This blast from the past hit my screen thanks to an article over at Black Gate recounting the book and movie history and how it was overlooked in the science fiction universe due to bad timing; Star Wars released the same year. To be fair, the article doesn’t claim the oversight was necessarily an error, only that the studios were surprised.
Discovering it was still available to stream, a couple friends, some good food, and some drink were collected and we settled in for what we hoped was a surprise gift to fill in a bit of history we all had apparently missed; we’d all been going to Star Wars multiple times. As it turns out, we definitely had made the right choice all those years ago (38 to be exact). Like many adaptations, this is only very loosely tethered to Zelazny’s original tale and it had been turned into something the studios felt more palatable. Even then I think it would be safe to say our tastes would differ.
The cast was well known at the time. Jan Michael Vincent and George Peppard led the gang across the wasteland along with Paul Winfield and Dominique Sanda. But the real kick was seeing a very young, and unrecognizable, Jackie Earle Hailey show up.
Directed by Smight, who had also tackled The Illustrated Man, and co-written by Sharp, who also went on to adapt the interesting, if flawed, remake of The Lathe of Heaven and Heller (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane) the result is an incredibly silly and boring 90 minute road movie. You can see where it worked as a book, with a lot of internal monologue and description, but, as presented, it was just not very enticing, and the science was, shall we say, a bit off.
On the other hand, leaving out the conversation about visual effects (where the Star Wars advanced the field in one huge leap), Damnation Alley had one character and bit of history that it is remembered for: the Landmaster. Regardless of its roots, it influenced and appeared in many films and shows after its introduction in this rather forgettable flick. If you are any kind of scifi freak, you will recognize that bit of practical propery whether from memory or historical review.
As a curio, this is an amusing film to pick back up, but I wouldn’t necessarily make a special event for it. There are reasons some movies become classics and some don’t. This one certainly isn’t bad enough to survive on that basis, like Plan 9, but neither is it much above middling to survive on its own merits. The choice is yours.