America 3000 (1986)
Released on April 1, 1986
Directed by David Engelbach
03/18/2016 - This is a pretty terrible movie, let's get that right out of the way. It feels like a low-budget cash-in on the success of other post-apocalyptic / wasteland adventures such as Mad Max and Planet of the Apes. It's got awful dialogue, boring cinematography, mediocre special effects and narration that makes this atrocity almost better muted. If a bad movie from the eighties with more hairspray than plot isn't your thing, you might as well skip this review entirely. If, however, it is your thing - and I know you're out there - read on.
David Engelbach has a somewhat sad story to tell. Now a screenwriting professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design, his years in Hollywood weren't what he'd thought they could be. To be fair, he enjoyed success; he authored several television screenplays as well as a few movie scripts, and got the chance to direct a film of his own (guess which one!). But, there's dark side to film-making - the non-stop chase for financing and the sacrifices necessary to secure it - and it turned some of his opportunities into nightmares.
Anyone who grew up in the '80s and had even a mild interest in action movies is familiar with Cannon Films. It's one of the studio logos I remember most fondly from my own childhood; a good chunk of the rentals my dad and I would watch together were released by Cannon. To me, at ten years old and a die-hard fan of martial arts flicks, that logo was nearly a guarantee that the movie would be great. Over the years, my tastes have matured (sort of), and I've revisited those old movies with a very different perspective. I still enjoy them - partly out of nostalgia - but I also recognize the formulaic approach and the way these films were pumped out to make a quick buck.
Engelbach got off to a great start, as an assistant to Steven Spielberg on 1975's Jaws. He went on to begin writing screenplays as a first step toward his dream of being a director. A couple of them (Death Wish II, Over The Top) were turned into films by Cannon, and eventually they gave him a chance to direct a project he'd been working on for several years: Thunder Women, a goofball comedy about a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which women ruled society. It was meant to be over-the-top, a lampoon of the war of the sexes and a minor dig at the excess of Reagan-era American life, but Cannon demanded the film be shot in Israel or South Africa (for financial reasons). Engelbach chose Israel, largely due to the political situation in South Africa at the time. Unfortunately, building a post-apocalyptic world built from the rubble of American excess proved nearly impossible in Israel - they just don't have a lot of American stuff lying around. It was also incredibly difficult to shoot in 130-degree Dead Sea heat, and the sets Cannon was able to construct were almost impossible to re-arrange or alter. Further, Engelbach chose to shoot several of the action sequences early and edit them into a sort of rough cut of the film, which Cannon easily sold at the Cannes Festival in '85 (as America 3000 - their preferred title - and as an action movie), putting the film into pre-release profit and undercutting Cannon's interest in continuing to support the film during production and post-production.
It's almost impossible to know what Thunder Women could have been. Engelbach found himself trapped in a situation with little control but an obligation to complete his film. There's still humor, but it feels distracting. There's American junk all over the place, not proudly made (but long-forgotten) American products. There's a terrible '80s soundtrack, which is what Cannon thought it needed to grab a younger crowd. There's a beast you think is supposed to be a serious threat, misogynistic undertones that should have played as irony, a shit-ton of hairspray and eye shadow and loin cloths, and a silly ("waggos") language you just can't wrap your head around (and which would have been much clearer if the film had been released with Engelbach's improved soundtrack). It's a disaster.
I really can't recommend watching America 3000, unless you're ready for it and understand what you're in for. I appreciate it, because I think it represents a significant problem in the film industry. It's not impossible to watch, or even to enjoy (although I'd suggest a six-pack and light-hearted atmosphere); I laughed at a few of the jokes, the action is alright, and the story has some potential - as a comedy. Sadly, America 3000 is everything that can go wrong with a b-movie, without the charm or the fun, baked into 90 minutes of Cannon slop.