A stogie-chewing George Peppard heads a team that welds together an armored vehicle out of spare parts, taking satisfaction when a plan comes together.... Jan-Michael Vincent mans an AWOL missile-firing government vehicle copiloted by a cranky white-haired guy....
Capsule descriptions of "Airwolf" and "The A-Team"? No, you'd be better off watching an episode of either of those shows, but unfortunately I'm describing "Damnation Alley", the wildly unfaithful movie adaptation of the novel by brilliant Sci-Fi author Roger Zelazny.
Now, I'm sure few Zelazny fans would disagree that "Alley" is one of the least of his works, but this film takes Zelazny's somewhat decayed fruit and manages to squeeze onto the floor whatever juice it had in it, leaving only the decay.
All that remains of the book is the basic setting, the cross-post-apocalyptic-country road trip plot device (though with the book's suspenseful motivation for the trip replaced by a vague "let's see what's over there"), the "Run the storm or dig in?" scene, and a main character named Tanner. Well, I *guess* you can call him the main character. Just as Tanner and Denton take equal turns driving the truck (no, I will not call it a "Landmaster" -- Zelazny never would have given it such a dorky appellation), not even needing to tussle over the usual single steering wheel, Vincent and Peppard seem to be given completely equitable screen time in which to shine, an opportunity they each squander in equal measure.
Notice I did not say *Hell* Tanner. No, this is not the novel's violent last-of-the-Hell's-Angels anti-hero, but instead a pretty mild military boy who's, well, kind of cocky I guess, and, uh, likes to ride a dirt bike... (cue faux expectant look). But at least Tanner is inspired by the book. The rest of the characters are, well, uninspired, and purely the invention of the screenwriters.
And as for the setting, it's close enough to be recognizable, but is not the world that Zelazny was exploring in the book. Different post-apocalypse stories have chosen to stake their respective posts at different points along the timeline, from "28 Days Later" to the far-flung dystopias of "Planet of the Apes" and "The Time Machine". In the novel, Zelazny looked at the world a generation after the holocaust, an interesting point to examine, where government has established control again in the remaining population centers, and the recognizably ordinary lives people can lead in these pockets of safety is in sharp contrast to the nightmare world that lays down the road apiece. Instead of keeping this setting, though, the authors of this film decided to go with a world maybe a year or two after the bombs, which presents a much less interesting vantage than any of the time-points noted above. But even life at this point along the eternal road could have been interesting to examine, had the movie taken the time to do so. Unfortunately it did not, so I must respectfully disagree with those commenters who said that this was one thing the movie did well. What we get instead is mostly some people riding around the country and encountering dangerous situations that could be successfully transplanted to any time period.
I likewise must disagree with those that said that the movie did a good job portraying the experience of the military officers who witnessed the end of the world at the beginning of the film. While I realize that military personnel are trained to remain calm and productive under pressure, these folks witnessing the huge barrage of nuclear warheads showering down upon America didn't appear to be under pressure at all! People were milling casually around or sitting and doing their usual paperwork while the world ended! Pretty much the only expression of angst or concern we get is when Jan-Michael puts his head in his hands at the end of the sequence, but his portrayal could serve equally well for some other movie's 50th-billing character Man With Headache.
Other random things I must criticize: George Peppard's accent isn't particularly badly done, I guess, but it sure is annoying.
When the one reasonably likable character makes an exit, the other characters seem not to care very much, and seem not to display any sign afterwards that they remember such a character had ever been around.
As others have also alluded to, one of the most anticlimactic endings ever.
But the film is not wholly devoid of charm. The sky effects are indeed pretty neat-looking, and I'm sorry I didn't get to see them on the big screen, though the near-complete failure to try to maintain registration between moving (or even stationary!) ground and sky elements is very jarring and fake-looking.
Speaking of the sky, the film also does a commendable job of recreating the bizarre, scary, and vengeful weather depicted in the book.
The score is certainly not among Jerry Goldsmith's best work, but it's better than the material it underscores, and it has some kewl analog synth squawks you don't get to hear in his other work.
The truck is also pretty cool, though the stretchy material connecting the two halves looks comically flimsy in the harsh environments the truck rides through. Not surprised to hear that's the one element that does not survive on the show vehicle today.
But I have to say that if you insist on watching a movie where the main characters venture out from one of the remaining safe pockets of humanity in a dangerous post-apocalyptic world in their heavily armored, missile-firing truck, and occasionally drive dirt bikes out of the back of it, you would do much better to watch George Romero's "Land of the Dead" instead. (If the Landmaster or other elements of "Damnation Alley" provided any inspiration to "Land of the Dead", it's by far the best thing this bastard child of Zelazny has given to the world.)
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