Saturday, July 31, 2010

Disappointments Thicken Our Skins

It’s been over a week since I was in San Diego and I feel like I’m still recovering from Comic Con. This is particularly surprising considering how I was only there for about a day and a half. It was fun, but by a certain point I was just worn out from it all and decided to head back up the coast via Amtrak. With some of this still in mind and looking for something superhero-related to watch I pulled out my DVD of SUPERGIRL—not just the DVD but the Anchor Bay double-disc set released back in 2000 which contains both the 124 min International Cut (the version I chose, for the record) and the never-before-seen “Director’s Cut” which goes a full 138 min. If that’s your idea of a good time. (The shorter U.S. release version, listed at 114 min., seems to be pretty much unavailable now) I got the DVD when it was released probably for completist’s sake, probably out of curiosity and probably for some odd form of nostalgia even though, like most people in America, I didn’t even bother seeing the film theatrically when it was released at Thanksgiving 1984 (several months after it already played Europe), tossed into theaters by Tri-Star when Warner Bros. apparently declined. There is a definite level of craft to the film which is apparent even now as I watch it—it’s slick enough that for brief periods I’m too distracted to notice just how terrible it is. It’s enjoyable to a point but it all feels like some sort of big-budget miscalculation of a kind that was really only possible back in the 80s with hazy rules and a tone which by a certain point feels kind of smothering. Helen Slater is cute, that much is certain. But it’s really not very good at all.

In the isolated Argo City, existing somewhere in innerspace, Kara Zor-El (Helen Slater) is one of a large number of Kryptonians who live there. The powerful Zaltar (Peter O’Toole) who dreams of going to Earth allows her to see the powerful Omegahedron, a small device which powers the city. But an unfortunate mishap results in the Omegahedron sucked out of the city towards Earth, jeopardizing all of Argo City. Taking matters into her own hands, Kara heads for Earth herself where she discovers her enormous powers in her identity as Supergirl and soon takes the guise at a nearby girls’ school of Linda Lee, cousin of Clark Kent, where she winds up rooming with Lucy Lane (Maureen Teefy), younger sister of Lois. Meanwhile, the Omegahedron has landed at the feet of would-be sorceress Selena (Faye Dunaway) who with loyal assistant Bianca (Brenda Vaccaro) fully intends to use the device to allow her to possess hunky gardener Ethan (Hart Bochner) and fulfill her greatest dream, to rule the world.

A movie for pre-teen girls of all ages, SUPERGIRL has energy and spirit but very little about it seems to come together as if those in charge (directed by Jeannot Szwarc, screenplay by David Odell) never quite came up with the right ideas to give this thing the life it needed. It’s admirable that they wanted to set the tone apart from SUPERMAN and the style Richard Donner brought to his film but many of the ideas either feel too different for something set in the same universe or don’t make very much sense on their own level (Since Christopher Reeve ultimately declined to appear as Superman in an extended cameo we’re told via radio early on that he’s on a peacekeeping mission in faraway galaxy). Why are these former citizens of the destroyed Krypton living in what is called ‘Innerspace’? HOW are they living in Innerspace? How do they know about Kal-El and his identity as Superman? Why does the Omegahedron fall on Earth from the sky when it gets loose but Supergirl comes up from the water? Where does she get her costume from anyway? Does anybody understand any of this? The style is much more heightened, more fantasy oriented than the intentionally grounded (no pun intended) approach Donner took but it still feels like no coherent rules were established. Elements are just tossed in there, never explained all that much and we’re apparently just supposed to get caught up in the wonder of Supergirl endlessly flying around to the strains of Jerry Goldsmith’s majestic score.

The loss of the Omegahedron and the potential destruction of Argo City imply an urgent ticking clock but this seems to be forgotten about almost immediately. In the context of this story it just feels like a big waste of time for her to disguise herself as Linda Lee (even if it is a part of whatever Supergirl mythos there is) and enroll in this school, suddenly becoming best friends with Lucy Lane. With her spending time figuring out math equations, playing field hockey and discovering the joy of taking a shower (it’s not like how it sounds) during the first half of the film it just makes it seem like she has no interest in getting her job done and saving the lives of everyone she knows—for a story with what should be a tight timeframe it’s impossible to tell how many days the story is actually set over just on a casual viewing. Szwarc directed JAWS 2 which, whatever else you want to say about it, at least moves but here there’s no tension, no decent spine, no tone that feels either correct or consistent (After one more try with the Salkinds helming the following year’s SANTA CLAUS, the director has spent much of his subsequent career in episodic TV). The emphasis always seems to be on the wrong thing, whether spending fifteen minutes in the girls’ school for ultimately no reason, getting lost in Selena’s funhouse, an attack by killer bumper cars or in Supergirl’s big fight with….a runaway tractor. Can’t she beat up some henchmen or something? Don’t we want to see Supergirl actually doing some stuff that’s cool?

There’s at least an earnestness to the film which helps (particularly when compared with SUPERMAN III) as well as a great deal of evident production value (particularly when compared with SUPERMAN IV) and, to give it some credit, there is some nice use of widescreen framing throughout (cinematography by the recently deceased Alan Hume) and the continuous shots of Supergirl flying, both on set and front projection, really do feel like the effects people involved had perfected all this stuff by that point. It’s never even particularly dull at all. But the vaguely defined fantasy rules (what exactly does Supergirl do to defeat Selena in the end?) just become too frustrating in the end so it doesn’t allow us to have any satisfaction when the heroine emerges victorious. It’s all too soft, too girly (all due respect to any girls reading this, of course) with lots of genuinely lousy dialogue and even if there is money onscreen it still feels like there were cutbacks somewhere along the way. The Argo City section with its giant set that doesn’t look like much other than a set in an 80s fantasy film feels truncated in the scripting so the high-billed cameos by Mia Farrow and Simon Ward of FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED as her parents come off as pretty pointless. Argo City apparently has ‘Guardians’ who are in charge but we never see them just as Zaltar casually says he’ll banish himself to the Phantom Zone then we cut away before anything happens (“Your suffering will be short. Mine…forever.” I don’t know, how magnanimous is that, really?). Even when we get to the Phantom Zone ourselves as Supergirl herself is banished there in the third act we’re told about others trapped in the place but never get to see them (“They’re here, over the hill there…”). There’s also that fake Salkind Productions-style Midwestern town with typical distracting product placement everywhere (Hey! Anybody want an A&W root beer? Let’s get something to eat at Popeye’s!). There’s never any reality established, just this small town with an abandoned amusement park that the villains are hanging out in for some reason so it all feels like it’s set nowhere—Supergirl does fly over Chicago several times but it’s all second unit stuff.

Even the comedy bits throughout wind up feeling too light and too leaden at the same time. And, in the case of Faye Dunaway and Brenda Vaccaro, the film offers a pair of villains who come off as bickering drag queens. Whatever else you want to say about Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor (what can I say, I’m a fan) he was just one part of that movie. Here, Faye Dunaway is let loose and allowed to smother the thing whole. She and Vaccaro seem to enjoy playing off of each other but that doesn’t really have much to do with why we’re watching SUPERGIRL. In many ways the film just winds up feeling like it’s not about much more than a cute young girl battling a mean old woman (playing this role eight years after NETWORK, Dunaway was 43 at this point) for the affections of some lunkheaded shirtless gardener who’s put into a trance by Selena so early that I’m not sure why I should care. For all I know he’s still in that trance when the credits roll, it’s not even clear, so the love story never really means anything. It feels like there are some good intentions among the creative personnel but it just comes off as wrongheaded, like the overall approach wasn’t correctly thought out and the money they had was spent on the wrong things.

After saying all this I can’t help but think that I’m being too hard on it. Maybe SUPERGIRL is kind of like a cute little puppy dog that knocks over a lot of breakables but still tries to lick you all over the face. How long can you stay mad at it? Maybe I just like looking at Helen Slater. In her film debut the actress brings a great amount of spirit to things combining grace, innocence, forcefulness and humor in a performance that is responsible for just about any endearing qualities that the film possesses. She is the role. Hell, there are plenty of actresses who could do a lot worse with trying to say, “The Omegahderon, Selena. I want it,” with any real authority. And, yes, she looks terrific in the costume as well. Isn’t she supposed to? Faye Dunaway, meanwhile, is dressed in ridiculous outfits while lit across her bulging eyes like William Shatner in some old STAR TREK episodes while wind blows her hair every which way. Based on her nonstop shrieking I can’t help but genuinely wonder if her director was too afraid to tell her to tone things down a little. So am I saying that she’s actually effective in the role? I’m not sure but in her attempt to go ‘big’ and ‘camp’ or whatever it’s just too much for things as she tries to do as much with every single tiny line of dialogue she has (“Now I am really upset!”). Not to mention that the brief glimpses of Faye Dunaway attempting to play light comedy reveal that it’s not what she’s best at. Peter O’Toole, on the other hand, is enjoyable to watch in his extended cameo with his drunken style like he still has a little of Alan Swann in him but the main problem feels like the material isn’t quite worthy of him, blatant exposition that’s trying to turn itself into juicy dialogue for him to do something with. Brenda Vaccaro is appropriately annoying but her presence never really adds very much. Marc McClure is the SUPERMAN cast member who turns up in place of Reeve, with Jimmy Olsen serving as a love interest for Lucy Lane but not doing much else besides that (actually, I wonder how Lois would feel about that coupling). Peter Cook, during the brief period where he attempted to replicate Dudley Moore’s Hollywood success, is Selena’s abused flunky Nigel and Matt Frewer makes an early appearance as a truck driver who winds up on Supergirl’s bad side when she arrives on Earth. Valiantly trying to do something with all this, Jerry Goldsmith’s score could best be described as ‘twinkly’. It finds the appropriate amount of majesty but its bigness becomes a bit much by a certain point and winds up another one of the numerous scores by the composer where it becomes obvious how hard he’s trying to get a movie that clearly isn’t coming together to somehow work. In this case, by a certain point hearing the same themes over and over becomes a little like eating way too much butterscotch.

SUPERGIRL is a film that’s hated by a lot of people and I don’t even have much that’s positive to say about it myself. I mean, it’s definitely not a good movie. And at the same time I don’t really mind having it around, if only to look at in small doses every now and then. And I’d still kind of like to see a 35mm print of it someday. It’s at least trying, even if it doesn’t succeed, and the optimistic spirit it insistently trumpets along with Helen Slater’s performance at least counts for something. None of this really makes it any good of course, so maybe it is some sort of 80s nostalgia thing after all. Maybe I just appreciate that it’s trying, even if much of the effort is misguided. Maybe I just like seeing movies. And in the end, there’s nothing too wrong with that.


Joe Valdez said...

I'm not trying to be an Armond or some kind of half-assed contrarian, but I actually like Supergirl. Nothing you wrote in your piece isn't true -- it IS like a copy of a copy of a misguided film -- but I'll always argue that it's the best Superman film not directed by Richard Donner.

I think it's asking too much to expect this film to be Superman. It's probably closer in spirit to The Last Unicorn, but the production values, the aerial stuntwork and Jerry Goldsmith's score were all exceptional. No expense was spared here, down to casting Mia Farrow in a walk-on part. And as you mentioned, Helen Slater is perfectly cast in this.

le0pard13 said...

I think you nailed it well, Mr. P. It's not a very good movie, but Helen Slater sure is cute in it. I'm of the opinion that all of the SUPERMAN films after I & II only go to show how great Richard Donner's versions really were. Count me as another fan of Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor (although, I thought Kevin Spacey's characterization was the best thing in SUPERMAN RETURNS). Thanks, Mr. Peel.

Unknown said...

Yeah, it's kinda fashionable to slam Bryan Singer's take on SUPERMAN but I kinda like the film for its obvious hero worship of the Donner films. And, like le0pard13, I like Spacey as Luthor (not to mention Parker Posey as his bitchy sidekick - she's a hoot). I have not seen SUPERGIRL, dissuaded by the hype that this film was a stinker but I have to say, Mr. Peel, that you're review certainly made me a little bit curious to check it out.

Anonymous said...

Yep, Helen Slater is worth the price of admission here. She's it & as you note, there's very little else worth mentioning. But, there is something about "Supergirl" that allows it to float by on its silliness without feeling any malice towards it.

- Bob

Blake said...

I think a more "grounded" approach might have helped, but I'm not sure it would really be possible to make a good film of Supergirl, as the character was a pretty dumb idea to begin with. The people behind Supergirl obviously took a very condescending attitude toward the material they were working with, and while with most comic-book movies gone wrong I would place the blame on filmmakers who didn't respect the material, in this case I think it was fitting: a lousy superhero got a lousy movie. Fair enough. But you're right, Mr. Peel, that Helen Slater is cute.

Professor Brian O'Blivion said...

I haven't seen it in a long time but it's definitely better then Superman IV. This is for you...

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

My apologies for not responding to these great comments, it hasn't been the best of weeks around here.

I guess you could say that as far as bad movies go, it's difficult for me to have a great deal of animosity towards this one. I don't think it's all that good, but I can understand affection towards it.

As for the origins of the character of Supergirl, I don't really have any strong opinions but I can understand the viewpoint that the source material may not have been anything all that great to begin with. Anyway, thanks again, I'll try to be faster with my responses in the future.

VoyagerG said...

Wow, what an excellent blog for this movie. For someone who's not the biggest fan of this film, you at least took time to explain all the aspects of the film and why they could and should have worked but didn't. I am a big fan of Superman, but as a woman, it was nice in the 80's as a little child to have a superheroine to watch. So, I suppose it's my 80's nostalgia that I like the film. :D I did like the Phantom Zone!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Glad that you liked the piece and very happy that the film has given you lots of enjoyment both then and now.

And I have to say, VOYAGERS? VOYAGERS!! Seriously, that's awesome. I really loved that show way back when.