t spent on typical, familiar sets and effects found in science-fiction films (especially in the mid-90s); rather, the budget seems to have been spent wisely on unique setpieces. The interiors of the ship, the diner where Cindy works, the miniatures flying through space — it’s all B-movie stuff, but it’s B-movie stuff with a budget, and it doesn’t come off that bad, actually. Space Truckers (despite the money invested in the production) only made about 2 million dollars, and that’s not all that surprising considering that it just doesn’t come across as a movie a lot of people would get behind and pay money to see (the film, despite its setpieces, still very much feels like a B-movie with some of its aesthetic choices like straight-on shots when characters talk to each other or an annoying reliance on canted angles or different lenses to try and cram as much of those setpieces into the frame). But this only makes sense if audiences too Space Truckers seriously. Perhaps it wasn’t successful because it was just too much over the heads of its viewers.

Movies like Space Truckers become cult hits because it’s interesting to see how these filmmakers created something out of nothing and there’s usually something so awful it becomes must-see (The Room or Birdemic, to name a few) or it has an underlying irony (Evil Dead) that connects with genre fans. Here, Gordon didn’t have “nothing,” and I think that is probably one of the reasons the film plays a little weird while you watch it. When the film opens not with a giant spaceship entering the frame a la 2001 or Alien but instead with a giant beer can, I couldn’t help but think, “That’s kind of clever and funny,” (that underlying irony) but then the film kind of settles down into normalcy with spurts of satirical inspiration here and there. In between those spurts, Space Truckers is easy enough to get through (it’s what I like to call a “pizza and beer” movie where one can sit around with friends eating pizza and drinking beer and having a good time), but it does seem to be a tad padded. And when you consider that the creators of the film were given a lot of money to create something that could have easily been made for 1 million dollars, you wonder if they felt the need to stretch the film out to 95 minutes because they were trying to make something bigger than a B-movie.

I never followed Gordon’s work beyond Fortress, but the quirkiness and generally wacky nature of Space Truckers has me interested in checking out some more of his later work. There’s certainly nothing James Nguyen-offensive about the film that suggests other films are worth looking into. Space Truckers is at times charming and funny, and that’s all that one can ask for when they participate in the White Elephant Blogathon. I’m thankful I received an assignment where it was easy for me to write 1,000 words, and if Space Truckers did anything, it made me more curious to check out later-era Stuart Gordon.


  1. "Plot, though, is not one of the things we concern ourselves with when we’re watching a movie called Space Truckers."


    I'm really intrigued now, too. Having just seen a completely rotten new Stephen Dorff movie, I'm pretty cross with him right now, but I could probably get over that just to see Space Truckers. This seems like it could have done really well on cable.

    1. Dorff is so incredibly bad in this. But I'm thinking one of Gordon's strengths as a director isn't with getting great performances from his actors. And, yes, it does seem like a cable movie. The kind of movie now that can be made for peanuts on Sci-Fi Channel and actually do quite well for itself. It's a fun movie, for sure.

  2. Gordon's still doing interesting work. I caught his film STUCK at TIFF back in 2007, and was surprised how effective it was. A potent, scruffy little drama that hits some surprisingly raw spots about our surprising capacity for screwing over our fellow human beings.

    1. Ooh, I'll have to check that one out. Thanks, Paul! I enjoyed my assignment this year! I'm certainly grateful after reading about your assignment, The Core. Hehe.