Saturday, May 30, 2015

Give Us Your Worst, Part 26: Tank Girl

Welcome back to the twenty-sixth installment in our never-ending series looking through the back issue bins at some of the least respected, least loved comic book adaptations of all time.

I was in high school the first time I watched this, and I remember thinking it was pointless and idiotic. But that was a long time ago, and I certainly don't trust my memories or taste from that era. Besides, I've seen quite a few defenses of this movie since then, so I decided to see if it was better than I remembered.

I went in with an open mind, which ended up being a big mistake.

The premise is pretty straightforward post-apocalyptic fare. Governments crumbled, the world went crazy, evil corporate stand-ins run what remains of civilizations... you get the idea. Success or failure in this genre almost always comes down to the skill and vision of the director. Six String Samurai managed to deliver something great with one tenth Tank Girl's budget.

Tank Girl is, of course, based on a comic series from the late 80's and early 90's. I've never read an issue, but my understanding is that it's more or less built on punk sensibilities from the era. That's certainly what they tried to put on screen. The titular character is spastic, angry, and rebellious, though it's not actually clear what she's rebelling against or why. That's... pretty much inline with what I remember about the punk movement in the 1990's, actually.

The movie's villain is a ludicrously evil stand-in for the cruel, corporate stereotype once unironically referred to as "The Man." There's no rhyme or reason for his sadism, which is cartoonishly excessive. Oddly enough, there actually isn't any indication the world would be better off without him. If his company is generating water for this civilization, isn't its existence a net positive?

There's no depth or exploration of any of this here. Excluding slave labor, his company is staffed almost exclusively with expendable men in order to remove any lingering moral qualms over their deaths (he employs at least one woman, but he has her killed to demonstrate just how evil he is). Oh, and the men are extremely prone to threatening sexual violence against enslaved women. They're not alone, though: almost every male character - including allies and protagonists - attempts to exploit or sexually assault the two lead women, but when good guys do it, it's played off as clever banter.

I think they somehow wanted this to feel empowering, but it just comes off as exploitative.

A lot of the movie's apologists focus on the fact it's centered around two female characters who exercise agency and push the plot forward. While technically true, it's worth noting that, on their own, they're not particularly effective. Really, the movie's plot is resolved by a half-dozen male mutants, who are all stronger and faster than Tank Girl.

The movie tries to be subversive, but it's not clear what it's trying to subvert. Any environmental or anti-capitalist arguments come off as childish whining: if anything, sitting through this makes me more likely to go buy a bottled water.

Gender stereotypes? Tank Girl is given free range to psychotically kill her enemies without repercussions, a role typically reserved for male action heroes, so there's something to that. But this loses any real impact due to the movie's refusal to take anything seriously. The main character's friends and loved ones are killed before her eyes, and the sequence still plays out comically. She's threatened with rape and assault, but she seems to find the situation amusing. I suspect they were trying to invert the dynamic on who retained power, but the final result feels more like they're making light of these things.

Tonally, the movie is an incoherent mess. It's clearly trying to be surreal and funny, shocking and bizarre. Once or twice, it even succeeds, but the rest of the time it just feels sloppy and immature. The film clearly thinks it's hilarious that bad guys always miss and good guys always hit their targets: I think that joke was dead by the end of the 80's. Instead of coming off as clever, it sucks any tension or suspense out of the fights. When they try wedging in more outlandish gags (i.e.: Tank Girl grilling sausages in the middle of a gun fight), it just falls flat. When cartoon characters pull antics like that, there's pacing and a sense of the absurd. Here, they knew what they wanted to accomplish, but clearly didn't understand how to make it work.

Speaking of cartoons, there are a few short animated bits interspersed throughout the movie which actually are fun to watch, but mostly they beg the question why the whole movie wasn't made that way. There's also a random musical number stuck in the middle of the film as a joke reminiscent of the similar number in The Mask (which came out the year before, by the way). Only it worked in The Mask, and here... it was just embarrassing. Again, they wanted zany but got idiotic.

All of this is despite the two leads, Lori Petty and Naomi Watts, who clearly tried their best to deliver a worthwhile performance. Petty, in particular, attempts to own the twisted tone of the film and make this into something worth watching. If the director, cinematographer, and designers had a fraction of her skill and dedication, I think it could have been a very different movie. The movie had some real talent in front of the camera: it's a shame those behind the scenes squandered it.

Thanks to Petty, Watts, and the animated interludes, this is actually just barely in the better half of the twenty-six movies I've sat through for this series. It's also the second-best theatrically released superhero film with a female lead, right behind Halle Berry's campy Catwoman, but that's only because the other three were abysmally bad.

It'd be easy to say this was an overlong music video masquerading as a movie, but that's not quite right. This wanted to feel like an hour-and-half music video; but frankly, it couldn't pull it off.

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