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Hipster Holy Grail: Space Rage - Breakout on Prison Planet (1985)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Space Rage: Breakout on Prison Planet is a great time.  It's fast-paced, short, and has enough unexpected turns and subverted tropes that I'll recommend it to anyone.  I guess you would technically have to call this a "bad" movie and I should probably suggest that you watch it ironically, but somewhere around the middle it hits a point where it becomes legitimately bad-ass.  Good?  Bad?  I don't think you'll be able to tell by the end.  It's just plain fun.

My Rating: 4 / 5 (Technically a Novice Bad Movie)

A Quick Programming Note

Say, do you care about the bullshit rules I follow when writing my Holy Grail reviews?  No?

Oh.  Well, I'm going to tell you more about them, anyway.

Recently I've been thinking about how my criteria for movies to watch is too broad.  I look for movies with less than 5,000 user ratings on IMDb because I want to find stuff that is obscure enough that a hipster would be psyched to discover it.  Trouble is, 5,000 ratings gives me far too much leeway.  There's stuff that qualifies that cannot possibly be called "obscure," including several movies I've already reviewed.

So, effective as of today, the new HHG cap is 1,000 ratings.  Fascinating, no?  Now, on with the movie recap.

The Plot Summary

We open with a bank robbery.  Ostensibly.

It doesn't really look like much at first.  (Well, at first, it doesn't look like anything because it's all happening off-screen; you just hear dialogue and sound effects while the opening credits roll.)  The first set you see is the interior of a skyscraper, and then you see Grange (Michael ParĂ©) running down a bunch of futuristic-looking-at-the-time escalators.

Grange is swiftly arrested (via a net that drops onto him from the ceiling) and immediately taken to Future Court, where he is put on trial within the same day.  Some grainy footage of his robbery plays back on a Future TV, and we see that he mercilessly gunned down an entire room of unarmed people after stealing the cash.  He also somehow did this with a gun that makes automatic fire sound effects but which kinda just looks like a handgun.  Future Desert Eagles can do wonders, I guess.

Between the incriminating footage and the fact that the only thing Grange says during the entire trial is "fuck you" over and over again, the judge sentences him to life on a penal colony in outer space called "Botany Bay" (get it?).  Fade out, and the movie is underway.

When we fade in, we're on Prison Planet.  Unsurprisingly, it looks a lot like Earth.  The shooting locations are a mixed bag.  On the one hand, the crew knew enough to shoot most of the penal colony footage in rocky desert, so it looks vaguely alienish.  And they're at least smart enough to put a bit of flair now and again to remind you it's another planet, like showing two moons at night and having everybody drive around in dune buggies or various other customized off-road vehicles.

On the other hand, there's also some equally terrible set design.  One of the first locations you see on Prison Planet is a quiet countryside house that has a gorgeous green field outside and a lazy meadow tree in front.  It's almost like the planet is mostly a lifeless, Mars-like rock, but there's this two-acre patch somewhere that looks like Kansas.


The next ten minutes or so are just a series of character introductions.  Frankly, this is the worst part of the movie - not a lot happens and they don't do anything from a narrative point of view to get the characters involved.  It's more like somebody shows up on screen and says something to let you know they matter, and then it moves on to the next person.

First up is Colonel (Richard Farnsworth), a retired cop / prison guard who spends his days relaxing on the prison frontier and hanging out on his front porch.  When he isn't sitting around idly, he's loading bullets and fixing weapons at his workbench.  One of his friends is Walker (John Laughlin), a young hotshot bounty hunter whose job is to hang out and wait for news of prison escapees, then track them down and bring them back to the colony.

I would call into question the efficacy of a bounty hunter system when you live on Prison Planet, but the more I think about it, this kinda makes sense.  He's sort of the back-up plan when the underpaid guards screw up.

They have some banter and then we get introduced to a few more guards and bounty hunters who will serve as the body count later (spoilers).  After that, we get introduced to the Governor / Warden, Tovah (William Windom).  Tovah is a bumbling fat gentleman who never gets a chance to throw his weight around (ha!).  In his very first appearance, he tries to make a speech to some new prisoners that he's in charge and they might as well give in now, but Grange punches him down and starts escaping.  He's caught quickly by Walker, so it doesn't go anywhere just yet - but wow, Tovah never comes back from that.  You kind of expect he might at least have a good, "Throw this son of a bitch in the hole!" moment.  Nope.  He just has to take that goddamn punch.  And all the rest that come later.

(To be fair, there is briefly a scene where you see that Grange has been strapped into some kind of weird Torture Cage thing as punishment, but the moment passes quickly.)

Then we meet a few of the other prisoners, including Brain Surgeon (Frank Doubleday), a nerdy dude who keeps tinkering with gadgets, and Duffy (Paul Linke), an enormous dude who serves as the meathead enforcer.  They'll come up again shortly, but first we need to meet Walker's family.

...wait, his what?

Yup, his goddamn family.  Walker's wife, Maggie (Lee Purcell), and his son both live on Prison Planet.  And they aren't the only civilians, either - there's a whole bunch of random assholes.  They all seem to mostly hang out near Tovah's house (which is a weird Future Pyramid, but not a very big one) and have fancy dinner parties all day.

Now, listen, guys.  I'm a dad, too.  I know how much of a hassle it is to try to balance career and family, especially when you can't make suitable babysitting arrangements.  And I know that on-site daycare is convenient and cost-effective.  But let's not get nuts.  Why is there not a provision that says, "Nobody under 18 is allowed on Prison Planet?"  That would seem to be your first rule, right?

Cut back to the prisoners.  Grange goes inside the actual jail part of the penal colony, an enormous co-ed barracks with giant locked doors.  This is both a really stupid idea and kind of a neat twist on the whole prison aspect - you get the sense that the prisoners view the whole arrangement as a shitty, more dangerous version of summer camp.

There's a head honcho convict who's more or less in charge of the jail, but since his day-to-day plans consist of sitting in the back and minding his own business, nobody's torn up by his regime.  He's in Grange's way, though, so Grange picks a fight and beats the crap out of him and some of his goons.  According to prison rules, Grange is now in charge, so he drafts everyone into his master scheme to break out.

They never say out loud what the plan is, but there's one important catch: they need to get a specific electronic component so Brain Surgeon can install it in a little gadget he's building.  Duffy is put in charge of stealing said component.

Cut to the next day.  Walker is talking to Tovah about retiring and leaving the planet as soon as possible.  (Guess he woke up one day and realized, oh shit, I made my family move to prison.)  Tovah keeps trying to entice Walker to stay, but he's having none of it - and then they hear a report that Duffy has escaped from jail by hiding inside a sewage truck.  Walker smirks and demands a higher bounty to retrieve him.

We cut to Duffy out in the desert.  He's covered in goop and traipsing around a highway (which begs the question of why there are highways on Prison Planet) when he sees a civilian van draw near (which begs the question of why the few civilians who already made the stupid choice to live on a prison planet then decided to go driving in the fucking desert).  He carjacks them and tries to drive off, but Colonel - who noticed Duffy from a distance - shoots a crossbow bolt in the tire and renders it useless.  Duffy grabs some stuff from the van and runs off to the mountains.

Later we see him taking some stuff apart and swallowing pieces of the electrical gear.  Then Walker shows up and - without touching his nasty shit-stained body - arrests him.

We cut back to jail, where Duffy is locked in the bathroom and straining. Naturally.  He comes out eventually and hands a piece of electronics to Brain Surgeon, who pops it into his gadget and declares it complete.  Grange grins - tomorrow they will enact The Plan and break out of this place.

And what exactly is The Plan?

Well, it involves three steps.  First, Brain Surgeon puts his escape doohickey on a power box labeled "Lasers" that's inside a mine.  This causes an explosion to distract all the guards.  Next, Grange and Duffy steal a backhoe.  Third, all the prisoners riot.

Admittedly, I've never planned a prison breakout before, so maybe there's more nuance to it, but this doesn't seem like the kind of plan they needed Grange to come and figure out for them.  The explosion was a nice distraction, sure - but there's plenty of things that could do the same.  (How about just a good ol' fashioned fire?)  I just can't help but think that the conversation we didn't see went like this:

"Hey, you want to escape?"

"Sure.  Let's riot at noon tomorrow."


But whatever,  It's a decent sequence, albeit chaotic.  The prisoners smash up a bunch of guards and steal all their guns, then go on a murder rampage through the colony.  Next stop: the governor's house, which may or may not be a communal area.

Predictably, things do not end well for Walker's wife.  Maggie suspects something's wrong the minute she notices that there's no guard posted outside the house, so she takes her son inside and keeps him safe.  But almost as soon as she's through the door, the prisoners swarm and rough her up.  Grange starts getting gropey, so she punches him and spits in his face.  Then he shoots her.

...which is totally fine by me.  I gotta admit, I was like 80% sure she was going to get raped here.  Fortunately, Space Rage doesn't go that route.  Actually, for a movie with "prison" in the title, it's shockingly (and refreshingly) rape-free.

Walker has apparently been on a patrol far off in the distance this whole time, but he notices smoke on the horizon and heads back home to investigate.  After he finds his wife dead, he puts on his best war face and gears up for a revenge spree.

This leads into one of the movie's best scenes, in which Walker confronts Grange in the desert while riding a dune buggy.  Grange is holding Tovah hostage and makes some ominous threats, but Walker just outright ignores him and tries to run down some prisoners.  Cue chase sequence.  Walker and the prisoners exchange gunfire while trying to ram each other's buggies.  It's shot well and it moves quickly.

Things come to an end when Walker double-backs and comes face-to-face with Grange again.  They have a tense showdown, and Walker draws his gun - but he's too slow.  Grange opens fire and hits Walker in the chest.

Fatally wounded, Walker has just enough energy left to drag himself to Colonel's house and let him know the situation.  Colonel comforts Walker while he dies, then goes into his house and opens up the door to his supply room.  There he breaks out into a suiting-up montage and fits himself with a bunch of guns and ammunition.

Now, this might seem a little silly at first since Colonel looks like this:

But this is actually where the movie kicks into overdrive.  Colonel's a legit badass.

Grange and the surviving prisoners make their way to the planet's launch site, where a shuttle is being prepped and will leave for Earth in about a day.  They have some drinks and congratulate each other on a job well done... but then Colonel sneaks up on them and starts killing all the prisoners one by one.  (Technically a few of the surviving bounty hunters are there to help, but Colonel steals the show.)

This right here - this is the best scene in the movie.  This is where it goes from silly science-fiction romp into full-on action mode, and it's wonderful.  Colonel is spry and skilled, and he gets in a few one-liners to keep things interesting.  The action up to this point has been okay, but this whole sequence is unexpectedly awesome.

It culminates in a point where all the prisoners are dead except for Grange, who gets into a showdown duel with Colonel.  They square off on either end of the street just like any good Western, and then Colonel shoots Grange in the chest.  Once Grange is down for the count, Colonel straps his gun to his waist, then walks down the street - leaving a mess of carnage in his wake.

Cut to credits.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Space Rage is one of the rarest types of movies - the kind you can have equal amounts of fun watching drunk or stone-cold sober.

If you approach it ironically, there's tons to laugh about.  It invites so many logic-breaking questions: Why does the prison planet just look like Southern California?  Why are there women and children?  Why do you hear a rooster squawk when you see the sun rise if it's an alien planet?  Where did the Irish stereotype come from?  Why does that one black cop get so much attention at the beginning and then completely disappear at the end?

There are hilarious mood-breaking moments throughout.  One of my favorites is when they're having the dune buggy chase/fight, and Duffy reaches down into Walker's car and tries to snap his neck.  In any other movie, this is a simple "grab, twist, you're dead" motion - but Duffy just can't seem to do it for some reason.  He fumbles a neck-breaking.  And then he dies.  It's great.

The music is fun, but totally inappropriate, the editing makes use of bizarre fade-outs that interrupt the flow, there's a couple of shit jokes out of nowhere, and the overall package looks like something you should be MST3King the whole time.  And honestly, you might enjoy that.

But despite all that... there are still some legitimately good parts of this movie.

I absolutely loved that Colonel came into his own in the final act.  That could easily have gone awry since Richard Farnsworth doesn't look like much.  (I'm aware that Farnsworth was a stunt man and action star in his youth, but in Space Rage he looks well past his prime.)  You introduce a sad old man in the first act and you expect me to buy him as an action star in the last act?  You better have Charles Bronson or Jeff Bridges, because I'm not buying it any other way.

But he pulls it off.  Farnsworth still has it in him and totally convinces you that he could take out a dozen heavily-armed psychopaths.  I wasn't sneering in that third act - I was cheering him on, clapping each time he took out a bad guy.  And I was thrilled that he got to steal the spotlight.  Walker was a fine lead, but he was predictable - letting Colonel take over was a great move.  It's one of those things that was seeded early on and telegraphed a few times, but it still surprised me.  I love turns like that in my movies - those moments that flip things around in an organic, believable way.

There's a truly schizophrenic feel about the movie.  It bounces between ridiculous and believable, stupid and smart, bad and good.  Consider this: it uses one of my most hated tropes when it switches gears in the final act and moves into the launch station.  Usually that spells disaster - I've seen way too many movies lose all their steam with a boring "let's sneak around a warehouse" segment.  But Space Rage is actually fun when it goes into Warehouse Mode.  Watching Colonel stalk his prey was a blast, and the set design inside the launch station was interesting enough to keep the momentum up.

For that matter, the sets in general are a weird mixed bag.  Some of them look awful and cheap as hell.  The opening sequences on Earth look downright amateurish.  The bank looks like an abandoned store room at the top floor of an '80s corporate building and the courtroom looks like somebody threw a podium into a spare classroom at their kid's school.  After the first five minutes, I was convinced this was made for only a few thousand bucks.

Then it cuts to the prison planet, and it looks like there's some actual money at work - there are decked-out dune buggies, props, strange-shaped buildings, decent costumes, tons of extras, practical effects, and explosions.  Good explosions, too - not blurry, out-of-focus, out-of-frame explosions.  I'm sure the movie was low-budget, but they made good use out of what they had.  (At least for the prison planet scenes.)

I felt whiplash going back and forth from laughing at it to just plain enjoying it.  The result?  I have few outright negative things to say.  The stuff that was poorly done added all kinds of delicious charm and the stuff that was done well was awesome.  This is a great one to work into a bad movie night rotation, but you could just watch it on your own and enjoy.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

It gets a 30 point obscurity bonus since it only has 210 ratings on IMDb, plus another 30 points for the "I want to share it" bonus. I'm going to add a boost of 10 cred for Richard Farnsworth and another tiny boost of 5 cred for Michael ParĂ©.  Finally, I'll wrap it up with 10 more cred because it's got a hipstery title.  That means Space Rage is worth 85 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

And unlike some other hipstery movies around these parts, this one is enjoyable.  This is the easy way to earn status, kids.

Where You Can Watch

If you go now before it gets pulled for copyright violations, you can watch this on Youtube for free.