11/15/06 Special Edition --
11/14 Official Weekly Column

Andy Reviews The Long-Awaited RICHARD DONNER CUT

What does one say when you've waited a good portion of your life to see a legendary unreleased film -- only to be disappointed with the result?

A few years ago Universal rectified one of their studio’s wrongs by restoring director Ridley Scott’s original version of his 1985 fantasy “Legend.” While the “new” film was still far from perfect, most viewers agreed that Scott’s movie functioned far more effectively in its intended form, with Jerry Goldsmith’s glorious music complimenting the spectacular visual trappings of the film better than the U.S.-edited version with Tangerine Dream’s new age rock soundtrack.

“Superman II,” meanwhile, offered a different predicament than merely restoring a completed, albeit unreleased, film: director Richard Donner finished “Superman: The Movie” and shot a substantial amount of footage for its sequel...but was fired before his version was completed.

In a move that fans continue to debate and argue over, Richard Lester took the reigns of the follow up and his “Superman II” became a huge smash worldwide in 1981 -- meeting with near-unanimous critical approval (Roger Ebert compared it with “The Godfather: Part II” as one of the few follow-ups to improve on its predecessor) and big box-office grosses.

As the years have progressed, however, Donner’s firing has become something of a rallying cry among fans -- especially on the internet, where websites and message boards have inquired for years about seeing Donner’s version of “Superman II” released.

It didn’t matter that Donner never completed his film -- making a true “Donner Cut” virtually impossible to construct in the first place -- or that Lester’s movie was excellent to begin with: certain fans, over time, have come to associate anything positive about the “Superman” franchise with Donner, and anything remotely negative with Lester.

However, those fans may have to rethink their positions now that Warner and editor Michael Thau have diligently performed as major a restoration as one could hope for with SUPERMAN II: THE RICHARD DONNER CUT (116 mins., PG), which will finally be released on November 28th from Warner on DVD, HD-DVD and Blu Ray discs.

Though a fascinating curiosity for any Superman fan, this strange compilation of Donner footage (from his incomplete version), Lester fragments (from the theatrical cut), outtakes, screen tests, new special effects, and tracked music from John Williams’ original “Superman” score proves to be anything but a satisfying viewing experience when taken on its own terms.

Since a good amount of the released “Superman II” originated from Donner’s footage in the first place (any scene with Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, for example, was shot by Donner), it may be surprising to some that this shorter version isn’t all that different from the Lester theatrical cut, and is noteworthy for what it doesn’t include so much as what it does.

In addition to more Gene Hackman (in sequences that were included in ABC’s TV broadcasts of the film during the 1980s), Donner’s version offers a totally different opening scene. Gone is the entire Eiffel Tower sequence, and in its place is an outtake wherein Lois tries to expose Clark as Superman by jumping out the window of the Daily Planet. It’s a cute sequence, but it doesn’t work as effectively as Lester’s version where Lois attempts -- at Niagara Falls -- to prove that Kent is the Man of Steel by throwing herself into the chilly depths. After seeing the two versions, the Donner sequence just seems a bit more outlandish.

More surprising, though, is that the “Donner Cut” lacks the heart and soul of the theatrical “Superman II.” Some viewers have forgotten entirely that the finished “Superman II” offers a satisfying and moving love story between Lois and Clark, where Lois’ discovery of Clark’s hidden identity plays with a generous amount of poignancy and tenderness.

Here, all that remains of the Donner/Tom Mankiewicz version of that sequence is screen test footage of Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in their roles, set against a bare-bones backdrop -- and through no fault of their own, their early, “preliminary” performances fail totally to match the drama and emotion of the Lester-filmed version. The way in which the sequence is also presented here -- with a quick cut to the Phantom Zone villains’ arrival in Texas, with no fall out from that pivotal moment -- further amplifies the problem: there’s no genuine emotion instilled in the viewer because what you’re watching is rough, incomplete, and compromised. For that reason alone, it’s virtually impossible to take “The Donner Cut” seriously from a dramatic standpoint (I also found Lois a lot more manic and cartoonish in this version as well, jumping out the window of the Daily Planet and pulling a gun on Clark in what borders on a psychotic obsession with proving he’s Superman! Though it’s clear Donner wanted this to be more playful than what Lester shot, it’s also sillier and less dramatic).

Since footage was used from a variety of sources, it’s understandable that there’s no cohesion in the presentation -- something likewise amplified by the tracked music cues from John Williams’ original “Superman: The Movie” score. Say what you will about Ken Thorne’s “Superman II” soundtrack with its reduced orchestra and diminished arrangements, at least Thorne’s music fit the sequences it was intended to accompany. Here, we get the same repetitive motifs used over and over, further removing the viewer from the film’s universe and making one aware that “The Donner Cut” is essentially an expensive attempt at mixing outtakes with elements from exterior sources.

Where “The Donner Cut” does prove fascinating is in its “new” Marlon Brando sequences.

Brando had appeared as Superman’s father, Jor-El, in the original “Superman” but a contractual split meant that Richard Lester had to re-shoot his “Superman II” scenes, substituting Susannah York (as Kal-El’s mother) for Brando.

Brando’s sequences have never been seen before and are here restored to the movie for the first time. However, with one exception (the pivotal moment where a now-human Clark regains his powers), the sequences are leaden and, surprisingly, inferior to Christopher Reeve’s scenes with York in the completed “Superman II”!

If you’ve seen the “Director’s Cut” of “Superman: The Movie,” you might recall that the added scene with Reeve and Brando in the Fortress of Solitude was awkwardly staged, with the two stars not generating a whole lot of chemistry together. If there was a minor problem with Donner’s original “Superman,” it’s that the film felt like several different movies rolled together, with different styles and, indeed, performances: Brando’s pontificating felt like something you’d find in a 1950s Hollywood costume epic, whereas Reeve’s more natural, “human” performance provided a stark contrast and grounded the movie in a reality that made his interpretation of the Man of Steel so warm and appealing.

Their interaction here also just seems a bit “off,” and since York’s suggestions about love and human interaction seem more appropriate coming from her than the comparatively stone-faced Jor-El, I found myself missing those moments in “The Donner Cut.”

Another major issue is the film’s ending, which offers the same resolution as “Superman: The Movie” (the “turn back the Earth” finale) but retains the comical coda where Clark returns to the diner to beat up the obnoxious trucker...which now makes no sense at all since that original confrontation never occurred in the first place!

Warner’s DVD includes a featurette on the restoration of the film, highlighting the work of editor Michael Thau, who also included alternate takes and shots when possible, adding to the fun of watching the added footage for die-hard Superman fans. The duo of Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz also contribute a commentary track, but their insistence that this version is a lot more “heartfelt” than Lester’s cut ring hollow here. Deleted scenes are also offered, all of which were contained in the ABC broadcast of “Superman II” (and mainly involve Lex Luthor) with the exception of an alternate “prison break” sequence where Miss Tessmacher uses her charms to take the warden out on a date!

Visually the 16:9 transfer varies depending on the elements being utilized, but it’s as solid as one could anticipate, while the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is likewise satisfying given the nature of the source materials. Curiously, while a disclaimer runs prior to the movie about the elements (screen tests, rough footage, etc.) used to complete "The Donner Cut," there's no mention of this anywhere on the packaging -- something that may mislead viewers, unaware of the project's history, who will be expecting a completed, polished feature.

Editor Michael Thau is to be congratulated for doing all he could with “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut,” but while the film will be forever viewed as a fascinating curio, it simply does not function dramatically at all. Perhaps after all these years, its arrival may make some fans reconsider Richard Lester’s involvement in the franchise and appreciate his “Superman II” for being the high-flying, and most satisfying, Superman sequel that it is.

NEXT TIME: An HD-DVD Extravaganza with reviews of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III, THE THING, ARMY OF DARKNESS, plus the Xbox 360 HD-DVD Add On! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to the link above . Cheers!

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