Cobra, the universe’s most wanted outlaw, runs his motorcycle into a cat-suited bounty hunter. She, naturally, has her aim set on him, but not for his bounty. A gold-skinned crime-lord kidnapped her sister. With Cobra’s help she will save her sister from Crystal Boy’s megalomaniacal clutches.
Not a deep plot. And, despite many obstacles poofing into existence from A to B, not a complex one neither. The plot is an excuse. It seems an illustrator, still reeling from a prolific creative burst, sat before a wall plastered with drawings of characters, settings, moments and explosions, and only then wondered, ‘How can I string these together.’ In this, SAC resembles something from French Sci-Fi comics. The artist wishes to flex his visual muscles, and then concocts a narrative as vehicle. So while the narrative is little more than a well-done 80s, tongue-in-cheek, action-fest, I would be in error to judge purely on that. From the Bond-style opening credits to a space cruiser’s screen-filling flight, the film, with no apology, puts style over substance.
It’s a good thing, then, that the film charges along, like a high-speed train overlooking new and strange vistas. It bullets along so fast the audience doesn’t have time to consider the narrative’s emptiness. More importantly, they’ve no time to grow bored of the current image. That the ‘emotional’ moments elicit no emotion, and that Cobra and his love interest have no chemistry, matters for nothing. These check-list action movie do the bare minimum of their job, and get out. And that bare minimum exists not to get the audience invested, but to give the narrative and characters justification and momentum.
The tacked-on plot does at times become self-parodic. Not inherently a bad thing, of course. For a tongue-in-cheek film like this, it fits right in. I can reduce most scenes to: Here we are in [location] – Oh, no! [hoard of enemies]. Here we are in the prison ship – Oh, no! Killer robots. Here we are on the desert planet – Oh, no! Zombies. But though SAC repeats this mad-lib constantly, it never descends to dullness or predictability. SAC continually conjures new locations and new hoards.
The characters just perform their narrative and aesthetic function. Cobra is the archetypal 80s action hero, the muscly Gary Stu. He has enough confidence, competence and goofiness to embody the typical teenage boy’s power fantasy. The female bounty-hunter Jane is his love interest. She has about as much depth as Cobra. In an almost Meta plot twist (spoilers) her role as love interest turns out to be completely interchangeable. As can be expected in an 80s action film, this main female character either appears in a skin-tight cat suit, or in nothing at all. For antagonist, we have Crystal Boy, an eight-foot tall crime-lord with golden skin who uses his metal ribs as spears. Crystal Boy has no tragic backstory, or any redeeming features. He is a villain, and only that, designed for the hero to kill. Coincidently, he also spends most of his screen time naked.
But, as I said, the plot and characters merely provide vehicle and drive for the visuals. Cobra is an 80s action hero in a 60s sci-fi world of sex and psychedelia. From the opening scene where a shrunken old man proclaims the death of God, as a massive spaceship flies across the screen, SAC confirms it has scale, vision, and the animation to do them justice. While narratively SAC’s universe seems one taped-on location after another, aesthetically they all hold together. Though many and myriad visually, the locations seem of a piece. The snow planet feels at home next to a chrome mega-city.
Some scenes exist only to justify a single striking image, and for such images these scenes are worth it. In one, the severed head of a bountied outlaw resurrects and levitates to attack Cobra and Jane. Is this scene strictly necessary? No, but because I saw Cobra clobbering a severed head like a punching bag, I’m glad it exists.
The action scenes are equally well-done. As the script-writers have internalised Chandler’s Law, smooth, readable animation during the many action scenes is necessary. Only sometimes do these scenes descend to two combatants against a cost-efficient wall of speed-lines.
The music. It’s serviceable, and reminiscent of Star Wars. It does its job and rarely wrenches viewers from the film. The closest it comes to distracting is the music meant to communicate a sense of wonder. Rather than fitting a rip-roaring action film, a Disney animation would suit it better.
SAC is a film worth-watching, but know why it is worth watching before embarking. It will not leave you with thoughts, feelings or questions, nor much sense of the plot. At most a few images and sequences will remain. For them, the film exists.