Were people actually clamoring for a big screen adaptation of a soapy daytime horror melodrama from the fifties that only hardcore horror fans know? Did we really have to have a big screen adaptation of a Gothic soap opera? It’s no wonder director Tim Burton approaches the adaptation of “Dark Shadows” with a tongue in cheek often derisive attitude. The show is obscure among the broader audiences, and even when he fine tunes the film with goofy humor and testicle jokes, it’s still so niche that not even hardcore Burton apologists will enjoy what he has to offer. Like most recent Burton productions, “Dark Shadow” is gaudy, busy, and feels like Burton going through the motions without an inch of heart injected in to the narrative.
Watching this almost twenty years ago, and again a few days ago, I am still left pondering: Who exactly did this movie appeal to? What was the niche audience? Director Tim Burton bases an entire science fiction film on specialty trading cards from the sixties, he creates a meta-alien invasion movie that throws comedy and menace at every turn, and then piles every moment of the film on with big celebrities and actors. Who exactly did this movie appeal to, but Burton?
Richard Zanuck is a man who spent most of his life living under the shadow of his father Darryl F. Zanuck, and what is most peculiar and quite riveting about Richard Zanuck’s story is that rather than trying to step out of his dad’s shadow, he embraced his father’s status and used it to his advantage. Often times we hear of someone chastising their own status as a wealthy successor, but Richard Zanuck used this fact as a means of bettering himself, and carving his own niche in the Hollywood business.
Subtlety has never been one of Tim Burton’s strong suits as a filmmaker. As a storyteller and overall director, Burton’s films rely on imagery and over enthusiastic narratives to do what he can’t as a craftsman. Oddly enough Burton is assigned to direct a remake of one of the most thematically subtle films of all time. “Planet of the Apes” is one of the most relevant commentaries on humanity and politics that has ever been brought to the big screen, and Burton never really grasps that aspect.
In the first “Batman,” the dark knight is described and thought of as something of an urban legend. He hides in the shadows, is mistaken for something of a myth, and only arrives to instill justice when the police are outnumbered. In “Batman Returns” Batman is basically the police. You assume for a massive political event in the first twenty minutes of the film, there’d be barricades and strong police force, but Penguin is able to pretty much wreak havoc with the Red Triangle gang, while the streets are left in tatters with no police around. Only does the order get restored when Batman arrives and Commissioner Gordon is left to thank Batman for saving the day while the police are seemingly sitting with their thumbs up their collective butts.
After all these years, it’s safe to say that Tim Burton’s entrance in to the pantheon of Batman films is an admirable effort, but one that doesn’t really master the lore or the character. “Batman” is a very fine film. It’s watchable and occasionally entertaining, but there just isn’t too much fodder for the more conscious batman fan in the end. Burton does strive to set up parallels and subtext, but much of it is sadly never touched upon or explored. The psyche of Bruce Wayne is a corner of the Batverse that is never given a spotlight in “Batman,” and while Burton does enter in to corners of his life, there’s not a lot of warmth or interest in what makes him tick. He has a gallery of various armored bodies from around the world, but there isn’t a lot of reason as to why.
How did the armor influence him? Did they influence him? There’s never an indication as to why Bruce is tortured, if he is tortured, and Bruce’s life is depicted by Burton as often very cold and closed off from the world. Rather than the Joker, Bruce becomes the target of inadvertent comedy while Joker’s journey is more menacing and complex. There’s an odd scene of Bruce hanging upside down while sleeping for no particular reason, and in one instance Bruce’s date with Vicky Vale begins with the two sharing a dinner of soup far apart on a dinner table so long they can barely converse with one another. Bruce is of course oblivious to her desire to talk on what is obviously a date. Burton doesn’t often seem very empathic toward Bruce’s life and misses chances to provide insight in to what he’s all about and what makes him function as Batman.
In the prologue there’s a fascinating parallel to Bruce’s fate where we meet two parents and their son trying to catch a cab in Gotham to no avail. Anxious to find transportation they enter in to an alleyway where they’re held at gunpoint by thugs who almost kill the parents. It’s never pointed out how this comes close to Bruce’s own fate, and the poetry of the situation is avoided. Sadly, even with his masterful comedy chops, Michael Keaton can’t keep up with Jack Nicholson for most of the film, and Burton is aware of that, handing the film over to Nicholson for a good portion of the film. Surprisingly, Bruce and the Joker rarely share screen time with one another, so their war for Gotham feels detached and impersonal at times.
The journey of both characters feel like two very different films. The Joker is more centered on revenge while Bruce is more prone to trying to find his place in the world. The Joker views Batman as insignificant and holds no real concern for him, while Bruce doesn’t seem to understand how menacing Joker is until the climax in the city with the giant float. Only in the very final scenes do Batman and Joker duke it out and even then it’s very brief and abrupt. It’s a shame since Keaton is a very powerful actor in his own right while Nicholson can play well off of anyone. In spite of the film’s inherent flaws, “Batman” is still a rather entertaining fantasy action film with Michael Keaton doing quite well in the chair of Bruce Wayne.
His performance is restrained and layered, and Keaton is able to make due with what Burton gives to him. Nicholson has a blast in the role of the Joker and he really does manage to give the character a horrific personality paired with his trademark demented sense of humor. Burton provides a beautiful Gotham that seems boundless in its darkness and skyscrapers. It often feels like a limitless dimension rather than a city, and Burton excels at set pieces and moody locales. “Batman” is an interesting start in to a complicated and varied franchise. Ultimately, “Batman” is not a perfect film as it tends to rely on delivering two separate narratives involving Batman and the Joker rather than connecting them and intertwining their universes as much as possible. While one is a force of justice, and the other is a force for evil, they never quite affect each other’s world until the final moments of the film. While Keaton and Nicholson are dazzling in their roles, Burton never quite finds much to explore with Bruce Wayne, and that’s wasted potential.
What Disney studios have done is completely remade their take of “Alice in Wonderland” except they’ve given director Tim Burton carte blanche to completely re-think the lore and Burtonize it to the fullest extent. These days though, Burtonize is akin to doing basically nothing to completely re-work a formula. “Alice in Wonderland” is Tim Burton basically just riding on his name recognition even more by offering up a re-telling of “Alice in Wonderland” except now with a darker tone, surreal imagery, the usual suspects in terms of supporting characters, and a cliché story about a person destined to save a land and become a warrior who will save them from evil.
“My friend, can your heart stand the shocking facts of grave robbers from outer space?”
In some plane, I can see why Ed Wood would turn to Criswell for advice on the future. The man is so insane and incoherent and yet so stern in his predictions that he’d naturally be deemed something of a deity or messiah to someone as nutty and eccentric as Edward D. Wood Jr. In fact if I could meet someone alive or dead, I think I’d love to sit down with Criswell and pick his brain while munching on some acid, because I think my head is doomed to explode from the utter inanity and absurd circular logic this man will inevitably spew for hours on end if given the opportunity.
For many, the most infamous and most attractive aspect of “Plan Nine” is Criswell, an element of a science fiction movie so unnecessary it’s astounding to sit and watch. Criswell serves no purpose to the overall narrative of “Plan Nine” beyond narration, and even then there’s really no need to explain everything before our eyes.