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SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE

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Review by Alex Haberstroh

Stars:  Christopher Reeves, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando, Ned Beatty, Glenn Ford, Terrance Stamp
Director:  Richard Donner                                                                                                            Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby 2.0
Video:  2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Subtitles:  English, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  154 Minutes
Release Date:  May 1, 2001

“Easy, miss.  I’ve got you.”

“You’ve got me?  Who’s got you?”

Film ****

There are some moments, when I’m reminded what it’s like to be a small child again, filled with innocence, awe, and wonder.  For me, cinema has always had a way of transporting me back to a time when everything still had a gloss over it, where things were new, fresh and exciting, and life had limitless possibilities.  Dreaming of worlds where dinosaurs were again alive, where a teenager could defy time in a DeLorean, or a boy could defy an evil empire and win, becoming a man in the process, helps to remind not just myself, but all of us, why movies, and the storytelling behind them, are such an uplifting part of our culture and heritage.  

In 1978, Superman debuted to audiences, inspiring those same feelings of joy and wonder, allowing audiences to believe for a time (as the film’s banner suggests), that a man could fly. 

For those of you not familiar with the premise of Superman (perhaps being in either a coma or on Mir for many years), the tale begins on the ill-fated planet of Krypton, where Jor-El (Brando), member of the all-powerful Kryptonian council, desperately tried to convince his colleagues to evacuate the stricken planet.  The council, balking at the notion that their lives were in danger, forced Jor-El’s silence by threatening his imprisonment.

Resigned to his own fate, Jor-El constructs an escape pod for his infant son Kal-El.   Selecting Earth where his son will have advantages beyond measure, Jor-El launches the escape pod just as Krypton is about to explode.  Crash landing in a field in Kansas, young Kal-El is discovered by an elderly and childless couple named the Kents, who, seeing his amazing strength, and realizing he has no family, adopt him, naming him Clark.  Young Clark, upon reaching adulthood, sets out on a journey to find about his past and in doing so, discovers he must become humanity’s protector. 

In retrospect, it’s hard to appreciate just what a big risk making Superman was at the time.  Movies based on comic book heroes had always been low budget spectacles that were often both cheesy and campy (for any who doubt this fact, check out the old Batman movies starring Adam West and Burt Ward…POW! BLAM!).  Since this had always been the case, producers had a hard time getting Warner Bros. to support the project financially, and for a time the project was a “negative pick up,” meaning, the producers dealt with making the script, finding the director, and everything else associated with the movie including financing it and then, when the project was done, they took it back to Warner Bros. for payment and distribution. 

Needless to say, the producers made some wise choices, including tapping Richard Donner of The Omen fame to direct, after previous pick Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger) couldn’t fit the project into his schedule.  With Donner, and later “creative consultant” Tom Makiewicz (who basically re-wrote the whole script, but somehow got screwed on the credit), the film took a less campy approach, instead becoming an endeavor that both entertains and amazes, providing the great special effects that seem to be somewhat lacking in the sequels.

Besides strong direction, a well-written script, and great effects, quite a cast is assembled, from relative unknowns to highly known and respected actors, all of whom provide fantastic performances.  Christopher Reeve, a relative unknown actor at the time the film came out, does an incredible job in both the title role of the morally impeccable Superman, as well as the nervous and well-meaning mild mannered reporter Clark Kent.  With any other actor, I might have felt some of the hokey things that the “Man of Steel” says such as “fighting for truth, justice, and the American way,” unbelievable, but Reeve really makes one accept that he believes what he is saying.  As well, Margot Kidder plays the best Lois Lane I’ve seen, as you can really feel the chemistry between her and Reeve, adding to the believability of the love between them that’s suggested in the first movie, and would be fully developed in the sequel.  Finally, Gene Hackman is brilliant as Superman’s arch nemesis, providing some of the best one liners I’ve heard in a long time and, with his goofy sidekick Otis, played hilariously by Ned Beatty, the film gets some great comic relief.

A truly amazing film that should both delight and surprise.  Even after all these years, Superman is worth your time.

Video ****

Knowing that the film was released in 1978 and three years my senior, I was somewhat concerned about the print.  Would it look like the VHS I had recently rented: lifeless colors, blurry backgrounds, and dull black levels? 

Instead I was surprised to see an incredible restoration job.  From even the opening credits, colors look bright and alive.  Black and white levels are crisp and clear with no blurriness whatsoever. Blues swoosh by triumphantly. 

Superman, split into three parts between Krypton, Kansas and Metropolis, each has its own colors.  For the planet Krypton, a classy, almost ancient Greece look is featured, with both striking whites of the uniforms of the council, and the overall soft whites and pinks that make up the planet.  Flesh tones are lifelike and done well.  The earth tones of Kansas come across perfectly (so much so that I felt I was in a “Folgers’s Choice” commercial), with deep browns and lush greens.  Finally, Metropolis (i.e.- New York City) retains a sleek look, with good emphasis on black levels and contrast; too bad the city never looks clean.  Oh, well. 

Overall, this is a knock out restoration job (my vote for the best one this year), and should warrant commendation for Warner.

Audio ****

 

For Superman, the sound has been dramatically digitally remixed, and while some diehard fans of the film might not appreciate the change, I can’t say enough about it.  This transfer, just like the video, is an incredible example of DVD done right.

 

From the rolling of the credits, I felt a chill as the trumpets of John Williams’s score filled my room.  There is an incredible amount of directionality throughout the film and voices can be heard coming from anywhere on the soundstage.  This most impressed me in certain instances, as when Luthor talks to Superman, and the dialogue comes from the two rear surrounds.  As well, there are plenty of other aggressive points for speakers such as car crashes, trains, machinegun fire, loud gusts of air, explosions, and even engulfing flames.

 

The .1 LFE track as well gets a workout, pounding out everything from missiles, to earthquake tremors.  All in all, it serves to rumble the room a little.

 

Supplements ****

 

It seemed like it took forever to get through this category.   Again, Warner gets top marks for providing an extensive and engrossing array of supplements and one of the coolest menus I’ve seen in a while.  On the first side of this disc with the movie was a commentary by director Richard Donner and “creative consultant” Tom Makiewicz.  This is an enjoying and informative commentary, and I appreciated Donner’s enthusiasm about the project, as well as his and Makiewicz’s incredible candor.  Both were not above saying what went wrong with the picture and what factors could’ve made it better.

 

Next was perhaps my favorite inclusion on this disc: an isolated score in Dolby Digital 5.1.  John Williams’s has been my favorite modern composer for a while now, with moving soundtracks like Star Wars, E.T., Indiana Jones, Jaws, and Jurassic Park, as well as his incredible achievements on Superman.  His ability to capture emotion through music and make hearts soar is unmatched in my opinion. 

 

After that was something called Superman-The Legacy, which was a written overview of the history of Superman since its conception in 1938 by its creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster.  Following this was the typical cast and crew bios.

 

Up next were the ten added or extended scenes that comprise the eight minutes of extra footage in this version of the film, not previously seen.   While this option seemed a bit repetitive since the scenes were already included, it was nice for completeness sake to be able to go to them directly.  Rounding out side A was Awards for Superman, which tells of the Special Effect Oscar it received in 1978, and a theatrical trailer.

 

Flipping to the other side, there are three half hour documentaries on the making of Superman.  The first, entitled Taking Flight: The Development of Superman, hosted by Mark McClure who played Jimmy Olsen in the film, tells about the struggles early on in pre-production, and other challenges involved in the film through interviews with the cast and crew, such as the record breaking 3.7 million dollar salary actor Marlon Brando received for his two weeks of work on the project, or the problems with finding a good, yet not widely known, actor to play the title role. 

 

The second, called Making Superman: Filming the Legend, also hosted by Mark McClure, concentrates on the problems while filming, such as the cast and crew dealing with the constant whining of the producers that they weren’t working fast enough.  This was an different approach at a behind the scenes look at a movie, and I liked how people weren’t pretending that everyone loved each other or “so and so was just a peach.”   This documentary seemed slightly more real.

 

Finally, The Magic Behind the Cape dealt with explaining how the Oscar winning special effects of Superman were both conceived (such as Clark running faster than a train and the Golden Gate Bridge collapsing) and then accomplished

 

Next, were some great screen tests for the roles of Superman, Lois Lane, and Ursa.  I found the tests for Superman and Ursa to be fine, but not nearly as notable as the one for the role of Lois Lane, which it seems like practically every actress of the time tried out for.   I especially enjoyed this feature, as I see which way the film might have gone (Rizzo from Grease as Lois Lane?  Yikes!).  All in all, I agreed with the optional commentary of casting agent Lynn Stallmaster that the best choice was reached with Margot Kidder.

 

In addition, there were two deleted scenes that the director thought to be too silly so they’re included here.  One is where Otis “feeds the babies,” some sort of ravenous beast below, and the other is where he lowers Miss Tessmacher into the same pit after she’s betrayed Luthor. 

 

Finally, there is a teaser trailer, a TV spot, and eight additional music tracks by John Williams.  Phew!

 

Summary:

 

In conclusion, with incredible acting, a great script, and a great director, this film would be worth buying on its own merits.  But with an incredible audio and video transfer with a wide berth of supplements all for under $20, this film is a complete steal.  Highly Recommended.