Batman and Robin (1997)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 31 July (10.00 pm)
Channel: ITV2
IMDb Link

Reading over yesterday’s Legend review, it seems I might have been a little harsh on it, especially compared with today’s offering, the universally panned Batman and Robin. Let’s be honest, Ridley Scott’s fantasy flick might be light in certain areas, but there’s still the painterly compositions and technical confection to admire, whilst  the 1997 Batman entry is an outright train wreck.

Try as I might, during my third viewing of it (three too many!) I jotted down the things I liked about the film in order to write a balanced critique, but it’s a short list indeed. I like the subplot concerning Albert (Michael Gough) steadily succumbing to a terminal illness, the fictional MacGregor’s Syndrome, which forces Bruce Wayne (George Clooney) to re-evaluate his relationship with the man who raised him. Some of Gotham’s architecture is cool, now overblown to ridiculous proportions and yet beautifully realised. Where else would you find immense Gothic statues, which support bridges or hold the city’s observatory in outstretched arms? Quite lovely.

The rest is dire, and the strange thing is it’s a picture that cost $125-140 million to make, all vomited on gaudy tripe that doesn’t entertain so much as make its viewers suffer. I could understand if it was a cheap as chips rip-off sequel that traded on its name and the goodwill of audiences, as in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, which at least had poor Christopher Reeve doing his best to hold it together. But serious amounts of Warner Brothers’ money was plugged into Batman and Robin. It seems incredible to think that such a stinker was permitted to continue. Director Joel Schumacher might have blamed the studio’s decision to fast-track a sequel following the success of 1995’s Batman Forever, suggesting he didn’t have time to come up with anything better and simply worked on a fun movie that carried the spirit of the 1960s TV series, but as excuses go it’s a load of bollocks. I’ve never walked out of a cinema, possibly at times from a northern, obdurate feeling of ‘I’ve paid for this and I’m getting my money’s worth!’ but this is the closest I ever got to leaving my seat in defeat and despair.

It’s difficult to know where to start, but let’s begin with the all-star cast, expensively assembled and wasted entirely. Arnold Schwarzenegger was paid $25 million to don a skullcap, be coated in silver paint and trot out an endless succession of ice-related puns. Further punnage comes from Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy, intended to channel the sexiness of Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman from Batman Returns but drowning it in a weird Mae West voice and unbearable hamming. Val Kilmer signed up for the slightly less execrable The Saint and subsequently had a lucky escape, so rising star Clooney was cast as Batman. It soon becomes clear that pretty much anybody could have played him. With none of his natural charm or ability called upon, Clooney is lost as the heroic lead and has to suffer the indignity of Schumacher’s posterior clad in black rubber close-up. Chris O’Donnell is as irritating as he was in the previous film, whilst Alicia Silverstone insults every viewers’ intelligence with her claims of studying at the Oxbridge Academy. The what?

The dark atmosphere of the Tim Burton Batman films might seem less so in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s vision, but in the hands of Schumacher it’s completely thrown out. The entire two hour stretch is a ‘Look at me!’ of bright colours and product placement. And there’s no point to any of it, from the neon lit shell that hatches to reveal Robin’s motorbike to the Halloween costumed thugs Poison Ivy comes across and who then vanish for no reason at all. The action scenes come thick and fast, but they’re actually predictable and boring. Mr Freeze’s (Schwarzenegger) henchmen are an inexhaustible supply of punch bags for our heroes. The film replaces ‘BAM!’ labels as Batman twats yet another useless baddie with comic sound effects and Elliott Goldenthal’s idiotic and annoying score, which is never switched off.

The show’s loud, ugly in its riot of colours, lights and clichés. Arkham Asylum is depicted as a 600-foot high fortress around which it’s perpetually raging with thunder and lightning. At one point, Mr Freeze skydives from his rocket ship from a height of 30,000 feet. Batman and Robin give chase, defying any layman’s knowledge of physics by surfing on escape hatches and somehow catching up with him, despite his minute-long head start. Batman and Robin is crammed with moments like these, ignoring the most basic logic and expecting us to forgive it again and again because, well, it’s just a bit of fun. No it isn’t. I don’t expect Inception levels of intelligence when I watch a blockbuster, but I like my films to make sense, not to insult me at every turn. As a final two-fingered salute, its effort to stuff as much product placement into its running time as it can is quite sickening, the only saving grace being the aggrandisement all those advertising executives must have felt by allowing their goods to be associated with this stinker. I hope it didn’t sell many spin-off action figures either. The characters in the film carry on exactly as they would if manipulated by little kids, only their dialogue would probably have been better than the bilge contained in Akiva Goldsman’s script.

By all accounts, Warner Brothers were ready to back another Schumacher Batman film, until the critical backlash and lukewarm box office made the studio think again. It would be another eight years before the character returned to the screen, in a film that reinvented him and consigned Batman and Robin to a terrible footnote and cautionary tale in the canon of superhero flicks. It received the most Razzie nominations in the history of the Golden Raspberries, and was only saved from worse than the single award (for Silverstone) by the presence of The Postman on its lists.

Batman and Robin

Total Recall (1990)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 24 April 2012 (10.00 pm)
Channel: ITV2
IMDb Link

There’s a new version of Total Recall out in August; I caught the trailer for it at the weekend. The good things I spotted were some cracking digital effects, and what looks to be a great cast, including Colin Farrell in the lead role. I might not always like his film choices, but I find Farrell a riveting actor and hope he can bring some of the tension from his turn in Phone Booth to bear here.

Still, it begs the question – do we really need this? Are remakes of old ‘classics’ ever worth the bother? compiled a list of the ten best reviewed remakes since 2000, the list includes True Grit, the Coens’s update of which was good but so was the 1969 version, and Let Me In, Hammer’s fine English language version of a Swedish original that could hardly be bettered. In fact, from their list, only Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven really stands out as the edition you would definitively choose to see. The rule therefore should be that if you are going to remake something, ensure the original was rubbish. Of the worst incidentally, my mind turns to the horror genre, and all those putrid ‘updates’ from the last decade or so, the likes of The Haunting, The Omen and The Fog that lose all the charm of their originals and ignores everything that made them good in the first place.

Back to Recall and the worry, based on the trailer, that the 2012 version seems to be a wholesale retread of Paul Verhoeven’s 1989 version, which suggests all we’re getting for our buck is state of the art special effects. This aspect of the film screened today is inevitably the one that’s dated the most. I remember going to see Total Recall more than twenty years ago (crikey) and being utterly blown away by its visuals. Watch it now and there’s much that looks obsolete, particularly the famous ‘head split’ scene with its obvious rubber model of Arnold Schwarzenegger. So much of the film’s suspension of disbelief relies on the effects being immersive enough, and too often they just aren’t now.

Another issue is the acting range of its star. Sometimes, it feels as though the American film industry added a little something to the world’s water supply in the early 1980s, a mild hypnotic that convinced us Schwarzenneger wasn’t as bad as he clearly was. James Cameron knew best how to get the most out of his prime Austrian beef, even taking advantage of the iron pumper’s limitations for the inhuman Terminator. By the end of the decade, studios were falling over themselves to offer him work. Arnie was amongst the biggest draws, seeing off his main rival, Sylvester Stallone, to dominate the box office until the mid-1990s. His charisma and sense of fun went a long way, but he was often awful. The scenes in Total Recall where he’s paired with Sharon Stone are excruciating. Verhoeven possessed the good fortune to have the generation’s finest femme fatale actress (Maybe Kathleen Turner..?) on his cast. She wipes Arnie off the screen in each of their moments together.

Still, Ms Stone is amongst the boxes Total Recall ticks, and for all his struggles to out-act the Kuato puppet, Arnie knew how to work on action sequences, which are frequent and never less than exciting. According to IMDb, his role was initially offered to Christopher Reeve, which doesn’t sound half as good. It’s also worth watching for Michael Ironside, an actor who appears to have spent his career playing variations on the world’s most hardcore badass.

Given the way it’s aged, Total Recall remains what it was intended to be – a blast. All the philosophical elements of Philip K Dick’s short story are abandoned in the name of kinetic thrills. Even the question that underpins the show – is any of it really happening? – is addressed only as an afterthought. All that matters is the body count, the action dial turned to 11 and the joie de vivre of its star dispatching the film’s many villains in ever snottier and more improbable ways. Will the remake attempt to do anything more in keeping with the source material? I suspect it won’t.

Total Recall: ***