Thursday, 2 June 2016

Supergirl (Jeannot Szwarc, 1984)



You may be wondering why I'm reviewing such a well known and mainstream movie. As a kid I remember being distinctly confused by Supergirl. It was clearly cut from the same cloth as the Richard Donner Superman movie yet for some reason it never quite felt right. Lately I've been in the mood for some early 80's fantasy movies and when Jerry Goldsmith's amazing Supergirl theme shuffled on I decided to revisit the film. The quality of the movie was exactly as expected (doesn't quite work but is fun none the less) but what I wasn't expecting was how downright weird it is. Supergirl may have the production value of a mainstream superhero adventure (well, ahem, at times anyway) but some of the creative choices made feel like cult cinema though and through.

The opening scene makes a bold statement about the way the film will work. The camera travels through a dark and uninviting world until it reaches what looks like a giant anthill made of cobweb. Inside, the camera continues to swoop through the set, carrying us through an enormous practical set that extends both horizontally and vertically. Its reef-like organic structures criss-cross in a network of walkways as hundreds of extras, draped in simple robes, go about their business. Kara (Helen Slater) runs through the busy streets to meet her mentor Zoltar (Peter O'Toole).


This world is not the gleaming but doomed sci-fi civilisation of Krypton glimpsed in Superman but a kind of commune. As impressive as the set is the lack of natural light makes it feel oddly oppressive, like a cross between a refugee camp and a hospital waiting room or asylum, rather than the utopian society it is trying to communicate. As a child this place weirded me out and it did the same as an adult.

Zoltar, a designer and artist, is building a sculpture using a massive glowing sex toy and reveals that he is able to do so because he has borrowed the city's power source: The Omega Hedron. We are lead to believe that doing such a thing is a bit naughty. He gives it to Kara to play with who, during one of those freak living drawing of an insect accidents we've all experienced, manages to get the Hedron sucked outside the walls of their city. It is then we are informed that the loss of the Hedron will result in the city and all its inhabitants perishing in mere days. Thats right, Zoltar put the safety of every living being in the city at risk to build a model of a tree. More than a bit naughty then.

He assures the assembled people he has just doomed that he'll participate in a dangerous journey in a space craft to retrieve it. A spaceship that has been left lying opened a few feet away from the conversation he's having. Kara, feeling responsible, makes the utterly baffling decision to take this deadly journey herself. She leaps in the space ship, it closes around her and launches off into space. Kara, and the city's, day just went from fun and frolics to loneliness and certain doom in mere minutes. With the level of negligence on display (literally anyone could have jumped in that ship at any time and been carried out of the city) and Zoltar's cavalier attitude to the lives of every living thing in the city it is a miracle the whole place hadn't exploded decades before. The last survivor of Krypton is a simple and clear legend in the making. Dickhead child accidentally exiled by negligent Uncle figure less so.

Logic (narrative or otherwise) is far from the movie's strong suit. We are told that Kara is from inner space, an entirely different universe from the one Earth and Krypton exists in. Yet Kara emerges from her space pod wearing an exact copy in all but the skirt of Superman's outfit. She flies out of a lake (?) into a park in the US and discovers she has all the same powers as Superman with the addition of being able to change clothes and hair colour at will. Despite not even existing in the same universe as Krypton (a planet which was obliterated many years prior) and this being her first time on Earth Kara knows who Superman is, who Clark Kent is and where he works and that the two are somehow cousins. Has Clark and her been cross dimensional pen-pals or something? Does some poor kid have to travel across time and space every morning to deliver the Daily Planet to inner space to keep its inhabitants up to speed on current events? How does she know all this stuff? How can she know how to type a convincing letter of recommendation for a school in seconds of being introduced to the term but doesn't know how to shake hands? The fish out of water stuff that the film relies on making her endearing doesn't work because she seems to already know so much she couldn't possibly know. This intellect, her powers and the bestowing of the costume doesn't conform to any sense of internal logic established either by the movie itself or the Superman films it claims to be part of. It is as if all of the science fiction elements are treated as if they were magic.


Magic is vital in understanding the thinking behind this movie. The villains of the piece, played with relish by Faye Dunaway and Peter Cooke, practice witchcraft. They also have no identifiable plan or motivation. They are out having a lavish picnic on a tiger skin rug and talking about how they will rule the Earth with magic when the Hedron lands in a pot of sauce. Selena (Dunaway) takes it back home where we find she lives in a run down fairground and is essentially bankrupt (despite the luxurious lunch). The two of them dabble in spells that are at times minor (love potions, embarrassing people at parties) and extreme (summoning giant demons). There is no real logic to the way the magic works and Selena's plan veers from world domination to making some random bloke fall in love with her. It's all a bit confusing but you can brush it off with a "hey, it's magic". Unfortunately the same license is used to explain Supergirl's powers. This all started to make sense when I realised the writer, David Odell, also wrote The Dark Crystal. The film almost works as a fanciful fairytale adventure full of witches and love potions but by trying to make it canonical with the Superman movies the two genres create a wonderfully bizarre friction.


So the best way to shepard this weird mix to the end credits is by throwing in some abrupt tonal swerves. Let's see, I dunno... how about making Supergirl's first human interaction be with a couple of rapists? Yeah, that'll be fun. Supergirl lands in the middle of town and a truck pulls over. The drivers get out and begin eyeing her up and down and invading her body space. When one gets a little two frisky she throws him back and the other pulls a flick knife. Yeah, this isn't two drunk or leery perverts shouting from a building site, one of them was willing to stab her to death for not putting out. She quickly puts them in their place and the inclusion of Goldsmith's theme as she does suggests the scene was designed to engender some form of female empowerment from the defeating of two would be rapists. This is somewhat undermined by the their reaction as she flies off: a kind of sub-Laural and Hardy eye rub as one says to the other "let's keep this to ourselves". It's an unwanted comedy beat on the end of an unwanted scene.

It's nice to have a movie in the early 80's with a tough female lead and a supporting cast almost entirely filled with women. Which is why it is even more disappointing when the plot suddenly revolves around falling in love with some random guy (a gardner at the school Supergirl masquerades as alter ego Linda Lee). Selena slips him a love potion but he accidentally falls in love with Linda (but not Supergirl) creating an odd love-triangle (love-square?). A love-square that generates no tension because we don't know who this guy is. Short of looking good without a shirt on his character is almost entirely under some kind of drug or spell and wanders around with the expression of a stunned Alpaca for the majority of the movie. When he finally comes out of the spell he asks Supergirl where he can find find Linda and she assures him she is safe. "Don't make me get rough with you" is his response. Yep, the object of female affection in this movie is a guy who is willing to threaten people with violence just because they... um... just because. He isn't even trying to find information out, he threatens her because she tells him not to worry.


In order to have the character-less lunk for herself Selena finds a way to banish Supergirl into The Phantom Zone (a prison dimension seen in the Donner movies) where she meets Zoltar again. Despite being a prison world full of the worst criminals they manage to escape fairly easily (well, Supergirl does) but it is here we learn her city is still alive and she can still save them if she returns the Hedron. To be honest in all the magic, romantic plots and threats of violence against women I'd entirely forgotten about those poor suffering bastards.


With a ticking clock providing some urgency to the plot we are thrust into the finale. This involves fighting a giant monster (cool) and Supergirl whipping Selena into a self-made tornado and then flying her into a broken mirror which assembles and traps Selena inside. The reveal of Supergirl standing in the reflection of the now assembled mirror is a badass reveal, but I don't remember depositing criminals in broken mirrors being amongst her power set. Its the mostly oddly specific power since Superman's giant plastic symbol throwing.

Anyway, the abusive love interest realises Linda and Supergirl are one and the same, wipes a crumb off of her face and smiles like his skull is sliding out his mouth. She tells him she is going back home and that he'll need to explain the disappearance of Linda Lee. Good luck with that - A guy who gardens shirtless at an all girls school, has a habit of randomly threatening women and who was seen snogging a school girl days before she vanished off the face of the earth is going to explain that one away easily. Supergirl then flies off back to her under the sea world. Thankfully the film ends there and we never actually have to see the damage or loss of life caused by Zoltar and Kara's fuckwittery.

This may all sound very harsh but I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a lot of fun. The brazen disregard for logic was actually refreshing and I actually found myself happily dismissing leaps of logic as magic. Plus, there are a lot of genuinely good things in the movie. The fantasy visuals are at times excellent and we are treated to a battle with an invisible monster as a storm rages, a giant mountain lair and a cool looking phantom zone. Both the opening and credits are awesome, the former being achieved by creating actual models of the credits and having them whizz by motion controlled cameras. The flying effects are generally good with a couple of sequences in particular being convincing. This goes for the scenes where Supergirl is on wires as well - a moment where she performs a loop and skims a lake is actually breathtaking. Cook, O'Toole and Dunaway are all having fun. The Ghost Train house that Selena lives in is awesome and points should be awarded for at least attempting a shared universe (even in this hamfisted way). And Goldsmith's score is thrilling.



Supergirl is a weird mish-mash of canonical super-heroics and logic-less fairytale peppered with bizarre tonal shifts and strung together by the most random of villainous plots. It may not work as a traditionally enjoyable narrative but it is a fun and bizzare experience.

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