Bright Lights Film Journal

Future-Pissed: THE VISITOR (1979), AKIRA (1988), TANK GIRL (1995)

Another year has begun its weary decent into memory, and with it any hopes of apocalypse we were promised by the Mayan Illuminati for last year’s magical date of 12-21-12. But we have apocalyptic movies recently on blu-ray or cinema to discuss, and that should be enough.

Recently released by the amazing Shout Factory, the 1995 Australian comic strip adaptation opus Tank Girl stars a cackling and cooing and ball-busting Lori Petty, riding high off the success of Point Break and looking to get silly, stars as the titular girl, and she pulls it off, and the film delivers enough gonzo Marx Brothers-ish weirdness for a dozen ordinary post-apocalyptic women’s film action comedies. The world’s down to a single corporation led by a vamping Malcolm McDowell and roving bands of outlaws. Petty is of course part of the latter, though she does get a job offer from McDowell at one point, which makes no sense as she’s terribly unreliable, getting all her friends killed because she’s too busy stripping and goofing around at her look-out post. Acting all Groucho-Bugs Bunny-esque during the apocalypse is only funny if it doesn’t result in children being shot, Petty! When she and Naomi Watts (as Jet Girl) rescue a little girl from a brothel they pause on their way out the door for an impromptu musical number, giving the evil thugs time to find them, open fire and cause many needless deaths. Imagine Duck Soup if we saw Margaret Dumont cut in half by enemy bullets while Groucho made wisecracks, or all the children of Fredonia being gassed with Cyanide as Harpo and Chico goof off instead of rescuing them. Weird, right? Take this seriously, girls!

The film also cheats its way out of shots it perhaps couldn’t afford through the incessant use of intercut comic strip panels, ever contrasting a traditional linear adventure yarn with this bizarre burlesque of militarism. Petty’s tank for example is just so caked in flair even the manager at Tchotchkes would be like whoa, cool it baby. And there’s so much time spent playing dress-up while Rome burns that you long for a single straight scene, i.e. Tank Girl can’t ever just roar into battle like the outcome might be in question, she has to cook hot dogs on her tank turret grill at the same time.

Then again, I’m a dude. We like to see actors at least pretending the bullets are real.

But props for Lori Petty that she can still hold it together and take every advantage offered to raise it up a notch, such as during a sexy white powder shower or in a lesbian kiss with Watts. Hilariously deadpan work by Ice T and Reg E. Cathey as a Malcolm X-ish good cop bad cop of a tribe of kangaroo mutants are a boon too — their emotional ear curling in and of itself makes the movie worth a glance, though some of their dopey dances gave one douche chills. The Shout blu-ray is a sublime treat despite these flaws, with Lori Petty’s punky white hair against a clear blue sky over white sands something to see (Catherine Hardwicke, who’d go on to direct the first two Twilight films, is the production designer). And most importantly, there’s a priceless audio commentary with Petty and director Rachel Talalay, interviews, a vintage featurette, etc., wherein we learn of the sacred spot Tank Girl has amongst the UK and Australia punk contingents. Shit shows just how tame our Yank punk grrl icons really are – Courtney Love, you best man the turret! 

Speaking of punks, also new to blu-ray, Akira (1988), the quintessential cyber punk anime that’s still way ahead of its time. Set in “Neo-Tokyo” on the verge of some really catastrophic shit. It’s the kind of film that, anime fan, sci fi fan or no, will leave your already-dropped jaw dropping so low it distends and tendrils of fleshy HDMI cables begin interconnecting you to the screen.

The plot mixes a biker gang and those typically odd Asian male friendships between misfits and a cataclysmic beer after liquor never sicker sort of apocalypse as government-sponsored Methuselah syndrome psionics try to reign in one of the biker members who gets spiked with a psychokinetic awakening and falls totally in love with smashing half the city. What really makes it work is all the trippy opaque smoke and way these cats can use whatever junk is lying around to form giant teddy bears or humanized cars, or gigantic body parts, all done with such meticulously brilliant animation you can hear Walt Disney’s frozen head rotate in its jar, 360 degrees like Regan McNeil, and go damn, son… in short, it’s an essential title to demand for Xmas tribute or to gift that quirky 15 year-old with the Sailor Moon cos play fetish.

Speaking of which, I spent a lot of Thanksgiving dealing with family issues not my own but I did get a night off to watch The Visitor (1979), a hilariously inspired and so off-the-wall there-is-no-longer-even a-wall Italian hodge podge of Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, Close Encounters, Christopher Reeve-era Superman, Damien Omen II, The Manitou, and The Birds. 

Among the other weird sights: John Huston as God, descending a very long escalator; the young evil girl throw two skater boys to their presumed deaths through shop windows from her place at the center of an in-mall ice rink; Django star Franco Nero as a kind of Jesus; the heavenly Joanne Nail (who rocked it so very, very hard in the still underappreciated Switchblade Sisters) as the hip mom; a demon baby peregrine falcon (the very fact I knew the name lets you know falcons were big in the 70s and I wanted one); Lance Henriksen as a well-funded basketball team owner trying to appease his Illuminati-ish investors by delivering a male child into Nail’s fertile devil child-producing womb; cameos from Mel Ferrer, Glen Ford, and Kareem Abdul Jabaar; Shelly Winters as a maid, wise to the girl’s wrongness; one of the coolest pads in all 70s cinema; the original at home video game, Pong, played on one of those old school projection TVs (with those War of the Worlds Martian-style colored lights); an Argento-worthy head through a fish tank scene; and a girl so evil she’d probably scare Rhoda Penmark. All in all, any kid who ever saw a movie in the 70s or wanted to will love and must own this film in all its glory.

For some heavenly reason it’s been re-released theatrically by Mondo and and even copped a review lavishing praise from the Village Voice, which calls it “the mother of all 70s drive-in oddities.” For once they’re right. The Code Red DVD is OOP, but considering its theatrical re-release a future blu-ray is likely. Such a thought almost makes the future seem worthwhile…