Set in the early 22nd century, the film opens with the destruction of a space cruise liner that becomes irreparably damaged and destroyed by a bolt of nebular lightning. The only apparent survivors are three beautiful women – Nova (Cali Timmins), Reena (Aleisa Shirley), and Meagan (Deborah Pratt) – who get away in an escape pod and land on the nearest habitable planet. There, they are quickly accosted by the hostile natives and taken aboard a sail-driven vehicle resembling a pirate ship on rails.
In space, an alert goes out for the safe return of the women with a reward of 3,000 "mega-credits". A small-time salvage operator named Wolff (Peter Strauss) intercepts the message and heads to the planet. Joining him is his female engineer Chalmers (Andrea Marcovicci), who learns the planet – called Terra XI – is a failed colony that fell victim to a deadly plague and civil warfare. Wolff risks the dangers believing the reward will solve his debt problems.
After landing on the barren world, Wolff and Chalmers set out in a 4-wheel drive vehicle called the "Scrambler". Soon, they join a battle in progress between a group of marauders (called the "Zoners") and a band of nomads (the "Scavs"). The Zoners take the women before Wolff can stop them and fly away on jet-powered hang-gliders. Wolff learns from the Scavs that the women were taken into "The Zone" which is ruled by "Overdog" – their sworn enemy. Returning to the Scrambler, Wolff finds Chalmers – who is really an android – has been "killed". Wolff continues on alone, but soon catches a teenage Scav named Niki (Molly Ringwald) trying to steal his Scrambler. She convinces Wolff that he needs a tracker if he is to survive The Zone and Wolff reluctantly takes her lead.
In the meantime, the three women are taken before "The Chemist" (Hrant Alianak), the chief henchman of Overdog who administers pacifying drugs to the girls and prepares them for Overdog's pleasure.
Elsewhere, Wolff and Niki make camp, but soon come under attack by a strange plow-like vehicle. Wolff manages to disable the machine and learns the driver is a former military acquaintance of his – a soldier named Washington (Ernie Hudson), who reveals he too has come to rescue the women. His only problem is that he crashed his ship and has no way off world. Wolff refuses to help his rival and leaves him to fend for himself.
Back in the Zone, the women are taken to see the Overdog (Michael Ironside), who is revealed to be a hideous cyborg, almost entirely machine, with two metal claws for hands.
Still led by Niki, Wolff gets into more predicaments – from being attacked by mutated (very obese) human beings, to strange amazon-like women and a water dragon (which the amazon-like women fear). He even loses his trusty Scrambler and is forced to continue on foot. Eventually, they are found by Washington and Wolff finds the situation reversed as he now begs his rival for help. Washington assists, but only if Wolff cuts him in 50/50 on the reward.
Wolff and Washington team up and sneak into Overdog's fortress where they find the Zoners entertained by captured prisoners forced to run through a deadly maze of lethal obstacles, hazards and traps. Wolff spots the women being held in a cage and forms a rescue plan, but a bored Niki (who was left out of the rescue for her safety) decides to snoop around. She is captured and sent into the maze. Wolff spots Niki in the maze and tries to rescue her, but she uses her prowess to reach the end where Overdog congratulates her and drags her back to his lair. There, she is hooked to a machine that slowly drains her life energy. The energy in turn recharges Overdog. Wolff comes to the rescue and jabs a sparking power cable into one of Overdog's claws. The power feedback fries Overdog and thus causes cascading blowouts throughout the entire fortress. As the fortress explodes around them, Wolff and Niki run for cover and are rescued by the timely arrival of Washington, who is driving the plow machine with Nova, Reena and Meagan driving another commandeered vehicle. They all race out of the fortress in the nick of time as it explodes behind them.
As the complex explodes, the three heroes, and the three rescued women, manage to get away. In the ending, Wolff invites Niki to stay with him and she agrees since they made good partners.
Main castPeter Strauss as Wolff
Molly Ringwald as Niki
Ernie Hudson as Washington
Michael Ironside as Overdog
Andrea Marcovicci as Chalmers
Cali Timmins as Nova
Aleisa Shirley as Reena
Deborah Pratt as Meagan
Hrant Alianak as The Chemist
The film's advertising emphasized the 3D aspects. Columbia released Spacehunter on May 20, 1983, timed to be a week before Return of the Jedi. It grossed $16.5 million at the United States box office.
Variety called it "a muddled science fiction tale" whose editing prevents audiences from enjoying the well-shot action scenes. Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote that the film does more with its 3D than its contemporaries but is too crowded with derivative ideas to be memorable. However, Paul Mavis, reviewing the 2017 Blu-ray release for Movies & Drinks, wrote, "With an incident-busy script, something is going on all the time. The action is tolerable low-grade Road Warrior approximation...the set pieces are reasonably imaginative, and a lot of weirdo stuff is crammed into the fast run time." Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an approval rating of 18% and average rating of 3.2/10 based on 11 reviews.