This is where the film franchise took a serious slip and fall misstep. Someone realized that Freddy Krueger was on the verge of becoming a bad punchline, and so, steps were taken to make this a darker, more mature sequel. Rushed out into theatres just under a year after The Dream Master, director Stephen Hopkins did all he could to deliver a solid film, but there was too many misconceived qualities to be what the studio desired. This was the lowest grossing film of the series up to that point, and the reasons why are evident here.
Having survived and seemingly defeated him, Alice Johnson (Lisa Wilcox) finds the deadly dreams of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) starting once again. This time, the taunting murderer is striking through the sleeping mind of Alice’s unborn child. His intention is to be “born again” into the real world at the expense of Alice’s new circle of friends. The only one who can stop Freddy is his dead mother, but can Alice free her spirit in time to save her own son?
For me, the biggest and most evident issue with The Dream Child is that it tries to tie campy, overblown humorous elements in with a gothic looking slasher film, and that just curls my upper lip in disgust. Stephen Hopkins certainly directs a very well shot movie, but that gothic production design is soaked in so much brown that it’s not inviting to look at. That visual style is really contained within the dream world, but that has always been the more fantastical and visually intriguing aspect of these films. Hopkins does have a great eye for stylish visuals, but it is a very drab film to look at in most cases. If it had a more subtle, realistic color palette like Craven’s original, or followed along the vibrant color schemes of Renny Harlin’s The Dream Master, this may have been a more visually exciting movie.
Lisa Wilcox is able to stretch out and expand upon her previous performance as Alice. She’s able to take that strong fighter, and add the emotional touches of heart and depth into her. It feels very organic from how she initially was in The Dream Master, but just melding that with her new found strength. Wilcox also brings out the heartache and inner turmoil of Alice with endearing charm and sympathy. She’s pushed to new limits, fighting to save not only her friends, but the life of her newly conceived son, which Wilcox embraces with a great deal of depth and motivation. All around, she leads this film with a lot of confidence continuing on as an inspiring hero for this franchise. I feel it’s unfortunate that she is never revisited again because Lisa Wilcox is such a solid and versatile talent, and really gave us a standout character to rival Nancy Thompson amongst fans.
Now, Alice’s new cast of friends are not filled by bad actors. They are quite good, but the characters just aren’t that appealing or entertaining. The closest we get is the comic book artist Mark. He’s decently fun, but is definitely downplayed. He has some good dramatic moments, and showcases some heart at times. It’s a shame that actor Joe Seely has nothing more to work with here because he seemed to have the potential to really breakout with a more entertaining performance. With Yvonne, I understand the idea of the friend that doesn’t always agree with you, but she is too abrasive too often. There is too much friction between her and Alice for my liking to where I just didn’t like the character. With all the teenagers that have been killed by Freddy in this town, you’d think she would actually wake up to the truth and start acting more open-mindedly. Instead, she remains a stubborn minded person dismissing her friends claims instead of trying to help them through most of the film. That’s a friend I wouldn’t care to have. Greta, the more upper class type friend, just doesn’t have much going for her as a character. The actress portraying Greta’s mother, however, is just terrible all the way through. She overacts the part to horrendously cartoonish levels. Her performance is very forewarning of some of what we’d get in Freddy’s Dead.
I found the kid who plays Jacob, Whitby Hertford, to be rather unappealing to look at and rather annoying. There was nothing about his performance that made me feel sympathy for him at all. Even worse is that the make-up department did all they could to make him look uglier, creepier. Surely, that was the intent, but part of the purpose of Jacob is to make him sympathetic; to make him someone you want to see saved from Krueger’s clutches. I couldn’t care any less about him if I tried. I really feel he should have been played more innocently, and have Freddy gradually corrupt him more and more to motivate sympathy from an audience and put more urgency upon Alice to act quickly.
Ten years ago, I was able to do an email based interview with Robert Englund, and from that, I gained insight into the shift in the tone and portrayal of Freddy Krueger from scary and serious to cheesy and comical. He said, and I quote, “I feel Freddy should be dark, but directors and fans like his dark humor. In many cases during the filming of all the movies I would give a dark and a comical take for certain scenes. Director liked the “button” that a laugh gives so they would often opt for the more comical take in the editing room.” The choice to take Freddy into comical territory was indeed outside of Englund’s control, and he simply gave the filmmakers the best performance he could based on what they wanted. This film delves deeply into the comical villain portrayal, and thus, the scare factor of Freddy Krueger is severely drained. He was turned into a twisted clown that might make some people laugh, but is almost guaranteed not to scare you at all. What is scary is that this is not the worst it would get to being.
The make-up work on Freddy does fall down in quality as he appears cheap and rubbery. This is a byproduct of the rushed production schedule. However, many of the various practical effects are impressive such as the motorcycle death sequence that seems straight out of Videodrome. There are some cool visual effects used when Mark gets sucked into his comic books, but it was far from anything new. It was mostly a retread of the classic a-Ha music video for “Take On Me.” The climax features effects and designs directly copying from M.C. Escher’s famous artwork Relativity with all the upside down staircases. It’s a fine idea, but it’s less surreal and just more whacky and silly. I’ve seen it done in Looney Tunes cartoons before, and so, I would hardly associate it with a frightening, vertigo-like nightmare. There are a number of very good visual effects in The Dream Child, but the ideas behind many of them aren’t all that great. Plus, they seem even more dated than those of The Dream Master.
And of course, since this film deals with a pregnancy, I honestly don’t think that A Nightmare On Elm Street movie is the proper platform to debate the issue of abortion. I am not going to inject my feelings on the issue here either. This film brings it up as a serious issue for Alice to contend with, but she remains strong in her decision to keep the child. People don’t go into a movie like this to have hot button socio-political issues debated. They are there to have a fun time being scared. Adding this sort of subject matter into the movie likely turned more than a few people off to it. While it is not an aspect of the film that really bothers me, it’s just not something that needed to exist in a slasher movie.
This sequel also feels uneven in its plotting, and rather thin in certainly places. The film is front loaded with establishing every element of this plot to where it leaves a lot of muddled meandering in the middle. It probably rushes us into the thick of the story quicker than necessary. Then, the film progresses past all of that to where it kind of goes through the slasher movie motions to rack up the body count. It’s not until the final act that any of these plot elements are actively dealt with, and even then, it becomes very repetitive just in order to fill in the remaining runtime. That’s odd to say since the film ends very quickly after Freddy is dispatched with, but still struggles to come in under the 90 minute mark. The third act confrontation with Freddy runs around in circles, both literally and figuratively, to where it just doesn’t feel exciting. Again, I didn’t care a thing for this creepy child Jacob to invest myself in Alice’s desire to protect him, and the filmmakers don’t really do anything to make him anyone to care about. So, having Alice and Freddy chase him around the dream world for the whole third act was just tedious. I generally like the further exploration of Freddy’s origins and bringing Amanda Krueger back into the fold from Dream Warriors. I just don’t think all of these elements have enough impact on the climax as they likely were supposed to. I understand not trying to close the door on Freddy, again, since he always comes back, but not trying to have a satisfying and solid ending to your movie is a terrible approach to have.
While Stephen Hopkins tried to take this into a darker, grittier look, it is the script that fundamentally sabotages that effort. I’m even hard pressed to say if this is even a potentially good concept because it is executed so poorly from a clunky screenplay. This is what you get when you rush the movie into theatres fifty-one weeks after the original. Back in 1989, it took that long just to get a movie from theatres onto home video. When you slow down, and take your time to find the right story and refine the concept, you will get a better movie in the end. Instead, The Dream Child is enough of a mess to call this a major pothole in the steady road of success of this franchise. While it was profitable, it did fall especially below expectations. Thus, New Line Cinema decided to begin plotting Freddy’s supposedly ultimate demise with what would be the most horrendous movie of this entire franchise. As for this sequel, ultimately, neither the attempt at a darker, more mature tone nor Englund’s best efforts could save it. The film is watchable, but not especially satisfying.
Ridley Scott’s Alien is a remarkable classic that was kind of hard for me to appreciate fully until now. I did see the director’s cut screening in October of 2003, but it didn’t have the intended effect at the time. However, thanks the Cinemark theatre chain, I was given the chance to see Alien in its original theatrical cut. I went into the screening consciously putting myself into the proper mindset intending to experience it the right way. I have always appreciated the filmmaking and artistic talents of the movie, but now, I can connect with it on a level of beautifully crafted horror and suspense.
When commercial towing vehicle Nostromo, heading back to Earth, intercepts a distress signal from a nearby planet, the crew are under obligation to investigate. After landing on this hostile planet, three crew members – Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), first officer Kane (John Hurt), and navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) – set out to discover the origin of the signal which Lieutenant Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the ship’s computer soon decipher it as not a distress call but a warning. Onboard a derelict alien spacecraft, Kane discovers a chamber filled with thousands of alien eggs, and in investigating too closely, he is attacked by a parasite. When he is brought back to the Nostromo, the crew has no idea the danger they have brought upon themselves as this parasite soon gives birth to a vicious organism that is bred for only one purpose – death.
The strongest quality of this film that struck me was indeed the structure and pacing. While for a modern audience it might be too methodical, Scott makes every slow burning moment count for something. It’s all building towards something while establishing mood, atmosphere, character, or story. The best result from this structure is that there are segments where Scott gives the audience a sense of false security. This is best reflected in both after the facehugger dies and relinquishes its hold on Kane, and when Ripley has safely escaped aboard the shuttle at the end. You feel as if the danger has past, but especially with the former, you feel like another shoe is waiting to drop creating this lurking uncertainty. There’s still a long way to go in this film, and you know something much more threatening is waiting to emerge. When the ship ascends from the planet, it’s signaling the elevation in threat for these characters and the audience. And this film repeatedly elevates things to a new, unexpected level.
Scott also does an amazing job immersing an audience into the subtle sense of isolation and unsettling calm of the Nostromo. This has as much to do with the cinematography as it does the amazing sound design. The ship always has this ambient sound of probably the power running through it, which further unnerves an audience. And when things get loud, it gets very loud to evoke the terror and visceral rawness of the moment. This all creates a contrast of audio where Scott makes things extremely low and quiet when he wants to engage your attention and put you on the edge of your seat. Then, he blasts something onto the soundtrack to jar you out of your seat. I don’t find this to be jump scares. This is an excellent manipulation of suspense and tension to effectively and skillfully scare an audience. It’s putting you right in there with the unnerving feeling these characters are experiencing.
How Alien is shot is perfect in its use of wide compositions to reflect scope and solitude early on, especially during the excursion to the derelict spacecraft, and later on, how the cinematography moves in closer to highlight the claustrophobic nature of the Nostromo. Even more intense is when Scott has the shot get right into the actor’s faces during the peak of fear and terror to where you can see every bead of sweat on their skin. There’s some great and beautiful camera work from the large movements revealing the Space Jockey and using steadicams for sweeping movements. Yet, I also love the subtle handheld work that creates a sense of unease and rawness at times. The lighting schemes also create the signature Ridley Scott noir mood and atmosphere. Light and shadow are used to stellar effect enhancing all the unnerving, heart pounding sequences, and Scott is known for immersing his films in thick darkness. As the immediacy of everything reaches its apex as the self-destruct is counting down, the blasting exhaust vents and flashing lights intensely reflect the chaotic nature of the third act. It’s shocking to me that director of photography Derek Vanlint has an extremely short filmography shooting only six films over a thirty-four year span. Apparently, the bulk of his career was spent on television commercials. What he did here would make you believe he had a largely notable film career because it was indeed the work of a master cinematographer.
Ridley Scott was very much inspired by the sort of “used future” production design of Star Wars. Instead of the clean and polished aesthetics of a 2001: A Space Odyssey, he wanted something that felt gritty, textured, and lived in. The Nostromo is a very utilitarian craft with very few sleek designs. It was created to be functional and practical to maintain a sense of relatable realism for the audience. It has the feel of a factory, oil rig, or submarine with all of its enclosed tight spaces and metal gratings. And the design of the alien spacecraft and all things related to the Xenomorph by H.R. Giger are truly alien in all aspects. It has a dark, gothic elegance to it. Giger always meshes together this sexualized aesthetic with his fascinating and twisted designs, and it creates this unsettling undercurrent of sexuality to all of these creatures that victimize our characters. Many have read a lot into these elements, but for me, it simply makes for a frightening and completely unique biology. The Alien feels threatening in every way with all of its fanged teeth, exoskeleton design, and ultimately, it’s black as night sheen. This is a creature meant to inhabit the darkness as an animalistic hunter. How Ash describes it as the “perfect organism” has always struck me powerfully selling every single-minded quality about it. It will use you to breed, and then, the others it will kill. It has no other purpose to exist but to destroy. I also love how the film constantly takes you by surprise as we witness the Alien’s life cycle. First, it’s this tiny little creature, but next time we see it, it’s seven feet tall! There’s an added shot in the director’s cut that I always liked when Brett goes looking for Jones the cat, and while he’s cooling himself off with the dripping condensation, there’s a shot of it hanging from the chains above. This is before we know what the Alien now looks like, and so, you wouldn’t pick up on it unless you already knew. Now, it did take a little bit of effort to put Prometheus out of my mind just to experience the originally intended mystique and fascination with the Space Jockey, but I was able to get there. I still enjoy Prometheus, but I wanted to experience Alien in its purest form.
Now, despite this being a serious film of horror and atmosphere, the interactions of these characters portrayed by this excellent cast create some much needed moments of levity. I constantly found what Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton were doing to be immensely pleasing and funny. Parker and Brett are these two jokers who maintain the ship’s functions, and feel quite underappreciated for their hard work who try to leverage that out with some delightful exchanges. Kotto and Stanton have a great chemistry that brings some rich personality into the fold.
Tom Skerritt is very solid as Captain Dallas. He has that sense of authority and responsibility which clearly has him stand out as a leader. Yet, he’s fallible making decisions out of passion instead of adhering to regulations, but also, owning up to those decisions and errors. At the end of it all, he’s just a guy who wants to do his job and get home, but is forced to deal with something beyond his experience that ultimately does terrify him.
Then, we’ve got Sigourney Weaver who was an unknown talent at the time, and that played to an audience’s surprise. This one person that they are unfamiliar with in the cast is actually the heroin of the piece, and Weaver shows her stellar talent every moment she’s on screen. She holds her own opposite everyone very well projecting authority, strength, conviction, and decisiveness as Ellen Ripley. Yet, of course, the absolutely soul shattering terror that Ripley experiences is powerful through Weaver. She is vulnerable, but she can fight through it for her own survival.
This is unlike the constantly panicked Lambert who paralyzes with fear in the face of the alien, but her fear is entirely genuine and real with Veronica Cartwright’s fantastic talents making it something other than a potentially annoying character. Many would find themselves reacting like Lambert does, and it’s a testament to the characters that are able to keep their fear and emotions in check to carry onward.
Ian Holm’s performance is brilliant. It’s one of those things where you pick up on more in repeat viewings after you know the twist of Ash. You see the sinister probing eyes that observe a situation like it’s some lab experiment. Once you know who Ash is and what his purpose happens to be you can see his secret intent, especially during the chestburster scene. This twist is carefully setup throughout the movie in how he repeatedly enables the safe passage of the alien aboard the ship.
The great thing about these characters is that, despite the futuristic setting on a spacecraft, these are relatable people. They seem plucked straight out of our time and lives as rugged, blue collar space truckers. They’re regular people just doing a regular job, but it’s only that they’re towing ore across interstellar space instead of a highway or the like. They have realistic relationships such as Parker and Brett having some friction against the bridge officers because they get paid less even though the ship wouldn’t work without them. These people all have conflicts, friendships, and complicated dynamics between them, and this is further aided by very realistic and honest dialogue. The film surely doesn’t take time to explore the depth of these characters, but it is their behaviors and interactions that inform us of all we need to know about each one of them. That’s really how you write an ensemble movie, much like John Carpenter’s The Thing. You don’t need to get their life stories, you just need fully realized characters portrayed by great, suitable actors. And I would be remised if I didn’t mention John Hurt here. While he has the shortest screentime of anyone here, he puts in a solid performance that has a few moments of levity, but overall, is as authentic and strong as anyone else here.
The late Jerry Goldsmith seemed to regularly have conflicts with the filmmakers he worked with on how his scores should be crafted. Oddly, I find that in these cases, what it is that he’s pushed towards creating is ultimately the better choice for the film overall. Here, we get some great cues with the main theme being the best which exudes an aura of mystery, intrigue, and spookiness. It’s a subtle melody that does a lot to make things feel lightly ominous and dangerous without ever being overt. Simplicity can sometimes do so much in conjunction with how a film is shot and plotted. The music that Goldsmith composed here is exceptionally effective even if how most of it was used went against how he thought it should be.
Usually, when you know a horror film well enough, knowing where the scares are coming and everything, it tends to become less effective. However, upon this theatrical screening, many moments were still startling and scary. I really feel that experiencing Alien in the immersive environment of a movie theatre is the best way to do it. Maybe if you have a large HDTV and a stellar surround sound system, you could achieve that effect, but seeing all of the visual mastery on that large cinema screen was more than I could have imagined. It just gave me the amplified experience I was looking for with this movie, and why I was compelled and excited for this experience. Now that I’ve had that experience, my home viewing experience will be richer and more engaging.
It is undeniable that Alien is an eternal classic, but now, I am able to hold it up to that level of awe and recognition myself. Scott took what was a B-movie horror idea and turned it into an A-grade picture full of masterfully crafted artistry in all aspects with the cast being a glowing example. Ridley Scott is known for taking great care in creating immersive worlds not just on film, but for the actors and crew to live inside of. He locks you into this enclosed maze of a dark spaceship where the Alien could be hiding anywhere, and you feel the claustrophobic tension eating away at you. It can be a haunting, disturbing film for many, and while it has violence and blood, it is strategically used to intense effect. The same can be said about the Alien itself – only seen it shadows, in pieces. Scott only once or twice gives you a full fledged look at it. He keeps it like a startling nightmare – brief glimpses that horrify, much like Jaws. Unlike Jaws though, it wasn’t out of a necessity of the creature not working or being well designed, it was an artistic decision that worked brilliantly. There’s a lot of crap that was spawned from this film with bad sequels, poorly conceived crossovers, and a prequel that has proved divisive for many. Still, I can watch this film as a self-contained entity, and when done so, you can immensely appreciate that Ridley Scott and his vast team of highly talented artists and filmmakers made a stunning and iconic piece of science fiction horror.
The summer of 1989 was one of the biggest with blockbusters like Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters 2, The Abyss, When Harry Met Sally, and Licence To Kill, but none were bigger than Tim Burton’s Batman. This was the summer of DC Comic’s caped crusader. The merchandising was inescapable. I have two posters from this film one with Keaton in the Bat suit and another of the Batmobile with all the vehicle’s specs on it, and I used to have a Batman cap until it got burned up in a small fire. Unfortunately, because of the film’s dark nature and PG-13 rating, my parents did not allow me to see it theatrically. I had to wait until Christmas for the VHS, and I still have that VHS twenty-three years later. Batman is my all time favorite superhero, and I have seen every Batman feature film theatrically from Batman Returns onwards. Unfortunately, ever since the Christopher Nolan films, I’ve found it hard to go back to these earlier movies because they just don’t fully satisfy what I want from Batman, anymore, but that doesn’t mean Tim Burton’s 1989 mega-blockbuster is not a good film. It’s an undeniable classic that stills holds up well nearly a quarter century later.
Gotham City is a grim urban landscape of economic downfall plagued with crime. Heading up the city’s organized crime is the powerful Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), and his “number one” is an egotistical psychotic named Jack Napier who, after falling into a vat of chemicals during a police bust setup by Grissom, is deformed into the maniacal Joker (Jack Nicholson). However, out of the shadows of this hopeless city is a creature of the night, the mythic crime-fighter known as the Batman (Michael Keaton). Secretly, he is millionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne who witnessed his own parents’ murder as a child, and that drove him to strike out into the night in this fearsome persona. The Joker’s reign of terror begins to engulf Gotham as his toxic chemicals, which are hidden in ordinary products, claim innocent lives. Meanwhile, photojournalist Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) teams with newspaper reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) to uncover the mystery that is Batman. However, Vale quickly falls in love with Bruce Wayne, and soon finds herself caught in between the clashing Batman and Joker while Gotham City’s fate and hope remain at stake.
As a lifelong fan of the character, I have seen numerous versions of him from Adam West to Super Friends to Batman: The Animated Series and beyond. It ranges a wide spectrum from colorful and campy to fun and exciting to dark and gritty. What Burton gives us here is a very gothic inspired Dark Knight. His intention was for Bruce Wayne to be a man who presents Batman as a frightening urban myth. Something that truly appears supernatural through the use of theatrics and nightmarish imagery. The Nolan films took a more ninja-like approach whereas Burton truly wraps the character up in horror ideals. He’s not frequently using quick vanishing techniques to be just a vague idea. Instead, he wants his prey to see him prominently in order to be scared out of their minds at the thought of him. He builds up his own myth with the regular street trash while eyeing the organized crime players of Gotham City, and does it with artistic mastery.
There was a lot of uproar over the casting of Michael Keaton in the title role. Physically, I can see what they were all worried about. At 5’9”, Keaton is not physically imposing, and not the athletic specimen you think of as a superhero. However, Burton’s thought was that a guy of Keaton’s build and ability would need to dress up as a terrifying figure to compensate for his physical shortcomings, and I think that works in this film’s approach. Michael Keaton is an awesome actor, and I’d love to see more of him in front of the camera, again. He has a certain manic charisma where you can believe Bruce Wayne is a bit psychologically unbalanced, and could snap at a moment’s notice. He engulfs himself in a dark, brooding aura that could destroy a lesser man, but because he has a purpose he is dedicated to, Bruce Wayne is able to focus that psyche into something positive. As just Bruce Wayne, Keaton has a light-hearted charisma and charm. He has smooth chemistry with Michael Gough’s Alfred and Kim Basinger’s Vicky Vale. Keaton and Basinger might not have the most exciting or interesting relationship of all the Batman movies, but it’s nicely understated and casual. For most of the film, it’s Vicky dealing with Bruce as Bruce. It’s not until late in the film that she has to knowingly deal with his alter ego. As Batman, Keaton is electrifying and powerful. The persona entirely works. You get to see the dichotomy of the man where he does desire a sense of normalcy and happiness, but is driven towards the shadows as Batman. Keaton allows you to feel the character’s somber sense that impacts both sides of his personality. Michael Keaton is amazing.
One thing that I have come to find odd is that the wealthiest man in Gotham City is hardly recognizable by most people. Neither Vicky Vale or Alexander Knox, both professional news people, seem to recognize Bruce Wayne, and the Joker and his henchman Bob barely seem to know his name. The idea almost seems to be that Bruce Wayne is a recluse, but reclusive people don’t often hold large fundraiser parties in their own mansions. This doesn’t seem to be carried over much into the sequel Batman Returns, thankfully.
The Joker has also had numerous interpretations over the decades, and I have found many of them enjoyable. Cesar Romero was always infectiously fun as the exuberant campy character, and Mark Hamill’s voice work as the Joker in the DC Animated Universe has been stunning. What Jack Nicholson gives us is something with shades of something dark and troubling as well as fun and hammy. He makes the Joker a larger than life villain, almost a twisted live action cartoon in a good way. He definitely throws himself fully into the role making him disturbingly funny. He’s truly psychotic, and really electrifies the screen with his vibrant presence. With this version of the character, I couldn’t see anyone else doing a bolder, more charismatic job. Unlike a lot of comic book characters, there’s rarely a wrong interpretation of the Joker as the character is so completely out of his mind that he can easily adopt a new personality depending on his disposition from day-to-day. When Christopher Nolan brought the Joker back to the big screen for The Dark Knight, it was a great iteration that worked phenomenally for the story being told, and the world of his films. For Tim Burton’s movie, Nicholson’s Joker was dead-on perfect.
Kim Basinger portrays Vicky Vale with a wonderful depth of class, but the character has just never done anything for me. Her fascination with the Batman legend helps to drive her part of the story forward, and it is a fine low key romantic relationship between Vale and Wayne. In concept, the two things being intertwined is good, but the script hardly plays with that at all. Later films did a more satisfying job playing up those conflicted dynamics. None of this is a failure of Basinger as she does all she can with the role, and she does it well. I just don’t think the character was given enough substance to be what the script seemed to want her to be.
The supporting cast is entertaining and nicely cast. Robert Wuhl adds a little bit of heart and humor to the picture as the upbeat journalist Alexander Knox. He’s got a nice counter-balance chemistry to Kim Basinger, and allows for a few moments of levity in what’s generally a dark, heavy toned film. Michael Gough, as the butler Alfred, also offers up a sense of family and heart opposite Keaton providing Bruce Wayne a fine confidant. Carl Grissom becomes an excellent heavyweight crime boss in the hands of Jack Palance. You would need someone of Palance’s imposing dramatic ability to rival Nicholson. Now, it would’ve been nice to see more of Billy Dee Williams’ charismatic and charming Harvey Dent beyond this film. The Christopher Walken character in Batman Returns was originally supposed to be Dent, and have the electrocution by Catwoman give birth to Two-Face. I’ll never oppose the inclusion of Christopher Walken into a movie, but there was definite further intent with the Dent character in Burton’s hands that Williams was game to dive into.
On the down side, I’ve never been too pleased with this version of Commissioner Gordon. Making him such an older gentleman with a more uptight sensibility took away the rich relationship Batman and Jim Gordon tend to have in the comics. There is usually a strong sense of respect and close friendship between the two. In this franchise of Batman films, that relationship is never developed, and I think that’s a definite negative mark against these films. We never see how Batman truly earns the trust and respect of the Gotham City police because he hardly ever interacts with them. Jim Gordon has been shown to be a great, rich character to explore, but this franchise just seems to include him because he’s supposed to be there. This is not a hit against Pat Hingle, who does a fine job with the character as written, I just know that it was a wasted opportunity by not developing or truly utilizing the character at all.
Back on the positive side, Batman certainly has a 1930s retro production design while still maintaining a modern sensibility. It gives the film an interesting appeal that avoids visually dating itself. The color palette is nicely toned down so that the Joker’s vibrant outfits truly pop out on screen. The overall artistic design of Batman is rather elegant at times while still integrating industrial aspects. The Bat Cave reflects the very depths of the industrial design making it a totally utilitarian environment for Batman to work in. It’s all just a striking achievement. Building off of that artistry is how Burton creates dramatic introductions for the film’s iconography. Batman enters the film with that powerful mythic and frightening style ambushing those muggers on the rooftop. The Joker theatrically reveals himself just before gunning down his boss. Even the Batmobile has an awesome reveal during the escape from the museum. This is what gives the film such an iconic status. Incredible moments are peppered throughout the movie to burn them deeply into an audience’s psyche. There are quotable lines all throughout the film which further strengthened its place in pop culture.
I really love the mystique the film builds around Batman. Tim Burton creates a sense of Batman being more than just a man in a suit capable of extraordinary things. He maintains a shadowy air of mystery around him so that others can still perceive him as an unkillable supernatural being. The leather and rubber suit gives a more black fleshy appearance to him, and the Batmobile is an imposing, fierce vehicle with a lot of muscle. It looks absolutely awesome barreling down a darkened road. It’s all carefully crafted to enhance the persona. Batman never gives away enough of his personality and methods for anyone to really figure him out. He is truly enigmatic.
The way the film is shot, with a lot of noir style lighting, strongly emphasizes that mystique. It definitely looks like a Tim Burton film with its dark visual aesthetic, and it is beautifully done. He worked with an excellent cinematographer in Roger Pratt who has also worked with the also off-beat Terry Gilliam on a few occasions. So, you know this is a director of photography who knows how to realize a unique vision with amazing results. I like the occasional Dutch angled shots to give the film a little bit of that comic book composition here and there. The look of this film really sparked off a whole dark, gothic visual style for the next several years, and was probably best and most beautifully showcased in The Crow. Batman itself has its own beauty and striking cinematic qualities thanks to Burton’s vision and Pratt’s artistry.
This film is filled with some great action sequences, and are all exceptionally well executed. While the intent is that Bruce Wayne does not have amazing athletic ability, Batman is still shown to have sharp prowess in hand-to-hand combat. He dispatches with thugs quite quickly and easily. He throws kicks and punches with a nice dash of martial arts talent, but keeps it straight and to the point. He’s very capable of holding his own opposite all styles of opponents with both physical capability and intellect. The more explosive scenes are excellently paced and give the film more bombast. It livens up the movie exactly when it needs a strong shot of adrenalin. The climax is very well done with Batman fighting through a couple of henchmen working his way to confronting the Joker. Although, I can’t say that making Jack Napier / the Joker the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents was particularly necessary. Yes, it does add a more personal, passionate purpose to Batman’s fight with him, but it’s only a minor part of the climax. Batman and the Joker have been passionately battling one another perfectly well in comics for decades without the aid of this element. It doesn’t bother me all that much now that Christopher Nolan has given us a more faithful adaptation of that event, but it’s not something that the filmmakers needed to do here.
Of course, one has to praise Danny Elfman’s iconic score. The theme he composed for Batman ranks right up there with John Williams’ Superman theme. Elfman’s work here is operatic with a gothic feel, and I’ve even heard it said that it’s very evocative of Christopher Young’s score for Hellbound: Hellraiser II. I surely cannot deny the similarities in the musical styles with the big, grand swells with the ominous, dark overtones, but I will never take away what Elfman achieved with Batman. I will also never downgrade the work of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard on the Nolan films, but Elfman’s theme is near impossible to overshadow. And yes, I am a fan of Prince. He does some fine work here composing numerous original songs for the film that suit the tone overall. They give the film some vibrancy in a few of the Joker’s most outlandish scenes, and help enhance some of the darker toned scenes as well. It’s definitely not Prince’s best work, but it is quite notable amongst his body of work to have done this soundtrack. Of course, even some of Prince’s lesser work is exceedingly better than some artists’ very best.
The story is very straight forward for a superhero film, but it does seem to lean more heavily on the Joker than Batman. You get to see a full character arc for Jack Napier as he goes from this dangerous gangster to a fully psychotic deformed madman with an objectionable conclusion. I generally don’t like killing off a villain at the end of the movie. They’ve existed in comics for decades with countless stories told about them, and then, a filmmaker essentially says that they’re only good for one story in movies. So, they dispose of them promptly at the end. For one, it goes against Batman’s ideals to outright kill someone. He stands for justice, and wishes to bring hope and balance back to his city. If he starts killing them, he ultimately becomes no better than those he is trying to combat. This became an ill trend in superhero movies, and I think it’s generally a bad idea in most cases. I don’t mind it in a Punisher movie, or even the Blade movies. It suits those characters to off their villains by the end, but not for Batman. Of course, over time, I have mellowed towards Tim Burton’s Batman movies, and while I still don’t think it was a good idea what was done to the Joker, it doesn’t greatly annoy me. Part of Jack Nicholson’s deal to star in the film was to get top billing, and it’s almost appropriate since the Joker is the one with far more back story and development put into him. Batman is just Batman throughout the movie, and really doesn’t go through much of an arc at all. The character remains fascinating and captivating, but he’s essentially the same guy at the end of the film that he was at the start. It’s only peoples’ perceptions of Batman that change, not the character himself. So, I would have to levy some criticism upon that aspect of the film. It’s a Batman film that’s not really all that much about Batman.
The visual effects can come off as dated. This was still in the optical composition, matte painting, and rear screen projection days. I have a fondness for some of those days, but regardless, these effects don’t have a fine polish to them to make them all that seamless or timeless. They do entirely fit Tim Burton’s filmmaking style of the time, and they serve the film’s visual aesthetics greatly. Still, anyone that’s first seeing this in the twenty-first century would likely not take to them too well. Thankfully, this is not a visual effects heavy film, and with these elements mostly being integrated into the final act of the movie, it can allow a modern audience member to comfortably adjust to this film’s style by then. For the late 1980s, these were still rather high quality opticals that gave Batman some admirable production quality on top of the marvelously designed sets.
Again, this movie was a phenomenon back in 1989. Everywhere you looked, there was that Bat symbol. Hell, you can see it in Times Square in Friday The 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan and the music video for The Cult’s “Edie (Ciao Baby).” You couldn’t avoid it if you wanted to, and in 1989, I’m sure this lived up to the hype and exceeded expectations. In retrospect, it is still a very good movie, and a greatly admirable true theatrical debut for Batman. It creates an engrossing mystique for the character in a dark, gothic industrial world where he blends in beautifully. There are amazing performances throughout the cast, but there are a few creative decisions that the film could’ve easily done without. And while Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger have nice chemistry, the Bruce Wayne / Vicky Vale relationship wasn’t all that stimulating or interesting. Personally, I do prefer Batman Returns over Batman. It has some stronger plotlines and better character dynamics to make a more entertaining and exciting movie, in my view. Regardless, Tim Burton’s 1989 film will always stand as a bonafide, respected classic which cemented Batman in our modern popular culture.