Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut - 1/20

Here’s a roundup of the latest activities around the Freak Show household: Satanica and I went out on Friday to catch Guillermo del Toro’s latest effort, Pan’s Labyrinth, a fantasy-drama set during the Spanish civil war. It is garnering all sorts of praise on the festival circuit and arrives in wide release with the promise that it will be a shoe-in for a Best Foreign Language film Oscar. I liked the film a great deal but I fell short of loving it. Like all of del Toro’s work, his monster designs are particularly striking but his scenes showcasing them fall short of inspiring any true terror. Most of the horror is generated by the human cast members, namely the sadistic general who rules his neighborhood with an iron fist. The film is a surprisingly brutal adult fairy tale, and is definitely not for kids.

Oblisk brought over his newly-purchased-from-eBay copy of the 80’s heavy metal horror flick, Black Roses, which he claims is the second best heavy metal horror movie ever made (next to Trick or Treat), although the pickings are pretty slim in a genre that includes few other titles, such as Rock n’ Roll Nightmare and Terror on Tour. The film (and I use that term loosely) concerns a demonic rock band (fronted by the lead singer from 80’s metal group Lizzie Borden) which arrives in a small town with the intention of stealing the souls of the area’s 30 year old high school students. Oblisk, Special K, Satanica and I had a lot of fun ripping it, but it really isn’t good on any level – unless you have a special soft spot for bad 80’s hair metal, in which case it may rate half a star. Oh, and Big Pussy from The Sopranos shows up briefly to be eaten by a pipe-cleaner puppet.

I had the opportunity to finish up both Rainbow Six: Vegas and Gears of War for the XBOX 360. Looking back, although it was a thoroughly entertaining and sometimes thrilling experience, I find myself mystified by the amount of hype that Gears of War has generated. The game is relatively short; it’s biggest strengths lie in it’s spectacular graphics (the best I’ve ever seen in a video game) and it’s revolutionary duck & cover mechanic; this later feature is also implemented in Rainbow Six: Vegas to a much better (IMHO) effect. The sensation of plunging into terrorist riddled Las Vegas as part of an elite special forces unit is exhilarating, and the multiplayer is awesome.

On Saturday, we had a good turnout in the basement theater for this week’s screening of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. The saga of the Superman movies has been pretty well documented in recent years, but I’ll recap it here briefly for the uninitiated: tyrannical Hollywood producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who previously filmed The Three Muskateers and The Four Muskateers simultaneously, sought to apply the same strategy to their big budget Superman movies. They hired Richard Donner, hot off the success of The Omen, to oversee the two gargantuan movies. According to the original plan, Superman: The Movie was to end with Superman sending Lex Luthor’s rockets into space. The rocket’s detonation would have shattered the Phantom Zone, freeing the trio of villans, General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and the mute Non (Jack O’Halloran) from captivity. There would have been a title card exclaiming “To be continued!” and audiences would have presumably returned the following year for the story’s conclusion.

Budget and schedule overruns forced the producers to re-think their strategy if they were going to maintain a summer 1978 release date for Superman: The Movie, and decided to put off completion of Superman II in favor of focusing on making the deadline for the first film. So, instead of the cliffhanger ending, a decision was made to lift the “Superman turns back the world” ending originally planned for Superman II, and transplant it to the first movie.

With Superman: The Movie finished and making millions of dollars worldwide, director Donner waited for the phone call he would never receive, to resume work on Superman II. Instead, the Salkinds sought the services of another director, Richard Lester, with whom they had worked on the Muskateer movies, to finish the film. According to reports at the time, Donner had already shot at least 60% of Superman II. Lester’s approach was to treat the character (and the movie) as more of a spoof. He added more comedy, created a new opening sequence (at the Eiffel Tower), the Niagra Falls/honeymoon material, and the goofy lasers-from-fingertips / cellophane-symbol net sequences for the Fortress of Solitude climax.

Upon hearing of Donner’s firing, Gene Hackman exercised his option to withdraw from the project, forcing Lester to use a body double for any reshoots involving Lex Luthor. And, perhaps even more importantly, Marlon Brando withdrew the rights to the use of his image in the film, requiring Lester to turn to Susannah York to reprise her role as Superman’s mother, Lara, to impart information contained in the already filmed Jor-El scenes.

These behind the scenes shenanigans gathered a full head of steam once the films entered the DVD era of director’s cuts and restorations; fans clamored to see exactly what Superman II would have looked like should it have been presented as Donner’s original designs. Low and behold, upon the eve of Superman’s return to DVD in Superman Returns, Warner Bros, sensing a lucrative revenue opportunity, allowed editor Michael Thau to shape the old footage (found preserved in vaults in Europe) into Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.

The new version opens with an unevenly edited 10 minute recap of Superman: The Movie, ending with new (and unfortunately, cheap) effects featuring the destruction of the Phantom Zone, and the escape of Zod (“Freee!!!!”) and crew. We see new opening titles that mimic those of the first film. There are new sequences inside the Daily Planet, as Lois Lane tests her theory that Clark Kent is Superman. Lex Luthor escapes from prison and visits the Fortress of Solitude where he learns about the Phantom Zone villains from the specter of Jor-El. In a Niagra Falls hotel room, Lois Lane learns that Clark Kent really is Superman by shooting him (!), only after he admits his dual identity does she reveal that the gun was loaded with blanks. After spending the night together, Superman begs with Jor-El to make him human. Once he is made human, and following his subsequent humiliation in the diner, he pleads with his father to restore his power – something which will sever the connection between father and son for all time. There are some additional moments in the final battle between Superman and Zod/Ursa/Non, and a closing scene with Lois outside the Fortress of Solitude (which Superman destroys in this version – did he do it in the other version as well? My memory of the theatrical release is foggy) is present, negating the need for the mind wiping smooch. Instead, Superman does indeed turn back time (and the planet), creating all sorts of time paradoxes which make absolutely no sense.

Based on what we have as evidence here, Donner’s version of the movie would have been much preferable to Lester’s, had he been given the opportunity to finish the movie in 1979 (also removed are embarrassing comedic bits with the hulking Non learning to use his newfound powers). However, this particular release unfortunately does not fit the bill as an appropriate replacement, as it often feels edited with a chainsaw. Much of this is likely due to Donner’s reluctance to include anything that Lester shot. The key scene in the Niagra Falls hotel room is comprised of screen tests for Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve, as it was never shot by the production. It’s also easy to see why the new Eiffel Tower opening was commissioned, as it gave audiences some Superman action early on; aside from the protracted opening, there’s not much of Superman on-screen until the Niagra Falls scenes. And, there’s the matter of the repeated turn-back-the-world finale.

This Donner Cut, as it exists, serves as in interesting curio into both the decision making process of filmmaking, and the filmic mythology of the Man of Steel. It’s definitely worth seeking out for the devoted and the curious.

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