(1996) Directed by Stuart Gordon; Written by Ted Mann and Stuart Gordon; Starring: Dennis Hopper, Stephen Dorff, Debi Mazar, Charles Dance, George Wendt and Vernon Wells; Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD (Out of Print)
“I had this idea that had been kicking around for years about truck drivers in space, and had gotten to be friendly with Ted Mann (co-writer), and it turns out that both of us were frustrated astronauts, and when we were kids, that’s what we both had dreamed about, going into space… And when I told him the idea of blue-collar people in space, just doing their jobs, he really responded, and we started just throwing together a treatment.” – Stuart Gordon (excerpt from 2018 featurette, “Space Trucking with Stuart Gordon”)
The late, great Stuart Gordon will forever be associated with his H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, particularly Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986). A deeper dive into his filmography, however, yields some surprising titles, spanning multiple genres. Produced on a budget of $27 million,* the sci-fi/comedy Space Truckers** was his largest-budgeted film to date. It was filmed on a sound stage at Ardmore Studios in Ireland,*** where a nearby beach served as a desert. While the film saw some overseas distribution, it wasn’t released theatrically in the U.S., instead debuting on HBO.
* Fun Fact #1: The filmmakers were approached by Universal, which would have added more money into the film’s production and distribution, but one of the film’s producers turned the studio down.
** Fun Fact #2: According to Stuart Gordon, Stephen Dorff’s agent wasn’t enamored with “Space Truckers,” so the actor’s contract included a clause that gave him a final say on the title.
*** Fun Fact #3: Gordon remarked that while the movie’s final title was in limbo, Variety listed the film as “Untitled Irish Space Movie.”
If you took the space diner scene from Spaceballs (1987), minus the chestburster, and turned it into its own movie, you might get something like this. Set within our solar system circa 2196 (or 2145, depending on which of the film’s trailers you believe), Space Truckers depicts the blue-collar side of space colonization, with people performing the intensive manual labor required to keep things going. The space truckers are the life blood of the colonies, shipping goods throughout the solar system. After veteran trucker John Canyon (Dennis Hopper)* has a falling out with his boss Keller (George Keller), he accepts a lucrative but risky assignment, hauling an illegal payload to Earth with no questions asked. He has a thing for Cindy (Debi Mazar), a waitress at the truck stop’s greasy spoon, and finds the perfect way to win her hand (if not her heart). Canyon agrees to take her with him to Earth, where she can be reunited with her mother, if she agrees to marry him. Enter plucky but inexperienced novice trucker Mike Pucci (Stephen Dorff), who connives his way into tagging along. The mismatched trio soon learn that they’re in for much more than anyone had anticipated when they tangle with a cargo of biomechanical battle drones, and encounter ruthless space pirates, led by Macanudo (Charles Dance).
* Fun Fact #4: According to Gordon, the mercurial Hopper commented that he was the “worst” director he’d ever worked with.
Despite any disagreements Dennis Hopper might have had with Gordon, he does a fine job portraying the irascible trucker Canyon. He doesn’t take any crap from anyone, and is prepared to fight for what he believes in. Beneath his crusty exterior, though, it’s easy to see he has a soft spot for hard luck cases like Cindy and Mike. Debi Mazar is good as flighty, New York-accented Cindy. Unlike Canyon, she’s more than willing to compromise her ideals if she can get ahead. Stephen Dorff, especially as Cindy’s object of affection, is significantly less convincing. Their romance seems perfunctory at best, with little on-screen chemistry. Considering her character’s choices throughout the film, it’s a safe bet that she’d sell him out if she found a better opportunity. Charles Dance threatens to steal the show from everyone else as the cybernetic space pirate Macanudo. It’s obvious he enjoyed playing the sneering villain (apparently, he was encouraged by his daughter to play the part). Also, be sure to watch for fun cameos from Stuart Gordon regulars Barbara Crampton and Carolyn Purdy-Gordon (the director’s wife).
Space Truckers keeps its metaphorical tongue firmly planted in its cheek, which carries through to the whimsical flourishes of the space designs. Gordon stated that he made a conscious effort to include color in the typically colorless environment of space, including garish floating billboards and custom paint jobs on the truckers’ ships. The living spaces/interiors have a lived-in look (based on concepts by Ron Cobb), similar to Outland (1981), but the truck stop diner’s curved floor owes a debt of gratitude to the design of the spacecraft Discovery’s main interior in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In contrast to Cobb’s nuts and bolts approach, Hajime Sorayama designed the appearance of the sleek cybernetic warriors.* Gordon commented that, in retrospect, he wished all the effects were CGI. Personally, I’m glad this wasn’t the case. The practical, model-based effects hold up the best, while the early CGI effects show their limitations. In a scene where Canyon punches one of Keller’s thugs, there’s an unconvincing spray of computer-animated blood and a floating tooth that resembles a popcorn kernel. Likewise, the computer-rendered pirate ship resembles video game graphics (Yes, I know they’ve gotten much better in 20+ years). Comparatively, the practical effects are much more compelling, if not exactly realistic (e.g., Canyon’s rig, The Pachyderm 2000, and various makeup effects and prosthetics). Among the most memorable creations are the “square pigs” that fit neatly in their cubical pens.
* Fun Fact #5: In order to match the decidedly feminine body contours in Sorayama’s concept artwork, the robots were all played by female models.
Considering Gordon was working with a larger budget, Space Truckers doesn’t look like an expensive production, which works to its advantage. It’s a B picture through and through, more interested in off-kilter ideas (whether they work or not) than surface gloss. Space Truckers doesn’t have a big message (other than greed, corruption and the lust for power will always be around), and never takes itself too seriously. It’s just trying to have a good time, inviting us along for the ride. So, grab a cold one (or two), sit back, and take in the view.