Holy breastplates, boys and girls! Are those nipples on the Batsuits?
Tim Burton resurrected the "Batman" movie franchise in 1989 after the corny TV series and movie of the 1960s had just about done it in. Burton had gone to the graphic novels of the Dark Knight, instilling his "Batman" films with an edgy, noirish tone that made fans happy and turned non-fans into believers. But then the three sequels that followed got progressively more campy, culminating in director Joel Schumacher's 1997 release "Batman & Robin," which effectively derailed the "Batman" express for the next eight years. In 2005 Christopher Nolan would have to go back to square one and start all over again to repair the damage.
What had started out with Burton as an attempt to inject some realism into the "Batman" project turned into a Las Vegas stage show with Schumacher. This was a shame and probably not entirely Schumacher's fault, as he had already done and would continue to do far better things, like "Falling Down," "A Time to Kill," "The Client," and "Phone Booth." But things started to go south with his directing of "Batman Forever," and they reached rock bottom with "Batman & Robin."
Here's the thing: "Batman & Robin" has practically no story to it, just a succession of gaudy set pieces, most of them unrelated to anything coming before or after them, that generate about as much intensity as a circus sideshow. The movie plays at best like a carnival fun ride but without the thrills. It's just bright flashing lights covering a glut of glitzy scenery, props, costumes, and special effects. The movie begins to sink under its own weight during the opening titles and never recovers.
George Clooney takes over from Val Kilmer and Michael Keaton as the new Batman, but top billing goes to Arnold Schwarzenegger as the villainous Mr. Freeze. Neither Clooney nor Schwarzenegger make the slightest impression. Clooney, who can be so charming on screen, is oddly nondescript, so laid back he nearly falls off the screen. He looks good, to be sure, but he's dreadfully miscast as a superhero. Think of asking a happy-go-lucky Cary Grant to play the part. Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, overplays his role at every turn, hamming it up unconscionably. To be fair, the director undoubtedly told all the performers to play their parts as broadly as possible. Schumacher admits on the audio commentary that he was going for a purely comic-book effect, with comic-book characters, comic-book colors, comic-book camera angles, and comic-book dialogue. He was obviously emphasizing the word "comic" in all this, although the result is more like theater of the absurd.
The plot is too preposterous to describe, and it develops not even the minutest shred of credibility. A scientist, Dr. Victor Fries, alias Mr. Freeze, finds himself beset by a tragic accident that renders him unable to endure heat, so he must maintain his body temperature at zero degrees Fahrenheit at all times. Meanwhile he keeps his dying wife in a cylinder of liquid while he tries to revive her through a procedure requiring a load of diamonds (don't ask), which he must steal. He accomplishes the thefts by freezing people into blocks of ice with a special flash-freeze gun. Simultaneously, another scientist, Dr. Pamela Isley (Uma Thurman), has a dreadful accident of her own that turns her from a nerdy research assistant into a sexy snake with the voice of a Mae West; she calls her new self Poison Ivy, and her lips are venomous. Her deal is wanting to destroy all animal life on the planet and start everything over. Needless to say, she and Freeze team up as a sort of Adam and Evil.
Batman is assisted by his young friend Dick Grayson (Chris O'Donnell), alias Robin (Batman and Dick must have never sounded too good). O'Donnell is one of the very few actors in the movie who seems to fit his role and acts accordingly. Barbara Wilson (Alicia Silverstone), alias Batgirl, shows up as Alfred the butler's niece, a spirited young lady about Robin's age with a penchant for adventure. Unfortunately, Ms. Silverstone appears completely lost in the part, totally mystified by the whole movie. The solitary actor who is able to overcome the odds is Michael Gough, reprising his role as Alfred Pennyworth, a mainstay as always and the only person to bring a touch of humanity to the proceedings.
"Batman & Robin" is so lightweight it's in danger of floating off the screen, yet there's no fun or excitement anywhere in it. It's all spectacle and no heart, with an overreliance not only on visual effects but on silly one-liners: "That's why Superman works alone," "The iceman cometh," "It's a hockey team from hell." Moreover, not even the special effects are convincing, most of the sets looking as phony as the plastic icicles we see hanging from the rafters. Every scene looks as though it was filmed inside a cheap amusement park. The only shots I found at all intriguing were the matte paintings of Gotham City and a few of its buildings and roadways. That accounts for about a minute and a half of the movie's two-hour running time.
Unlike Burton's "Batman" or Nolan's "Batman Begins," the viewer cannot take anything in "Batman & Robin" seriously. However, there is nothing funny or entertaining about the movie, either. Schumacher's intention appears to have been to make something so awful, so corny, so campy, so preposterously bad that audiences would simply laugh at it. Sorry; it doesn't work. Bad is bad.
In some ways the "Batman & Robin" video quality is near perfect; and in other ways, probably inherent to the original print, it is far from ideal. Since I doubt that anyone who is actually amused by this film will care too much about the video, it may not matter.
Like the other "Batman" films, the screen size measures a ratio of 1.85:1, enough to fill a widescreen TV. The transfer is anamorphic, enhanced for 16x9 televisions, and reproduced at a high bit rate. When it's good, the picture is brilliant; when it's not, who cares. Considering the movie's overall darkness of tone and extravagance of colors, things turn out pretty well most of the time, with definition fairly sharp. Still, there's a washed-out look to many of the action scenes, which seem purposely shrouded in a thin layer of fog or smoke, and detailing in the darkest areas of the screen is murky at best. Fortunately, there are few or no instances of excessive grain, haloing, pixilation, color saturation, or any other artifact that shouldn't be there.
You'll find the audio in English available via Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. In DD 5.1 it's big and loud, very loud, ear-splittingly loud, even when you turn it down. There are good directional effects, with the sounds of thunder, motorcycles, running water, and freezing ice coming from all sides of the listening area; and bass and dynamics are powerful when needed. Still, the soundtrack is unrelenting in its ceaseless attack on our eardrums, and much of what we receive in the way of aural information appears unnecessary. Furthermore, on the audio commentary, director Schumacher praises the film's music, but I found most of it merely noisy and redundant without being in the least bit memorable or uplifting.
Disc one contains the usual items: the feature presentation; English and French spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; an ample forty-two scene selections, but no chapter insert; and a widescreen theatrical trailer. In addition, there's the compulsory director's commentary, with Mr. Schumacher sounding about as enthusiastic toward the affair as I would be. I found most of his remarks confined to the "I remember this scene being very difficult to shoot" variety, but at least he has the good sense to concede that "Batman & Robin" was meant as pure comic-book escapism. Interestingly, Schumacher's voice belies his mid-sixties' age, and thankfully he keeps still when he has nothing worth saying.
Although most of the bonus materials you'll find on disc two are of the typically promotional kind, I did rather like "Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight, Part 6: Batman Unbound." It's a twenty-seven-minute, behind-the-scenes documentary in which the actors and filmmakers are more candid than one usually finds in these things. For instance, Chris O'Donnell tells us that working on "Batman & Robin" was like "making a toy commercial." Apparently, studio brass wanted a movie that would sell toy action figures more than they wanted anything else. You'll also find out as much here as you ever wanted to know about nipples and codpieces.
Following the main documentary are brief segments on "Batman: The Heroes," including two or three minutes each on Batman, Robin, and Batgirl; and "Batman: The Villains," two or three minutes each on Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, and Bane (Ivy's goon). Then, there is a gallery of featurettes called "Beyond Batman," whose titles are self-explanatory: "Bigger, Bolder, Brighter: The Production Design of Batman & Robin," ten minutes; "Maximum Overdrive: The Vehicles of Batman & Robin," ten minutes; "Dressed to Thrill: The Costumes of Batman & Robin," twelve minutes; "Frozen Freaks and Femme Fatales: The Makeup of Batman & Robin," nine minutes; and "Freeze Frame: The Visual Effects of Batman & Robin," nine minutes. These sections are not quite so frank as the main documentary, though; for example, director Schumacher says, "Overall, I thought every set was perfect for the film." OK, maybe he was being sarcastic, I don't know.
Lastly, we have an additional scene, "Alfred's Lost Love," that lasts less than a minute, and four music videos: "The End Is the Beginning Is the End" by the Smashing Pumpkins, five minutes; "Foolish Games" by Jewel, four minutes; "Gotham City" by R. Kelly, five minutes; and "Look into My Eyes" by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, five minutes.
I can't imagine how much worse the "Batman" motion-picture series could have gotten if Christopher Nolan hadn't stepped in and decided to out-noir Burton. I found almost all of "Batman & Robin," with the minor exception of Alfred, a waste of time and talent.