Over the weekend of 7-9 April, 2017, in collaboration with the Comic Studies department at the University of Dundee, overseen by the world’s only Professor of Comics Dr. Chris Murray, and the city’s very own festival of geekdom Dee Con, Dundee Contemporary Arts is running Sequence, a series of films inspired by comic books and animation.
Supergirl holds the distinction of being the first American superhero feature to star a female protagonist, an achievement that becomes all the more important given the fact that movies about female superheroes can easily be counted on less than two hands. After the mediocre-to-awful Superman III, the intent was to spin off from the franchise, elevating the largely unknown Helen Slater, in the same way as Christopher Reeve was, in the role of an iconic DC character. Given the obvious lack of a Supergirl II, this was ultimately unsuccessful, and the quality of the movie must take its share of the blame for this. Feeling as though several scripts were thrown together without regard for consistency, pacing or basic coherence, Supergirl shows only moments of greatness in a broadly dull and oddly small story.
The narrative manages to be simultaneously baffling and incredibly simple. Kara Zor-El (Helen Slater) must travel to Earth to recover the magical MacGuffin that powers her society after it is lost by her oddly sinister mentor, Peter O’Toole’s Zoltar. This widget, called the Omegahedron, is found by witch and aspiring world conqueror Selina, played by a manic and deliciously hammy Faye Dunaway. Kara, as the costumed heroine Supergirl, defeats Selina, both in her plans for global domination and in her attempts to enchant hunky and brainless landscape gardener Ethan (Hart Bochner). This seems fairly straightforward, until the inclusion of Kara’s school adventures as alter-ego Linda Lee, her friendship with Lois Lane’s oddly young sister Lucy, her brief stint in the surprisingly escapable Phantom Zone, a dark-sorceror-cum-maths-teacher who hates children, and an invisible monster whose only weakness is wind. The best explanation for this word salad of a plot summary? Six-dimensional geometry. The chimaerism of the story is so bad that it actually begins to work against itself. Kara’s desperate mission to save her home might make sense, but Kara’s brief stint undercover as a normal schoolgirl saps the film of any urgency as she appears to forget that her parents and everyone else she has ever known will run out of oxygen if she isn’t back in a few days.
There is a strange slant to the whole film, nothing overtly abysmal but a deeply unsettling sense. The movie treats age with abandon, often forgetting that several of the principal characters are supposed to be teenagers. The film’s central love triangle is set between a purported high-schooler, a man in his late 20s, and a woman in her early 40s. Power-hungry and sociopathic as she may be, Selina is a far less illegal choice of partner for Ethan. This trend continues with Lucy Lane and Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure as the only returning actor from the Superman franchise). Unfortunately the movie never records Lois’ reaction at Jimmy travelling countless miles in hope of seducing her underage sister, because it would have been a fascinating spectacle to witness.
The age of Kara is perhaps a part of why Slater struggles with the character. It should be said that she is just as good as Reeve at separating her secret identity from her public persona; Linda Lee is less bumbling than Clark Kent, but is certainly meeker and more gentle in comparison to the confident and pro-active Supergirl. But Supergirl is herself a problem. Her age is highly indeterminate, as she looks 20-something but plays younger, and this leads to her naiveté coming across as foolishness. What other explanation is there for someone who doesn’t know what trees or trains are, but is capable of forging a convincing letter of recommendation for admission to a private school? There is also a lost opportunity here to truly differentiate her from her more famous cousin. The Big Blue Boy Scout is such because he was raised by decent, salt-of-the-earth people, combining incredible power with humanism and a drive to do the right thing. Supergirl is Kryptonian born-and-bred, and while she does not engage in the same heroism, is compassionate and warm towards humans in exactly the same way. Her culture shock at arriving in a strange place filled with alien beings (not least because she is assaulted the moment she lands) is nonexistent. What little character she has is merely bland and pleasant.
Supergirl has fairly good special effects, helping audiences truly believe that a woman can fly. Counter to the importance of her search as it is, Kara’s discovery of her incredible abilities is one of the film’s stand-out scenes; her wonder is infectious as she gracefully floats through the air. But the chance to make the character distinctive and to give her a compelling story are lost. There are things to enjoy here. It would be utterly remiss not to mention Selina’s sidekick Bianca (Brenda Vaccaro), who eases some of the plot’s bigger absurdities with her bewildered asides and snide comments. Supergirl may be one of the best superheroine movies ever made, but this is more due to scarcity than quality, and we can only hope that this year’s Wonder Woman can at last turn the tide against the overwhelming sausage-fest of the genre by actually being good.
Hardwire is a moderately interesting premise for a short film stretched unbearably to feature length. Based, unofficially, on the story “SHOK!” from 2000AD, the movie mixes The Road Warrior, Rear Window, and The Terminator with vague political satire to create something that manages to be less than the sum of its parts.
Dylan McDermott is Moses “Hard Mo” Baxter, a wasteland scavenger in a post-apocalyptic America who brings home a robotic head for use by his girlfriend(?) Jill (Stacey Travis) in her pretentious artwork. When the head revives and psychically reforms a body from the copious scrap metal strewn around, the seemingly unstoppable killing machine embarks upon a bloody rampage that spans from one side of the apartment to the other side of the same apartment. Throw in a few one-dimensional dead-meats, including John Lynch’s inexplicably Irish tweaker Shades and William Hootkins’ Lincoln, a needlessly grotesque voyeur, and you have a sub-par sci-fi slasher that bores throughout. There is a consistent feeling that a more exciting movie is being set up, and this story may have served as a decent first act, but at 94 minutes and standing alone, it’s just anaemic and tedious.
Hardware makes two attempts at foreshadowing, both of which belie the poor quality of the film. Upon analysis of the head, a detailed technical description glaringly mentions that this particular model is susceptible to moisture, signposting in brilliant neon the transparent conclusion of the monster. Even still, it takes a repetition of those bone-headed exposition to enlighten the hapless protagonists that it might be worth their time to try exposing an electronic device to water in order to disable it. The second moment is irrelevance masquerading as cleverness. A chess match between the building’s two security guards ends when the elder sacrifices one of his pieces to achieve checkmate. Practically turning to the camera and waggling his eyebrows, he states that this movie is the perfect way in which to beat a computer, because machines fail to understand sacrifice. If you’re assuming that the movie’s mechanical menace can only be defeated in a similar way, you’d be entirely reasonable but quite incorrect. Mo’s death is not a necessary part of the robot’s demise; he is just collateral damage. A stupid film that is content to be stupid might well be forgiven on those grounds. A stupid film that thinks that it’s smart is made even worse by that fact.
A sequel to Hardware wherein the government begins to enact its population-control-by-killbots plan might be worth watching. But as a stand-alone film, it is dull and uninspired. The same ideas and the same aesthetics can be found elsewhere, and executed far better. The Sequence event seems to have peaked rather early, ending with a whimper, one that fails as sci-fi, as satire or as horror. When your 2000AD-inspired movie makes one yearn for Sylvester Stallone and Armand Assante bellowing incoherently at each other, you must accept that you have failed.
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc
Written by David Odell
Starring Helen Slater, Faye Dunaway and Peter O’Toole
Written and directed by Richard Stanley (inspired by the short story “SHOK!” by Steve MacManus and Kevin O’Neill)
Starring Dylan McDermott, Stacey Travis and John Lynch