Sunday, August 31, 2008
It's As It Always Was
There are kids going off to college right now who never had the opportunity to see a Cannon Film in the theater. What a sad, incomplete life they must be leading. How do you explain Cannon Films to someone who wasn’t alive to witness the glory of Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris vehicles every few months, movies devoted to breakdancing, contracts with Godard signed on cocktail napkins? And the infamous SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE, an attempt by the studio to break out into the big leagues by taking an established franchise and making it their own. By now everyone knows of course that didn’t happen. Really, it’s never a good idea to take a film that runs 135 minutes and cut it down to 90. I saw it on opening day way back in July 1987 and thought maybe the theater had left out a reel or two. I went back a few days later to make sure. Nope, same film. It’s always been the same film. I actually purchased the Young Adult novelization, which I was too old for, just to find out what was missing. By now I’m sure the script can be found somewhere online as well. If you look further around the net you’ll find fans talking about that missing footage, addressing the subject as if debating what’s missing from THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and I’m sure the appearance of some of this footage on the recent DVD provided more things to argue about. Many, many stills from these and other scenes have long been available. But I’ve long since come to the conclusion that while a more complete version of the film would definitely have been more coherent, it still wouldn’t have been very good. That just wasn’t to be.
In case you aren’t one of the people obsessing over it, THE QUEST FOR PEACE begins with Superman (Christopher Reeve, of course) saving the life of a Russian Cosmonaut. Shortly after, we learn that arms talks between the U.S. and Soviet Union are breaking down. Just as this is occurring, the Daily Planet is acquired by publishing tycoon David Warfield (Sam Wanamaker) who, with his socialite daughter Lacey (Mariel Hemmingway) turns the paper into a trashy tabloid. As Clark, Lois Lane, Perry White & Jimmy Olsen react with horror to what’s happening to the paper, Warfield is of course thrilled by what the situation will do for business (“We could double our circulation with a good international crisis.”). Meanwhile, a young boy named Jeremy writes to Superman asking him to do something about all the nuclear weapons. As Superman makes his decision, Lex Luthor (the returning Gene Hackman) is freshly escaped from jail and is working out a plan to use all this to his advantage.
Working from a story idea by Christopher Reeve, the film seems extremely earnest in its approach to the basic premise, doing its best to move on from the Richard Pryor antics of the last film. There’s a definite through-line buried in there somewhere about how Superman is fully and completely ready to make the planet Earth his home. The problem is that the story is basically unworkable and all the good intentions the film may have can’t disguise the fact that the seriousness of this real-world issue doesn’t really belong in this context and there’s no way to do it without simplifying every aspect of it. Hey, I’d like Superman to show up and take care of all the problems in the world too, but we all know that this isn’t going to happen. At one point he makes a brief reference to the possibility of “warped individuals” who may be hiding the weapons but it’s implied that everyone everywhere is all for what he’s doing. So what exactly happens, then? What leads Superman to the realization that his tossing all the missiles into the sun isn’t going to stop all war forever? It’s tough to say and even in a complete version of the story it would have been hard for this film to seriously address such issues without turning into something completely different.
Just to clarify, that 45 minutes were taken out means that the story ceases to make sense on a number of occasions (Luthor’s plan is never clear, we don’t know how Superman knows that Nuclear Man is looking for Lacey). A lot of what’s left isn’t very good either. Compounding the problem is the fact that the film contains the absolute worst, cheapest looking special effects imaginable, a true embarrassment after the groundbreaking effects of the original film and a sign that the film was being bankrolled by people who either didn’t care about sustaining the quality or found themselves financially unable to. With some genuine sloppiness occurring because of this, SUPERMAN IV is about as incomplete and unreleasable as any major film that was released in the 80s. There’s a feel that in cutting down the movie to such a short length, they were aiming it at a younger audience but really, kids deserve better than this.
But what if the Salkinds or Warner Bros. had been in charge? What if Richard Donner or even Richard Lester had been at the helm? That’s a tough call because while the basic approach in the script by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal is well-meaning it still faces the problem of being too much like what we already saw in the Donner original. Superman rescues, insults by Lex Luthor, the Lois-Clark relationship, battles with villains of equal strength of Superman, all of these things were done better before. When Clark/Superman is roped into a double date with Lois and Lacey, leading to a farcical setpiece, it’s actually not that good a scene (and it doesn’t really get a decent close), but at least it’s not something we’ve seen before. Some of the problems can be attributed to director Sidney J. Furie (THE IPCRESS FILE and THE BOYS OF COMPANY C, among others) but it’s also easy to imagine that the production realities put him in an impossible position. Still, there’s a very dry feel to many scenes almost as if he had just set the cameras up and let the actors say the dialogue without giving them much guidance. Many shots throughout have a very wide feel to them (at least it’s good Scope use) but it feels reminiscent of Scope movies from the 50s and 60s that would just set up a scene and have the actors play it in a long master, and not in a good way. Too often scenes feel like they’re played in masters and Furie just never bothered to get any coverage for close-ups or medium shots.
It’s hard to ignore these and a myriad of other problems but at least the film has Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder and I think it helps more than has ever really been stated. Reeve is thinner than he should be, both as Superman and Clark Kent, but more than the other films in the series this entry really feels like it is examining the character of Kal-El, which is of course who he is anyway. The film may be an embarrassment but Reeve never is and in this context that really is saying something. Kidder, given a full role again after the cameo of the previous film, seems to be playing it as if she knows Clark Kent’s secret but has psychologically buried that knowledge. I’ve always liked Kidder’s portrayal of the character and while it may not be as sharp as her performance in the first film (the material’s not there either) her presence helps immensely. Throughout the film there seem to be little moments coming from Reeve and Kidder, small bits of business within scenes, and while they seem to have nothing to do with the story they succeed in showing how familiar they really were with each other. It gives this aspect of the film a feeling that is more human (for lack of a better word) than it otherwise displays and is certainly something more of an emotional touch than we ever get from Bryan Singer’s recent film.
It’s nice to see Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor again and it’s hard not to get some enjoyment out of his scenes, but, along with not even wearing a bald cap this time, he clearly isn’t giving the part the same sort of energy that he once did (Lengthy aside: There’s an article in discussing actors who reprise roles, but don’t really seem to be playing the same character. That could be Heston in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, Brian Dennehy in F/X 2, maybe Shatner in STAR TREK:GENERATIONS and Hackman in this film). Mariel Hemmingway is likable, maybe too likable, but doesn’t seem to be getting the right direction from Furie to sell her character. Jackie Cooper and Marc McClure return as Perry White and Jimmy Olsen, but neither one gets to do very much. Jon Cryer is Luthor’s nephew Lenny, a more annoying comic relief than Ned Beatty ever was. I should have asked him about this movie when he showed up at the New Beverly for PRETTY IN PINK. Jim Broadbent and William Hootkins are a few of the arms dealers Luthor deals with. Jayne Brook, Dan Rydell’s psychiatrist on SPORTS NIGHT, plays a schoolteacher (was she living in England at the time?) but her voice is obviously dubbed, just as a number of bit players seem to be (the kid playing Jeremy is probably dubbed but he’s a kid, so let’s leave him be). Mark Pillow, who was never heard from again, plays Nuclear Man and is dubbed with Hackman’s voice which it commented on but one wonders what the real reason for that was. Did Gene Hackman get paid extra by Cannon for voicing a second character?
It’s far too easy to talk about how awful the special effects are (and they are), but there are also numerous issues with other aspects such as the basic ugliness of the film. From the dingy cinematography to the bland and cheap looking sets and production design to even the costumes which all look chintzy and designed by the same person. When Clark Kent visits Smallville to discuss the sale of the Kent farm, it’s a nice little scene and the farm, which I can only assume isn’t the same location as in the first film, actually does look right and is a reasonable facsimile of what was in the earlier film. It’s actually the rare thing the production seems to do right. None of the principal photography was shot in New York, of course, but it feels like there’s miles and miles of second unit footage shot there for the battle scenes as Superman and Nuclear Man fly around fighting (the World Trade Center is, as usual, very visible) and the way it’s shot just begins to feel repetitive after a while, even for a film that’s as short as this one is. If I’m pressed, I’d say that some of the model work throughout looks to be decent, but it plays alongside flying footage that is so terrible that you don’t really notice. The score is credited to John Williams, with it being ‘adapted’ by Alexander Courage. I think, along with his original music, Williams composed the themes for Lacey Warfield and Nuclear Man and again, pay close attention, there might be some interesting stuff in there, but it really is tough to tell.
There are so many other things wrong with the film that I could go on, but there’s no real point. I admit that there’s a degree of earnestness to it which can’t be found in SUPERMAN RETURNS (a movie that, for me, gets worse every single time I flip by it on cable for five minutes) and having Reeve & Kidder present here means I can’t entirely hate it. But, like SUPERMAN III, I find myself watching it again every now and then, marveling at how things were allowed to go so irrevocably wrong. The nuclear arms plotline of course dates it automatically now but, like the gas shortage subplot in SUPERMAN III, watching the Daily Planet scenes in THE QUEST FOR PEACE now makes it seem surprisingly relevant. This feels especially true in this town as the Los Angeles Times is currently being decimated by the tycoon who now owns that paper, what with mass layoffs and favorite sections getting cut. I don’t even buy the paper anymore because of that. It’s a shame, because I hate the idea of being without a hometown paper in what is, after all, a major metropolitan city. Just like I hate the idea of not having a SUPERMAN film with Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE may be a terrible movie and I may have only scratched the surface of all the things wrong with it, but at least it has that.