On the third Tuesday of every month, millenial movie buffs flock to the Brattle Theatre, “Boston’s Unofficial Film School since 1953,” to sit in the dark for a few hours, sip on $8 draft beers, and snack on vegan-friendly popcorn. This is standard. What’s unusual is that tonight’s showing isn’t part of some Wes Anderson retrospective; it isn’t the second film in Kieślowski’s “Three Colours” Trilogy (which is white, by the way); it’s not even the umpteenth Hitchcock showing of the month. This crowd, 100-something strong, is here for Trash Night, a monthly showcase of the worst cinema that straight-to-VHS and Generation X has to offer. Tonight’s selection is “Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone,” an early 80s cash-in on Star Wars mania featuring a Walgreens-brand Han Solo (the Brattle’s words, not mine), a script seemingly Markov-chained out of “A New Hope” and “Max Max 2,” and not a hope in the world of passing the Bechdel test.
The Brattle, if you haven’t been, is tucked away in an alley off Brattle Street — comprising a single box office window and a lobby about the size of a Canaday double with rotating selections of beer, wine, and Boylan’s fountain sodas. The theater’s single auditorium is up a dim, single-file stairwell, seating 200-plus in in a dim room. Shallow seats line a flat floor, with the screen and stage looming close up against the front row. The whole room has the grey, at once both cavernous and cramped quality of a half-empty garage.
I pick a seat in the back. There’s a dead ringer for Stanley Kubrick sitting in front of me. Behind me, someone proclaims, “Ant-Man I felt was, like, uninspired.” In the half-full seats, tattoos peek out of shirtsleeves and run defiantly down bare arms, three women have the exact same shade of turquoise-teal hair, and a young couple is discussing which Mumford & Sons concert date they can make. If you couldn’t tell already, this crowd is overwhelmingly white — the Mayo Masses, if you will — the well-meaning movie buff, crane-your-neck-and-count-on-one-hand-the-other-POCs-in-the-room kind of white.
On the screen, a mute montage of VHS-grade infomercials is playing, the distant fading quality of analog flashing through a menagerie of late-night oddities, each edited in frantic jump-cuts to the non-sequitur quality of “The Eric Andre Show,” or a poorly dubbed anime: a 60-year-old named Betty, spandex-stretching on screen; “The Secret to Beautiful Roses”; “Living with Scarves”; and so on, the irreality of the whole thing heightened by its abruptness, its silence, each new scene another punchline with a setup you — and everyone else — must have missed.
One of the bearded crowd jumps up on stage. He briefly introduces Trash Night (“We show god awful movies”), where audience participation and jokes are encouraged — and in fact, an indispensable part of the experience. His face turns stern. “Make sure you’re not being racist in your jokes. That’s not cool.” The audience cheers. “And don’t be a transphobe.” He finishes with a reminder to return: “If this is good for you, if you’re damaged in the same way I am, please come out!” And the movie begins.
I am now going to run through the Spacehunter’s convoluted thoughtless clusterfuck of a plot here in a paragraph (apologies to my editor), because I don’t think it deserves any more of my — or your — time. Here goes:
Walgreens-brand Han Solo (henceforth referred to as WBHS) and female sidekick #1 (FS#1) arrive on a planet based on either Tatooine or Utah, looking for three damsels in distress (DiDs) being held by some Bad Guys (BGs). There’s some sort of voiceover going on, too, but any and all exposition — e.g. who the DiDs are, who the BGs are, the general premise of the whole thing — is hard to follow in the already raucous din of the crowd. WBHS and FS#1 arrive in the middle of a battle over the DiDs, but the BGs escape with the DiDs. WBHS then discovers that a) FS#1 is dead and b) FS#1 is a robot. Then, the first of several interspersed commercial breaks — an artifact of Spacehunter’s straight-to-cable fate — filled with more of the cut-up infomercials made by Trash Night. Someone in front of me has, in desperation, pulled up the film’s plot on Wikipedia, their phone screen on full brightness. The action continues; thankfully, WBHS is no longer the sole object of our attention. A feral desert preteen (female sidekick #2, or FS#2) joins him — but “partners we ain’t,” he scowls. They trek off, in search of our three DiDs, who we learn are being held by a mad scientist threatening the DiDs with “a little mood enhancer.” Back in the desert, WBHS and FS#2 face a zany series of enemies en route to the DiDs: a tribe of aquatic amazons, some wet sumo-suit baby monsters, their own uncomfortable quasi-paternal, quasi-sexual tension, among others. The mad scientist is replaced by Giant Robot Darth Vader (GRDV), who commands the DiDs to “undress — slowly!” WBHS and FS#2 arrive, inexplicably, at GRDV’s lair. There’s a tiff, the DiDs are freed, GRDV captures FS#2 and explains, “I’m very old and I need you. I need your vitality.” WBHS arrives and saves the day, explodes GRDV, and everyone lives happily ever after. Note that I’m omitting several semi-important side characters, the fact that all but five minutes of Spacehunter take place on land, and at least three more incidents prompting the crowd to murmur about “mild sexual assault.”
More power to you if you skipped that paragraph. It, like the plot, is impossible to follow, and all that really matters about this movie is that it’s unsurprisingly terrible and is filled with questionable shit, to put it lightly. Moreover, it’s a Tuesday night and there are 100-odd people spending their money and time on this. Maybe they just want to laugh at something so poorly made, so obviously deficient in all the silver-screen niceties. But that doesn’t explain the good-natured crowd, the jubilant tenor the room reaches during the most egregious scenes, with each freshly contrived macguffin inducing new glee, new laughter.
This is not the deliberately seeded so-bad-it’s-good of Sharknado or its spiritual Bad Film contemporaries. This has nothing to do with age, and everything to do with intent: The makers of modern Bad Film are all too aware of their own ridiculousness, whereas the lack of artifice behind Spacehunter is all too apparent. We’re not used to seeing such a contrast between what a movie sought to achieve in its creation and what we’re ridiculing in the Brattle today.
There are jokes in Spacehunter — mostly raunchy, totally inappropriate ones with FS#2 — but the crowd isn’t laughing because these are funny in and of themselves, but instead because they can’t quite believe someone intended this to be a real movie with real jokes, made for real people. Compare this with the edited commercials Trash Night airs or Vic Berger’s Youtube edits of the 2016 election debates. Both of these montage the momentary absurdities in their source material to the greatest degree, touching upon much the same I-cannot-believe-this quality that Spacehunter carries, yet they’re obviously charged with the same winking, ironic intention that made someone sit down and create them in the first place. Spacehunter isn’t.
We’re used to seeing science fiction film, and most cinema in general, do at least a half-decent job of convincing us that we’re not sitting in a cramped grey room with 100 other people, on a Tuesday night, etc., that we’re in a far-away place with people more brave and witty than we could ever hope to be, and we’re just along for the ride. Spacehunter so earnestly professes to such an ambition that the crowd can’t help but enjoy the failing seriousness of the whole endeavor.
Post-credits, everyone is dispersing to Felipe’s or waiting for their Uber in quiet untalkative circles. I’m puttering around, trying to interview the few solitary, unoccupied-looking loiterers outside the theater, but they keep shaking their head and walking away when I ask their name. Someone googles the cast: FS#2 is played by Molly Ringwald. “Holy shit, she was fifteen.” A hush descends as everyone collectively remembers Walgreens-brand Han Solo asking her to “turn around” while bathing, remembers Giant Robot Darth Vader telling her, “when you give yourself to me... there’s nothing left for you.” I try, in vain, to get someone to give me their middle initial and an opinion, any opinion, but the night is over.
— Magazine writer Alan R. Dai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dai_alan_dai.