Space Truckers (1996)

Blue collar space movies are always a delight. Often times they’re full of working class Joes who are highly skilled at what they do but are not always the brightest when it comes to whatever terrible situation they find themselves getting into. Alien is the high mark, but the misfits of Dark Star, the non-astronauts of Armageddon, and even the one guy working a lunar contract in Moon show us what life can be like for the menial little guy when thrown into the darkness of outer space.

Along comes Space Truckers. It’s about truckers…in space. Part cyberpunk corporate horror story, part 1970s big rig road movie, it’s got plenty of exploitative cheese, laughably bad effects, plot points that will make you groan in pain, and killer robots. It’s also got some surprising actors in it, which leaves me pondering how badly these folks must have needed a buck at the time. Most importantly, it’s got the heart to keep going despite not knowing if it wants to be an action movie, a comedy, some kind of cheesy romance, or a science fiction horror film. Instead, it tries to do it all, and it fails and ends up some weird curiosity piece instead. How badly does it fail? Oh, it made about $2 million versus a budget of $25 million, so yeah, pretty spectacularly.

John Canyon, one of the last independent space truckers, arrives late with a haul of square pigs from Mars to a space station. Since he’s late, the meat company doesn’t want to bother paying, so instead he takes on an illegal cargo supposedly consisting of sex dolls for immediate shipment to Earth. He’s joined by a waitress, Cindy, who offers to marry him if he can get her to Earth to see her mother, as well as a neophyte trucker, Mike, who is a young upstart but has principles. Once on their way, they take shortcuts, nearly get killed by meteors of black rock, get set upon by space pirates, and discover that instead of sex dolls, they’re hauling a full cargo of bio-mechanical robot killing machines with death rays for faces. These same robots happen to have been created by the hideously scarred and mangled space pirate captain Macanudo, who got dicked over by the company and left for dead. While they manage to escape the pirates, John, Cindy, and Mike must then battle waves of the killer robots as they try to reach Earth.

Yes, it’s a comedy apparently. It also has people getting turned into mush by the killer robots. It has Debi Mazar used repeatedly as a object of lust as a plot point. It also has a mechanical penis that starts like a lawnmower. In short, it’s a trashy movie, from John’s rig being called Bitchin’ Betty to him feeding a hot dog to a square pig in a cage, pretty much starting off things with making a grotesque mutation of an animal commit an act of cannibalism for comedy. It’s also campy, with more exposed wires for the zero gravity sequences than you can shake a stick at. Seriously, they don’t even bother trying to hide the wires, which is unusual. There are so many moments where they do things to make counteracting the lack of gravity or have objects floating around without obvious wires that it becomes more apparent when they do use them. I struggle to understand the thinking, but maybe it was intentional camp?

What the movie does get right are the killer robots. They were designed by Hajime Sorayama, who is famed for his artwork. His style is particularly known for erotic feminine robots, often drawn in ways reminiscent of 1950s pin-up art, and while that eroticism isn’t quite what we end up with here, the machines have some definite quirks in their design. First, they were nearly all played by stuntwomen in costume, and there must have been some kind of choreography based on their design and where the weight of the costume is borne, because they saunter gracefully like dancers who must keep their upper spines and necks straight while also careening around to blast soldiers and pirates with whatever weapon is available. More than the weapons they sport, its the unusual and inhuman way they move that make them terrifying, emphasizing their remorseless and unfeeling nature. From the jerking of clawed fingers waking to life to the way they turn their heads to blast some poor schmuck into purple paste, the robots are the highlight of the film.

Then there is the other high point: John Canyon is played by Dennis Hopper. In a bizarre movie, Hopper is a madman who can take all of the sudden tonal shifts in stride. He’s been around, and he gives his character the sense of knowing how to tackle anything no matter how ridiculous it is. Then again, Hopper had pretty much tackled everything by this point, so how could he not do amazingly well? As for why he did the film…well, there was a lawsuit involving Rip Torn pulling a knife on him during the filming of Easy Rider, and you know how that kind of thing goes.

Supporting Hopper are the previously mentioned Debi Mazar and Stephen Dorff, along with the fantastic Charles Dance and even George Wendt in a bizarre role as a meat company boss who gets sucked ass-first out a window into space. The greatest cameo however is Barbara Crampton, which leads me to point out that this is a Stuart Gordon picture. As in Stuart Re-Animator Gordon. Space Truckers is what he did between directing Castle Freak, writing The Dentist, and directing and producing The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit. While I think of him as primarily a horror director, he did just as often step out to do completely different genres, so tackling a movie all about truckers in outer space just doesn’t seem that strange of a move.

Unfortunately, as I’ve already stated, the film bombed. Hard. Since then, Space Truckers has gained some cult notoriety, but it’s a largely forgotten piece of oddball cinema. And that’s why we love it. That, and the cool robots. Definitely the cool killer robots.

5 thoughts on “Space Truckers (1996)

    1. Besides Alien, Dark Star, Space Truckers, Armageddon, and Moon, Silent Running and Elysium come to mind. Both versions of Total Recall has elements of it, as the fictitious life the main characters experience are both blue collar jobs, Schwarzenegger in construction, Farrell as a factory worker. I know, Farrell doesn’t really contain space, and the lives these guys leave are fake, but until they figure it out, it makes them interesting attempts at everymen…at least as much as Schwarzenegger could ever be seen as an everyman.

      The series Red Dwarf has had several made-for-TV films if you’re a fan. Also, 2021 brought us the Korean film Space Sweepers which should now be on Netflix. I’d also say arguments could be made for the Star Wars (and Space Balls) and Firefly series, though.

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