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Batman on Ice!

by Jeff Bond

In Ohio we have our own ways of expressing displeasure at the cinemas; no one cried out "Death to Joel Schumacher!" at the screening of Batman and Robin I attended, but perhaps the chorus of fart noises that greeted the tender bedside scene between Alfred and Bruce Wayne was indicative of the crowd's feelings about this giant overstuffed turkey. After 90 minutes of what amounted to some hideous Vegas floor show, did Schumacher actually think his audience would sit still for touchy-feely moments between George Clooney and Michael Gough? It is to be hoped that Batman and Robin is the final volley in what must surely be the most disappointing opening to a summer blockbuster season yet to be seen in the '90s. Photography of union workers shoveling money into incinerators would be more entertaining and more honest than the parade of mind-numbing idiocy Hollywood has foisted on us this year. Anyone who griped about the Star Wars Special Additions must be looking back on them with a glow of nostalgia as the aesthetic difference between the late '70s and the mid '90s gets hammered into our faces weekend after weekend.

As for Batman and Robin, not since Powder has a director's private tastes been so blatantly thrust under the noses of an unsuspecting public, beginning with gigantic closeups of our heroes' rubberized buttocks as they suit themselves up in their batgear and moving on through Poison Ivy's introduction to Gotham City, during which she emerges from a fluffy pink gorilla suit to step onto a living carpet of oiled semi-nude musclemen. Schumacher offers a director's pedigree of the worst auteurs of the 20th century: he has Cecil DeMille's insatiable love of vulgar pageantry coupled with the story sense and acting coach capabilities of Ed Wood. The performances in this movie are bad beyond belief: Clooney is a piece of deadwood, as blunt and stolid as a tree trunk; Uma Thurman spends the film doing an excrutiatingly bad impression of Mae West. And Schwarzenegger has rarely given so graphic an expression of just how miniscule his acting talents actually are. Everyone else vogues it up in appalling drag show camp, actually making the thesping in the original 60s Batman TV show look convincing by comparison (and remember that the Adam West series was the example Burton was ordered to avoid when he began this franchise in 1989).

The fascination of Tim Burton's original Batman was the way in which it brought some kind of flesh-and- blood logic to the two-dimensional cartoon world of Batman, acknowledging that Batman was, in fact, a human being with no superpowers, a guy who could get shot, hurt in a fall or knocked out by his opponents. Schumacher dispenses with that approach in the opening moments of Batman and Robin when Batman drops through a Gotham museum ceiling window onto an ice-covered dinosaur and slides down its tail directly into Schwarzenneger's Mr. Freeze. Moments later Batman and Robin pop ice skate blades out of the soles of their batboots (you never know when they'll come in handy) so they can engage Freeze's henchmen in a ridiculous game of ice hockey. This is magic, not action, and it destroys any possibility of generating suspense for the rest of the film. We're constantly seeing characters fall 500 feet to certain doom only to have them save themselves by shooting out grappling hooks or falling into water (which would be like falling into cement at these velocities); that's when they're not driving batmobiles down the arms of giant statues in Gotham City. Batman and Robin is actually less believable than most Saturday morning cartoons. Given that, the parade of ever more desperately overblown action scenes are dramatically impotent: the audience literally couldn't care less about what happens because it's obviously impossible for anyone to come to harm in this reality.

I've read several reviews that point out Elliott Goldenthal's score as being intrusive or overdone, but I actually found its effect negligible in the movie. It neither sufficiently supports the action nor undermines it; it simply flails around in the background, adding another layer of excess far past the point where any more garish ornamentation would be noticed. If there's much music that's substantially different from the composer's Batman Forever score it's difficult to tell (and will continue to be until the release of a genuine score album, since the song compilation in stores now features music from Batman Forever). The opening title music is identical to Batman Forever, while the rest seems to spend equal time channeling that score and Demolition Man.

It seemed Goldenthal was going to do something interesting with Poison Ivy when early scenes in her laboratory featured some tantalizing string textures that recalled Jerry Goldsmith's Vejur and Vulcan string music in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Sadly, that's dispensed once the Poison Ivy character emerges to the tune of camped- up saxophone riffs that aren't appreciably different from the music Goldenthal used for Nicole Kidman's character in Batman Forever. The Batman Forever jazz riffs conjured up pleasant associations with John Barry's '60s 007 scores, but the rehash here calls to mind the sleazy sex music that bubbled up in a few old Star Trek episodes whenever some vamp would bump and grind across the stage. It was campy, tongue-in-cheek stuff then; here it's just appallingly unimaginative. Couldn't a brilliant orchestral composer like Goldenthal find a bit more inspiration from Ivy's vegetable origins? Even Alexander Courage's music for the walking carrot in that old Lost in Space episode is more intellectually daring than this.

The action scenes are scored indifferently, bristling with Goldenthal's usual horn trills and dissonances, and only really making an impact during the final battle with Freeze, when the composer brings in some impressive sharp- edged brass writing. Goldenthal really can't be blamed for this fiasco. He has two choices with this kind of film: either all-out over-the-top melodrama or underplaying, an option that clearly would run counter to Schumacher's sensibilities. The fact is that there's really nothing for Goldenthal to accomplish in this movie. There's no drama to accompany, no suspense to hype. Danny Elfman was blessed with Tim Burton's psychological approach to the Batman character: with Batman's struggle against the Joker (and later with Catwoman) reflecting his own struggle to grasp his identity and find acceptance both personally and with the public (through his misunderstood Batman persona), Elfman's music (in addition to being a brilliant action score) had some important dramatic notes to hit. Goldenthal has had no such luck. Schumacher destroyed the series by introducing Robin (turning the Caped Crusader from a conflicted vigilante to one half of a bickering married couple...which would you rather see in a summer action movie?) and exacerbating Burton's mistake of overstuffing the films with too many villains (beginning with the tiresome Penguin of Batman Returns). Consequently there's too much going on at any given time for a composer to focus on making any dramatic points: the only option is to play along with the movie's circus atmosphere. But the sets and costumes are so patently phony that Goldenthal's essentially over-serious music only magnifies how unconvincing everything in the movie is. It's the other side of the coin represented by John Williams' underplaying Lost World score: Williams's effort vanishes beneath the film's soundscape while Goldenthal's effort ricochets off into the stratosphere and is equally divorced from any effect it might have on the audience.

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