Movie Postmortems: CATWOMAN

by John S.

Movie Postmortems is a series that reviews certain films which showed promise but misfired, critically and/or commercially, upon release. Join us in our attempt to find out exactly what the hell happened.

THE CASUALTY: Catwoman

THE CASE HISTORY: June 1992. Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, the follow-up to his very successful Batman, opens to the biggest weekend box-office numbers up until that point in time, about $45 million. Although it finishes commercially about $90 million less than Batman’s overall domestic take ($251 million vs. $162 million), critical notices are strong. A near-universal favorite is Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman.

Pfeiffer delivers a complex, charismatic performance believed by many to be the strongest rendition of Catwoman ever. In her skilled hands, the character is simultaneousy icy and human, fierce and fragile, playful yet deadly, occupying an alluring position somewhere between good and evil. Not surprisingly, Pfeiffer and Selina/Catwoman win their own spin-off movie with Burton attached.

Development on Catwoman begins and takes several twists throughout the next decade. Burton eventually leaves the project for other opportunities. Further complicating matters is the dark tone of the first draft which screenwriter Daniel Waters (Heathers) submits in 1995 – more in line with Batman/Batman Returns than the flashy, “safe” direction the franchise takes with the recently-released Batman Forever. Soon, Pfeiffer also departs the production, citing commitments to family and other projects. This is perhaps the biggest blow of all.

Although an updated script draft that is much less dark is submitted (credited to John Brancato, Michael Ferris, and John Rogers), the lack of a leading lady hinders progress on Catwoman. At one point, Ashley Judd is offered the role and comes close to accepting but eventually declines. Nicole Kidman also considers taking on the project before passing on it, too. Things eventually fall into place when Halle Berry signs on as the lead in 2003.

Fresh off an Oscar win for Best Actress for Monster’s Ball, Berry brings welcome cachet to the project. Also, her strong turn as “is-she-good-is-she-bad” Jinx Johnson in the 2002 Bond flick Die Another Day demonstrates successful experience with stunts, action, and playing a mysterious character who could be either friend or foe. Lambert Wilson, Sharon Stone, Benjamin Bratt, and Frances Conroy sign on in key roles. The only unknown element is the director chosen to helm Catwoman: French visual effects supervisor Pitof (just Pitof). Pitof’s only previous film directing credit is a CGI-heavy French supernatural thriller starring Gerard Depardieu titled Vidocq.

July 2004. Twelve years after Michelle Pfeiffer’s dazzling turn in Batman Returns inspired a spin-off, Catwoman opens in North America amid rumors of negative screenings and unfavorable buzz. The flick finishes its first three days with a $16 million take – very weak for the long-anticipated showcase of a popular comic book character. Catwoman finishes its North American run at just $40 million – not even half its production budget. Overseas returns total another $42 million or so, which isn’t nearly enough help. This global underperformance coupled with near-universal critical panning marks Catwoman not just a disappointment but an outright bomb.

So what the hell happened?

THE AUTOPSY DETAILS: First, the shooting script. Read separately from the film, it’s not terrible. It’s entertaining and hits all the beats expected of a Catwoman origin tale. Yes, it is a lot lighter in tone from the original version but that is not necessarily a bad thing since the film has to establish its own identity. However, there are crucial flaws in the villain department and how the baddies are set-up, as well as their modus operandi. Cosmetics magnate George Hedare (Lambert Wilson in the film) is initially tipped to be the chief villain, but then his vengeful wife Laurel (Sharon Stone in the movie) is revealed to be the mastermind very early in the story.

However, the script continues to position George as the Big Bad even though we know better, while sidelining Laurel for much of the second act. Laurel is also intriguingly set-up as initially sympathetic and helpful to Patience Phillips (changed from Selina Kyle) and an ally to Catwoman later on. Except we already know from early on that Laurel is the real villain, so the eventual betrayal has zero impact, story-wise, and does nothing except make our heroine look foolish for trusting Laurel.

Better to have kept Laurel’s true motives hidden until late in the story, and have both Patience/Catwoman and the audience believe Laurel is a true ally against George, who should’ve been presented as the real mastermind early on. Then Laurel’s agenda comes to the fore in the final act of the movie, and she is revealed to have been pitting Patience/Catwoman and George against each other the whole time – betraying both of them to take center stage as the new villainous mastermind. It would’ve given the story much more impact, exploring themes of sisterhood, mentorship, and genuine betrayal, affording Stone a much richer arc to play. Similar to Elekta King in the Bond classic The World Is Not Enough (incidentally, a role Stone was in the running for before Sophie Marceau was cast)

Then there’s the villainous McGuffin the script tries to sell: Killer Face Cream. While it is commendable for the writers to give the story a female-centric slant, surely they could have come up with a gimmick that didn’t involve… toxic lotion? Kind of lame. However, even with these mis-steps in plotting, the script could’ve still produced a decent, if flawed, movie. Unfortunately, some grievous errors in execution and presentation pretty much doom the flick.

Catwoman features some of the most unconvincing extended CGI ever to be seen in a major Hollywood production, not to mention choppy editing during the action scenes that is confusing and dizzying – a combination that makes the movie look cheap and mediocre. I don’t think it’s fair to lay all the blame on director Pitof since, as a Hollywood first-timer, he was likely caught up in the Big Studio Machine himself. However, as the head of the production some of the accountability must rest on his plate. It’s unfortunate, because Pitof brings a nice golden tone to some early scenes and those striking opening credits set a promising atmosphere. Once the action starts, though, Catwoman goes downhill.

LIKELY CAUSE OF DEATH: There’s a saying that “execution is everything” – and it would seem Catwoman proves that. While the script is not perfect, it could’ve still produced a passable film. Halle Berry is certainly competent in the role and while she doesn’t make anyone forget Michelle Pfeiffer, she doesn’t embarass herself either. However, some very unfortunate choices in visual effects, editing, and directing pretty much seal the film’s fate.

NEXT CASUALTY: Inferno – “The Third Key is Under the Soles of Your Shoes…”

Forty years ago in 1977, Italian thriller auteur Dario Argento’s supernatural giallo, Suspiria, was released – and became a worldwide cult classic hit. Twentieth Century Fox (which released Suspiria in North America) agreed to finance a sequel. However, the follow-up film that Argento gave Fox was not Suspiria 2 – but something far more surreal, strange, and divisive. Add to that an ill-timed studio regime change, and Inferno was basically shelved by Fox in 1980 for many years. Did it deserve it, though?

 

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.

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