Robogeek Reviews SUPERMAN:The Restored & Remastered Director's Cut
When I was seven years old, my parents took me to see SUPERMAN.
And I believed a man could fly.
It - not STAR WARS - is my most potent childhood movie memory. It always has been, and always will be.
To this day, I can vividly recall the entire sensory experience. If I close my eyes, I'm back there, sitting in the middle of a row about two-thirds back. It's dark, and the movie starts... silently, in black and white...
There's the old '70s Warner Bros. logo card... then, the dedication to cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (an amazing artist who also shot "A Night To Remember," "Cabaret," and a little film called "2001: A Space Odyssey").
And then - as John Williams' score gently, softly begins - there are the curtains... which part to reveal a movie screen within the movie screen. We hear the sound of a film projector, as a title card appears:
It fades, replaced by a copy of ACTION COMICS, in close-up on a carpet. On the cover, a rocket-ship flees an exploding planet...
A child's hand enters frame, and turns the page. He starts reading...
In this decade of the 1930s,
even the great city of Metropolis
was not spared the ravages
of the world-wide Depression.
In the times of fear and confusion,
the job of informing the public
was the responsibility of the DAILY PLANET...
a great metropolitan newspaper
whose reputation for clarity and truth
had become a symbol of hope
for the city of Metropolis.
The comic book image of the Daily Planet building dissolves into the real thing, and we glide up towards the gleaming globe atop it - then up past it to the moon and beyond...
All of a sudden, the curtains part and fade away, as the old boxy black and white screen expands wide and one of the greatest title sequences in film history starts soaring towards us...
The music builds as we fly backwards through space, words outlined in blue light streaming towards us, until... coming from behind and through us, the giant red-and-gold "S" symbol known around the world burns onto the screen - and I hold my breath. Before it even fades from view, streaks of blue light descend from above us, forming a single word...
...and as it recedes into space, it takes my breath with it.
I love this movie.
I've seen it more times than I can remember. And while I don't quite have it memorized line-by-line, shot-by-shot, it is indelibly etched into my heart and mind for all time.
There are two sequences in particular that get me every time...
From the moment when Clark starts talking to Pa Kent, all the way until he leaves Smallville... absolutely heartbreaking cinematic poetry.
And the helicopter rescue, when Superman first reveals himself to the world... one of the most exhilarating pieces of cinema ever produced.
Since seeing SUPERMAN when it opened, I've seen the extended version that aired on ABC, the widescreen laserdisc (of which I have a well-worn VHS dub), the print struck for the Warner Bros. 75th anniversary touring film fest - you name it. Two days before the sneak, I even TiVo'ed the widescreen presentation on AMC (which is the laserdisc transfer). I have studied - no, scrutinized this film exhaustively over the years.
Therefore, I approached this new restored and remastered director's cut with both reverence and apprehension. I had very high hopes - and very deep fears. Happily, the former was rewarded and the latter was dispelled - both in spades.
Simply put, SUPERMAN has never looked or sounded better - even in my wildest dreams and fondest memories - than it does now. And I can't wait to see it again (and again) this weekend.
I am absolutely astonished by what Richard Donner, producer Michael Thau and their team accomplished (drawing from literally six tons of archival material related to the film), as this new print is so visually and aurally stunning.
First and foremost, let me address something a lot of people have been asking about - namely the new sound mix, which one contributor to this very site had some issues with (based on a pan/scan VHS screener tape). To him, I can only say this: with all due respect, YOU ARE ON CRACK! And you obviously haven't heard the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix in a THX surround theater. The problems you mentioned are either grossly exaggerated or non-existent.
The sound... oh, my GOD, the sound... I still can't believe how incredible this movie sounded - particularly John Williams' score, which felt like it was recorded yesterday. After the main title sequence ended, I wanted to watch it all over again just so I could hear the score one more time. It was exhilarating.
At the screening, I found out from Michael Thau (who produced the restoration, as well as the documentaries that'll be on the DVD - not to mention the condom commercial in "Lethal Weapon 2") that they had in fact recovered the original 6-track 1" masters mixed from John Williams' original 24-track recording of the score - which had long been thought lost - and were hence able to remix the score digitally in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround.
This alone is worth the price of admission, as the results are incredible. The score has never sounded anywhere near this brilliant, vivid, alive. Even last year's superb remastered Rhino 2-CD release of the soundtrack can't begin to compare with this new mix (which, btw, will be an isolated audio track on the DVD). The film's sound mix showcases the score gloriously.
Granted, many new sound effects have been constructed (some sampled from the original mono ones, some built from scratch), but nowhere did I find them jarring - and never did they overwhelm the score. In fact, most of the time I found them inspired. (For instance, during the destruction of Krypton, we now hear sounds of crystal/ice/glass breaking, even when we pass through the debris after the planet explodes - which is more consistent with the production design.)
Here or there, I might have made a couple different choices (for instance, I'll admit they overdo the sound effect on the "Directed by Richard Donner" credit which closes the main titles), but the pros far outweigh the cons. You really feel the sound when you're supposed to - i.e. when Krypton explodes, when the Fortress of Solitude is forged - in ways that just weren't possible in 1978.
Just one example... when Luthor contacts Superman using high frequency, the sound mix places Luthor's voice in the rear, with surround echoes of both him and the signal - thereby putting it all in your head (just like he's in Superman's during this scene). It's a subtle but fantastic attention to detail - and was absolutely impossible to do when the movie was originally made.
Literally, if all there was to this new print was the new digital sound mix, it'd be worth it, so I'd like to take this opportunity to commend supervising sound editor Jay Nierenberg of Sound Storm, along with music editor Bob Garrett, as well as re-recording mixers Steve Pederson (dialogue/music), and Dan Leahy (sound effects), who produced a magical remix at Warner Hollywood Stage D. [NOTE: last two credits corrected since original publication.]
At the same time, I have to express my frustration at Warners publicity, as virtually no information about the restoration - even credits for it - was included in the press packet that was handed out at the screening. (I actually have a lot more frustration to express, but I'll get to it later.)
The newly restored print is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. After the main title sequence, you're almost immediately stunned by the combination of Unsworth's lensing and John Barry's incredible production design for Krypton. And it just gets better when we get to Smallville, which is full of breathtaking shot composition. Afterwards, when revisiting the widescreen laserdisc transfer on my TiVo (recorded off digital cable signal), it looks muted.
Apparently the original negative was exhaustively cleaned (and needed it), and many original optical effects were then reprinted from their original elements. The film was color corrected in four different labs, and new inter-positives were struck. You may remember Superman's costume sometimes looking downright aqua instead of blue. Well, they've fixed it digitally, along with a lot of other things (like any tears or scratches in the negative). Another example, the Krypton scenes now have much better balancing and contrast. [NOTE: a couple technical details in this paragraph have been corrected since original publication.]
I did find out after the screening from Thau that for one shot in particular, they replaced an original element/plate with a new digital effect (because the original had been in bad shape since day one), but I hadn't spotted it. Needless to say, I was impressed (but I'm not going to give it away; see if you can spot it yourself).
Overall, the new print is incredibly sharp and vibrant, revealing details and subtleties that I hadn't been able to appreciate before. Unsworth would be proud.
The new footage has been discussed elsewhere at length, so I won't bore you with all the anal details. It basically amounts to eight minutes, so I'll just run-down the highlights (i.e. most significant additions)...
KRYPTON: There is additional Council discussion after the villains are sent to the Phantom Zone, as well as an extra scene later where the Council sends a Guard to arrest Jor-El (after detecting abnormally/unacceptably high power levels in his quarters). Basically, these serve to accentuate Jor-El's rift with the Council, and the gravity of his defiance. By choosing to save Kal-El, he risks eternal imprisonment in the Phantom Zone (which we learn he discovered) if he's wrong about Krypton's impending doom - or if its destruction doesn't occur soon enough. Personally, I was very happy with their inclusion, as I think they raise the stakes, dramatically-speaking.
SMALLVILLE - The Train: The legendary scene inside the train, where it's revealed the little girl who sees Clark running at super-speed is actually Lois Lane, with cameos by Noel Neill (who played Lois in TV's "The Adventures of Superman" and the Superman serial) and Kirk Alyn (who played Superman in the serial) as her parents. On the one hand, this may look like nothing more than a throwaway tip-of-the-hat, and the performances are admittedly a little weak, but this little scene actually does contribute something key about Lois via her line "nobody ever believes me." (Is this why she becomes a reporter? Because she's been wanting from childhood for people to believe her?)
SMALLVILLE - Ma Kent: This scene surprised me, and is the one I'm on the fence about. To the untrained eye, it may look like a waste of time; backing up from the moment when she sets the table for breakfast and looks out the window at Clark in the distance, we now see Ma Kent come downstairs and basically go through her morning routine - talking to her pet bird, calling Clark down to breakfast, etc. Why is this important? Because it shows that she's okay after the loss of Jonathan. Previously, Clark's departure - just when his mother arguably needs him most - could have been construed as a cold act of abandonment. Now, however, we see that Martha is going to be all right. Still, the insertion of this short scene (or rather, extension of one) breaks up the cinematic poetry of one of my favorite sequences in the movie.
FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE: Now, after Superman's first night of adventures, he returns to the Fortress for a conversation with Jor-El. Overall, I like this scene, because I think it's interesting and offers some new insights (and, well, gives us more Brando - as does the extra Krypton stuff) - and gives us a touching moment at its conclusion. There is one small problem, though, in that it seems to show Jor-El may be the one behind the secret identity idea, not Clark (which begs the question, where'd the Clark persona come from?).
LUTHOR'S LAIR: Probably the scene that'll be of most interest is the long-lost bullets-fire-ice sequence, in which Superman must pass three obstacles on his way to Luthor's lair. It's pretty damn cool, and you'll all likely geek out over it.
There are other tidbits of new/extra footage mixed in here and there (for instance, during the earthquake sequence we see more of Superman under ground - and some Girl Scouts in peril by a collapsing Hollywood sign), but not much worth mentioning. There is one scene I was hoping would be added - namely the one where Superman gets out in front of the first missile in an attempt to catch it, only for it to fly around him. It's kind of cool, and ties into an earlier line of dialogue about the missiles having a new avoidance system, while vaguely plugging the plot hole of why Superman can't outrun the missiles and catch them (though, even still, he should be able to catch them), but that's nitpicky. (And, apparently, the original optical elements of this shot were just in too bad shape, according to Thau; yes, I asked.)
Really, if anything, I kind of wish just a little could have been trimmed from the movie. Personally, I could use less of Otis (who I think is the film's biggest plot hole; why would Luthor tolerate such incompetence?). But what'd I'd really pay money for is to be able to cut the "Can You Read My Mind?" song from the flying sequence entirely. Alas, we can't have everything. ;-)
Following its release on December 15, 1978, SUPERMAN went on to gross $134 million domestic - back when that was real money. Adjusted for inflation, it grossed over $250 million in today's dollars (according to Mr. Showbiz) - a figure exceeded by only five films in the last five years (TITANIC, STAR WARS: EPISODE I, INDEPENDENCE DAY, THE SIXTH SENSE, and HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS).
Think about that for a second.
Now, given that Warners successfully re-released a restored and remastered director's cut of THE EXORCIST last year to a gross of $40 million - and given the excellent trailer (and, I assume, TV spots) they now have for SUPERMAN from Creative Domain - I can't for the life of me imagine why they wouldn't be going all the way with this. (Though they desperately need a new poster; the one they came up with is just... lame.)
What really infuriates me is that the one word-of-mouth sneak Warners held - the first public screening of the new print ever - was half-empty. Why? Well, obviously it wasn't promoted well enough (only one radio station and the daily paper sponsored it, no TV or internet) - and it was held at 6pm on a weekday, which is just insane in this time zone (where sneaks are almost always at 7:30pm). This should have been an event. Instead, it was an insult to the film and everyone who worked so hard on it.
Granted, some of you may be rooting for the San Antonio re-release to fail this weekend, because you want to get your selfish, impatient hands on the DVD sooner rather than later. Not that I entirely blame you, as the DVD is going to be awesome (and include such treasures as Christopher Reeve's original screen test - as well as several actresses' screen tests for the role of Lois Lane, including Stockard Channing's and Anne Archer's).
But wouldn't you like to have your cake and eat it, too? I mean, we've all waited this long for the DVD, why not wait a little longer - and also get the chance to see this film the way it was meant to be seen, on a giant screen, in incredible THX Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, and with an audience?
I mean, seriously, would you have rather not had the chance to see the STAR WARS Special Editions in a theater, and only gotten them on home video? Wouldn't you love to see, say, a restored and remastered RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK on the big screen? Supporting this re-release increases the chances of others. Think about the message you want to send Hollywood - and then send it this weekend.
You'll have the DVD forever. But a chance to re-experience this film in a theater... that's not something you should pass up.
Sitting in that theater last week, I was seven years old again.
And I believed a man could fly.
P.S.: SUPERMAN opens this Friday at the following seven theaters in San Antonio, Texas...
Regal Alamo Quarry 14 (210-333-3456)
Regal Cielo Vista 18 (210-680-7469)
Regal Live Oak 18 (210-657-4480)
Regal Northwoods 14 (210-333-3456)
AMC Huebner Oaks 24 (210-558-9988)
AMC RiverCenter 9 (210-558-9988)
Cinemark New Braunfels Walnut 6 (830-629-6400)
...all of which you can get directions to online at CitySearch San Antonio.
P.P.S.: Support the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation - and tell Warners they should contribute a portion of ticket and DVD sales. (It's not just tax-deductible, it's the right thing to do.)