“I’m an insect who dreamed he was a man…and loved it!” David Cronenberg’s biggest hit assembles all his themes in one big, handsome, mainstream package (or as mainstream as he ever gets). He continues his excellent work with actors, extracting the performance of Jeff Goldblum’s career; there’s none of Jeff’s later gum-chewing, iMac-hawking smugness in this hyperverbal turn as Seth Brundle, a scientist whose experiment with telepods accidentally fuses his genetic structure with that of a fly. Seth maintains a lively scientific interest in his own grotesque transformation, while his lover, science reporter Geena Davis, looks on helplessly. At its best, the movie comes close to the power of classic tragedy — the moods are exaltation, dread, disgust, grief. Some have taken it for an allegory about AIDS or cancer, but Cronenberg means it to be less ripped-from-the-headlines and more timeless: a meditation on anything that changes us physically, and the corresponding mental changes. Mel Brooks, who also took another idiosyncratic Dave under his wing with The Elephant Man, produced this big-budget remake under his Brooksfilms label and encouraged Cronenberg not to hold back. (I wish Mel would produce more films.) The FX by Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis won an Oscar. Walas directed the lame 1989 sequel, notable in my mind only for that unexpectedly tearjerking scene where Eric Stoltz’s dog gets turned inside out.
Archive for August 1986
First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Howard the Duck, in its peak years from 1975-1978, was the best newsstand Big Two comic book of the ’70s (the Big Two being Marvel and DC). To read this deconstruction of superhero clichés at an impressionable age was to have your eyes peeled to the falsehood of socially defined “heroism” forever. As scripted by Marvel madman Steve Gerber, Howard was a satirical vehicle with which to puncture the excesses of an excessive era. That he was a talking duck in a comic book made him that much more subversive; the best satire doesn’t always come shrink-wrapped and labelled “Serious Satire for Adult Intellectuals” — sometimes it comes in an innocuous, even ludicrous guise, and then sucker-punches you. Gerber used Howard as his Gulliver, his indictment of the madness of the ’70s and the emptiness of his own profession.
One of the comic’s best bits was its take-off of Star Wars, so it was ironic that George Lucas produced 1986′s $35 million Howard the Duck movie, which has the dubious distinction of being the worst movie of a particularly bad decade for movies (adapted from the best comic of a particularly good decade for comics). Whatever made George think that Howard the Duck could have worked as a live-action film remains a mystery. Seven actors in plastic-looking duck suits expend a lot of energy failing to achieve the suspension of disbelief that an animated feature (Ralph Bakshi would’ve been ideal) could have managed easily.
The movie’s plot departs from the comic in so many ways that I won’t even bother to enumerate them; none of the changes are improvements. It begins with Howard on his own world, where talking ducks are the norm. His apartment is festooned with movie posters and magazines (Rolling Egg, Breeders of the Lost Stork) that are meant to be funny alternate-universe puns but are just lame. He is whisked away to Earth, lands in an alley, and is attacked by a gang of dated-looking punkers who drag him into a club. Though he’s helpless in this scene, he somehow is able to use “quak-fu” one scene later when defending a woman from two punks.
That woman is Lea Thompson (with huge crimped hair) as Beverly Switzler, lead singer for an all-female band called Cherry Bomb, who play generic mid-’80s pop in what looks like a New Wave punk dive circa 1981. Thompson is one of two actors in the movie who actually come off well. She looks like the Bev of the comics (who was not a pop singer) and sounds like I imagine Bev sounding; she also does her own singing and isn’t half bad. Even when she has to wear a skimpy shirt and panties and mock-seduce a plastic duck head, she gives it as much conviction as she can muster. She’s such a lightweight comedian anyway that she escapes this mess without being tarnished; you can imagine her laughing it off.
Bev takes Howard to see her friend Phil, who works as a janitor in a laboratory and is played by Tim Robbins in his goofy Hudsucker Proxy mode. The movie got several genuine good laughs out of me (as opposed to bad laughs at the film’s expense), and Robbins can take credit for them all. His parodic performance is closer in spirit to Gerber’s wigged-out characters than anything else in the movie. Robbins’ presence also started me off on a mental tangent in which I envisioned Howard the Duck becoming a campy bad audience-participation movie the way his s.o. Susan Sarandon’s Rocky Horror did. Maybe to lighten up while making Dead Man Walking, they got stoned and watched Rocky Horror and Howard together.
But for the most part, this is an unspeakably bad film. I can’t decide whether Lucas intended to outdo E.T. or to parody it (there’s some manufactured poignance when Howard wants to go back to his world and Bev gets teary-eyed). Lucas’ cronies, the husband-and-wife team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (who wrote American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), wrote the script together; Huyck directed it and Katz produced it. Obviously they read the original comics, because some of the dialogue is either directly quoted from the books or a dumbed-down variation. (When Howard is served fried eggs, he recoils and says “Do I look like a cannibal?” In the comic, he says “Do I give the impression that I’m into infanticide?” Big difference.) But they just as obviously missed the comic’s satirical flavor, opting for cheap puns, sophomoric touches like Bev finding a condom in Howard’s wallet (a detail reportedly cut from the British print), and the kind of empty pop fantasy that Gerber skewered.
The last third of Howard the Duck is an orgy of ILM effects, some of them halfway decent (Phil Tippett designed a fairly cool monster for the climax), some as cheesy as the duck suits. Jeffrey Jones (the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) turns up as a scientist who is possessed by a “Dark Overlord” after a botched experiment with a laser that was responsible for bringing Howard to Earth in the first place …. As you can see, the script gets sidetracked into routine pulp “thrills,” the effects take over, and the whole embarrassment ends with Howard joining Bev onstage for a rousing rendition of the movie’s title song — one of several cringe-worthy tunes written for the film by Thomas Dolby, of all people. Perhaps a Dark Overlord possessed him.