31 December 2006

Superman II as you have never seen it

After Superman Returns left a bad taste in my mouth, I felt the desire to cleanse my palate. Fellow Media Brother Mikey recommended a review of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, plus something new and exciting: Superman II - The Richard Donner Cut (also available on HD DVD)

Now, for your average movie viewer, this special edition of Superman II is likely to be a disappointment. But if you're as interested in the business and craft of movie making as I am, you will find this a fascinating examination of an alternate vision of this classic film.

For those not in the know, Richard Donner was the director of the original Superman - The Movie. This film and its sequel were conceived and written as a single story. The plan was to film the complete story at once, but to edit two separate movie releases from the footage. The story had been constructed with a nice climax and cliffhanger toward the middle to support this. This was the job Richard Donner had signed on for.

Unfortunately, as sometimes happens in Hollywood, budgets and egos came into conflict with the artistic vision. The producers, worried about budget overruns and return on their massive investment, short-circuited this plan near the end of production and insisted that the crew focus on completing just the first movie, sticking the rest in the can for a potential sequel if there was a measure of success (and any money left) from the first film.

Richard Donner completed the first film, but his conflicts with the producers led them to fire him before the second picture could be completed. They replaced him with Richard Lester, who finished out the shoot with the changes the producers demanded to conserve their investment, despite the fact that it meant significant changes to the story line and cutting Superman's father right out of the film.

Donner, having already directed the classic horror picture The Omen, went on to helm the blockbuster Lethal Weapon Series, and fans have long dreamed of what Superman II might have looked like if Donner's creative vision had made it to theaters.

We no longer have to wonder. Archival footage was retrieved from cold vaults and recut to restore, as closely as possible, the original concept of Superman II. Bogus scenes were deleted, original scenes cut from the theatrical release were added back in, and key effects shots left unfinished in the seventies were completed from the original production footage with the help of modern computer techniques. In certain instances footage was not available because it was never shot during production, but the restoration team was able to reconstruct a scene Donner considered vital by cutting in the screen tests of the original actors. A stroke of brilliant editing, I must say.

Of course, the restrictions of the restoration team, working with footage decades old shot by two different directors with differing visions, make the production value of the new edition a bit rocky and inconsistent, especially where the screen test footage breaks the continuity. But the story hangs together solidly, and it is so good that you really don't notice the rough edges until you hear Donner talking about them in the commentary.

While no studio would consider this a finished piece of work suitable for theatrical release, it is a fascinating historical document which film fans can and should study and admire.


bwana said...

I agree with your assessment of Superman Returns. I bought the DVD and feel ripped off; most reviews were so good for it, but it's just the same story as in the original movie: Kryptonite hurts Superman, Lex Luthor wants real estate, and his plans are overthrown by a good-hearted hench-woman. Sheesh.

I've added this Director's Edition to my Cart, thanks for the tip. I didn't even know this edition existed.

Kevin - TheHick said...

Kevin here,

That's all fine and good Vince. But what was up with the Saran Wrap logo? Did he get Batman to make that for him? Or is that just a toilet seat protector from the Fortress of Solitudes bathroom?