Both these films were made within a very few years of each other, Superman in 1978, The Road Warrior in 1981. The IMDB estimates The Road Warrior cost about $3,500,00, and Superman about $55,000,000. When it came out in December of 1978 to high hopes and higher hype, Superman was a movie with a successful pedigree going back to late 1930s comic books, early 1940s movie cartoons and the 1950s TV series starring George Reeves. Superman, the movie, was touted as the first time where the audience would be convinced that a man could fly, without props – and all things considered, the producers delivered on their promise.
The American distributors for The Road Warrior, on the other hand, tried to both play off and distance itself from its predecessor, Mad Max, giving it a new title and a presumption to a new genre. Both films featured relatively new faces to international movie going audiences: Chris Reeves was very convincing in the dual roles of Clark Kent and Superman. There was actual acting afoot here. (I thought at the time that he was mistakenly passed over as an Oscar nominee.) Mel Gibson, at 25, was only just beginning to look like a man. He moved in the part perfectly, but wasn't challenged with much of an acting stretch. One more year of living dangerously, and it would all come together. (To complete the circle, Richard Donner, the director of Superman and his own cut of Superman II, went on to make a career of turning Mel Gibson into one Lethal Weapon after another.)
Superman attempted to liberate the actor who played the title character from his earthly boundaries. The Road Warrior explored creative ways of annihilating him. Superman, unlike the CGI of recent graphic novel-to-movie efforts, underscores its fantasy aspects with diffusion filters rather than effects, such as we think of them now. Even Krypton's final moments were more evocative and phantasmagorical than realistic. The Road Warrior intended to make crashes, maimings and deaths appear as real as possible for the audience. There is little about TRW that suggests a comic book, not even the peculiar, idiosyncratic pronouncements of the bad guys. Max is not an action hero. He's man of action. He takes risks, and though seemingly suicidal, is keenly aware of his mortality. His ethical stance emerges from the realities of a post-apocalyptic desert. Superman's ethos, on the other hand, derives from his father. From Superman's point of view, his moral values may as well have been God-given, since he sees his father only in a frozen bush, as it were.
Thus the difference in image is understandable. While I feel that the makers of Superman went too far to diffuse the image in the attempt to create the world of Superman's origins on Krypton – thus necessitating a softening of the film as a whole - The Road Warrior is so crisp you can feel the asphalt and smell the gasoline. The intent of the two images is completely different, and each needs to be appreciated in its own terms. Even so, Superman, considering the title character is the "Man of Steel," has very little tangibility to recommend it, and is something of a disappointment in a large screen home theatre setting. Only a year later, Ridley Scott was to show what could be done to create an alien planet with half the budget for Blade Runner. (I should hasten to add that Superman looks plenty good enough on a 50-60 inch LCD of plasma at typical viewing distances.)
More on Image
These two films point out the basic question: Is the grade a score for the transfer or for the image in absolute terms? In this column, it's the latter. Unless there are glaring difficulties with the transfer, the question that interests me is: how well does the image tell the story on a big screen at home? Are moments of weak focus or softness, or color shifts or compression of the grayscale destructive to the narrative or merely the price of on-location shooting, the lighting and film stocks used? In either case, what is the effect in an actual home theatre set-up? More on this as we go.
The Road Warrior [Blu-ray]
(George Miller, 1981)
I remember my first thought after I saw The Road Warrior in 1982: "There are no stunts!" These guys are simply crashing cars and trucks and motorcycles into one another, and George Miller is picking up the hospital and funeral costs. I had never seen anything like it – and not really, since. Even then, I could see how just the right amount of slow motion and keeping the camera close to the ground contributed to the effect, but I chose to ignore technique in favor of the result. The Road Warrior is the Mel Gibson I want to remember him by, just as did the Feral Kid.
One of several things that this movie had over its predecessor, Mad Max, was a host of fascinating road characters, including Bruce Spence, Australia's answer to Hugh Laurie, as the Gyro Captain; and Max Phipps, Vernon Wells and Kjell Nilsson as the best punk bad guys imaginable. And, of course, Emil Minty as The Feral Kid – you could just smell him from 100 feet.
I would have preferred the title that American distributors gave the film, but, alas, Blu-ray sticks to the original title, Mad Max 2, for the film credits, but keeps the American release title, The Road Warrior, for the DVD cover. My humble opinion: without exception, those who resort to movie sequel titles that merely place a number after them should have their knuckles rapped – hard and often. What, I ask you could have been more brilliant – and should have set the stage for cleverness forever – than After the Thin Man except, perhaps, Another Thin Man? Beethoven's 2 was a smile. Aliens, brilliant in its simplicity. And at least The Godfather placed a "Part" in front of the "2" which kept it from burning in nomenclature hell. Happily, The Road Warrior doesn't need to be understood as a sequel at all, and can easily stand on its own. It is an order of magnitude better than its predecessor and therefore violates the basic rule of sequels in that they are not allowed to be better – at least not that much better than the original. (Pace: Wrath of Khan, Empire Strikes Back and the aforementioned Godfather, Part 2 and After the Thin Man.)
Moving right along.
The Score Card
The Movie : 9
In this post-apocalyptic view of the world, everything is about the gas. Finding it. hoarding it . . . stealing it . . . filling finely tuned motor vehicles of all sorts, to chase and be chased across the desert by gangs marauding pirates . . . such as this one, here. Hard to tell if their prime directive is maiming and raping, or acquiring the gas. I guess in their case, the latter is the means to the former. Max, wounded in spirit – fatally, it would seem – by the murder of his family some whiles prior, comes upon a loosely knit band of decent folk trying to escape their makeshift refinery with their lives as well as their gas – with a gang of cutthroat punk pirates at their heels. Will Max come to their aid, or leave them to wallow in their righteous communality? The plot, to anyone who has seen a Hollywood western, is familiar, but the action was never so cool. Everything leads to a fabulously paced, spectacular chase involving an interminably long tractor-trailer and a poetic apotheosis, making The Road Warrior one of the best action films ever.
Image : 8.0~9.0
As for comparison to the last R1 SD edition – well, I threw that away years ago. Must have been dreadful. So I was cautiously pessimistic about the Blu-ray. Jeez, was I surprised! It was like the first theatrical experience all over again – but this time absolutely in focus from one corner of the frame to the other. No film gate problems or clueless adolescent projectionists. Even what I remember about the original's persistent film grain is in control here. The scenes that were originally shot in razor sharp focus with good color are just that. As for rest, the desert dust and a moving camera explain all. I would be remiss not to mention the aspect ratio, which is now wide enough to properly frame that first aerial view of Max approaching the Gyro. This BD edition is better than could have been hoped and is a nominee for my Best Ten list for the year.
Emotive Connection : 9
Seeing as how this DVD represents the best image I've seen under any circumstance, the only thing that keeps me from giving it a 10 is my own lack of a proper audio system which, as I previously noted, I hope to correct by year's end.
Operations : 8
Both Road Warrior and Superman are Warner productions. Both load quickly and get right into the movie without any of the interminable previews that plague Disney offerings. Once the movie starts, you can navigate quickly to the main menu and access the usual Languages, Special Features and Scene Selections. In both cases there is nothing remarkable about the chapter search, which amounts to a useful and lengthy number of scenes with thumbnails that identify the chapter.
Extras : 8
Lots of points for the commentary by George Miller – something of a first for this title. He's joined by cinematographer, Dean Semler. (Semler was to go on to be the DP for Dances with Wolves, but back in the early 80s, he photographed my favorite Aussie TV mini-series, Return to Eden.) Together, Miller and Semler chat about how scenes and shots were laid, the film's structure, various bits of tid and, most interesting to me, how Max was developed from the prior film. There's also an interesting intro by Leonard Maltin that placed TRW in historical context and a theatrical trailer, better left unwatched.
Superman - The Movie [Blu-ray]
(Richard Donner, 1978)
This Blu-ray, for better or worse, is the "Expanded" version that came out first on DVD in 2000, adding about eight minutes, mostly in the nuclear aftermath section. The part where Superman consults with the ghost of his father while out on his first night saving Metropolis from itself is the only really embarrassing addition -strikingly out of place on every count.
The Score Card
The Movie : 8
Kryptonites, it would seem, are not all that much different from present day Earthlings, which permits an ease of identification with Jor-El, father of the baby Superman-to-be, and the environmental politics of sanity vs. pride. In the hands of director, Richard Donner; writer, Mario Puzo (Yes, that Mario Puzo!); and producer Ilya Salkind, Jor-El is proposed as an unabashedly God-like creature with a messianic complex. In case you have any doubts that the Christian reference isn't massively important in a movie where the protagonist literally raises the dead to life, imagine pairing it on a double bill with Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, followed the next night with The Last Temptation of Christ together with Superman II, where Superman, unlike Christ, decides to indulge his own self-interest instead of his destiny (you may read "God's Will" if you like) and live as a mortal, only to find to his horror, that he had created a world that couldn't live without him. I leave it to you to consider how Christians view their relationship to Christ in this regard.
The film's narrative architecture is complex, or perhaps I should say, Homeric. First, we have a lengthy prologue on Krypton where little Kal-El is introduced to his heritage and his fate. Jor-El's wife, Lara (the first of a string of "L" females who figure so prominently in Superman's life on Earth) attempts, with considered and pained feeling, to counter her husband's rationalizations about sending their child to a planet where he will seem "odd, different and alone." In the most delicate scene in the movie, Jor-El delivers what sounds like a eulogy to his race while Lara leans tenderly on his shoulder, resigned to her place, though with more than a little dignity. This and Kal-El's early years in Smallville are told with comparatively little humor, hardly preparing us for the comedy crossed with moral apotheosis that is to come. This is a movie that shouldn't work, but somehow does – at least, for me.
Emotive Connection : 7
It's always a mixed blessing to see Chris Reeves as he once was, but mostly I'm grateful for what he gave us and still does. That said, I have always liked this movie. Of course, the fact that none of its sequels are nearly as good only serves to raise its own standard. I liked it for the fact that a man finally was able to fly without the apparent use of wires. I liked it for the awkward chemistry between Clark & Lois. And I liked it for Gene Hackman's self-referential Lex Luthor. The writing was generally brilliant, especially for Lex: as in: "We all have our faults. Mine is in California" . . . or: "Bye-bye, California. Hello, new west coast. My west coast: Costa Del Lex. Luthorville. Marina del Lex. Otisburg... Otisburg?" . . . and when Otis suggests that "maybe this guy that flies is just sort of passing through," Lex retorts with, "Passing through? Not on your life, Otis, which I would gladly sacrifice by the way, for the opportunity of destroying everything that he represents." . . . or, when Clark sprays a can of Coke all over himself after Lois shook it up, she apologizes, to which Clark replies, "Why would anyone want to make a total stranger look like a fool?"
Image : 4.5~7.0
In my limited Blu-ray travels thus far, this is the only release whose source elements result in a picture quality consistently below that of the best SD. There is a softness to the image that passes rational understanding, to the extent that it's deliberate and not simply the result of careless storage. I'm of the opinion that this is deliberate and calculated. Note that sharpness gets a bump once Clark arrives in Metropolis, and another as Otis makes his way through the subway system to Lex Luthor's underground Park Ave address, and once again, reaching its apogee as the camera rests in tangible clarity on Miss Teschmacher's bodacious bosom. In a quite different view through the lens, when we first see Lois in her light blue dress waiting on her patio for the interview of her life, the image is radiant and romantic, with just the right amount of softening. Any more, and the difference between her and Superman as he alights onto her patio would have been jarring . . . any less, and Geoffrey Unsworth, that most able of cinematographer of A Bridge Too Far, Murder on the Orient Express and Cabaret, would not have properly distinguished the two women.
Granted, the scenes on Krypton are shot in such exaggerated contrast, drained of nearly all color (expect red and blue - natch) that it gives us pause to consider what kind of people would tolerate such an environment. Life with the Kents and around Smallville is hazily filtered, except for a fleeting bit at his school, and doesn't fare all that well blown up on a large screen. On Earth, there is no fantasy element to help rationalize the lack of sharpness. Because of this, there isn't all that much to differentiate the SD and BD editions.
Operations : 8
Both Superman and The Road Warrior are Warner productions. Both load quickly and get right into the movie without any of the interminable previews that plague Disney offerings. Once the movie starts, you can navigate quickly to the main menu and access the usual Languages, Special Features and Scene Selections. In both cases there is nothing remarkable about the chapter search, which amounts to a useful and lengthy number of scenes with thumbnails that identify the chapter.
Extras : 9
The single disc, dual-layer BD includes the three documentaries from Disc 3 of the four-disc Special Edition SD (Taking Flight, Making Superman: Filming the Legend, and The Magic Behind the Cape), but does not include the fascinating – and, for my money, more intriguing – vintage material (the 1951 movie Superman & the Mole-Men with George Reeves, plus nine 1940s Fleischer Studios Superman Cartoons.) Since that four-disc set is the only way to watch the original theatrical release in an up-to-date transfer, there is no reason to part with it if you already have, leaving only the question of whether 'tis worth purchasing the BD for the improvements in image quality, such as they are.
June 10th, 2007
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Curse of the Golden Flower
Good Night, and Good Luck
Enter the Dragon