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Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video / 1981 / 116 Minutes / Rated PG
Street Date: November 28, 2006
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Reviewed by High-Def Digest Staff
Monday, November 27, 2006
Editor's Note: Non format-specific portions of this review were originally published in our HD DVD review of 'Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.'
The story of 'Superman II' is now the stuff of legend. It's 1978, and 'Superman: The Movie' has just opened to record-breaking business. Yet all is not well behind the scenes in Krypton. Despite having just delivered a rousing success, the original film's director Richard Donner clashes badly with the film's producers, Ilya and Alexander Salkind. Originally hired to film the first two 'Superman' films concurrently, and having already completed 70 percent of filming on the sequel, Donner is unceremoniously fired. A new helmer, Richard Lester, comes on board and brings with him a lighter, more farcical approach to the material. The result, while still a box office smash, leaves many fans wondering what might have been. What would Donner's fabled "director's cut" of 'Superman II' really have looked like? Was it a lost masterpiece? Or simply fool's gold?
Twenty-six years later, that question has (mostly) been answered. After countless fan petitions and years of studio badgering, Warner has invested considerable effort to restore Richard Donner's vision of 'Superman II' as fully as possible, and the result is 'Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.' After an extensive archeological expedition, Donner's restoration team, led by supervisor Michael Thau, uncovered six tons of material. Tossing out most of the footage Lester shot (leaving only that which was absolutely required), Thau and team have recreated as close an approximation of Donner's 'Superman II' as humanly possible. Certainly, nothing like this has ever been attempted before in the history of cinema. And while no, Donner's full vision is not all there, it does seem a damn close approximation.
As I hate to know too much about a film before I see it -- and make no mistake about it, 'The Richard Donner Cut' really is a new movie -- I purposely did not read much about this alternate version of 'Superman II.' I never liked the original theatrical cut of the sequel much, so I hardly knew it very intimately (I am however a fan of Donner's 'Superman: The Movie'). I also did not want to be influenced in my viewing of 'The Richard Donner Cut', with regard to which footage was "new" and which was old, so to better gauge how smoothly it all comes together. Impressively, on first viewing, it all flows very nicely -- only a couple of scenes seem rough, as do some of the new CGI effects, which are polished but obvious fixes (the worst offender is Christopher Reeve's hairstyle, which changes drastically, sometimes during the same scene). Yet for a redux so complicated, it really is a miracle that 'The Richard Donner Cut' is coherent at all.
That said -- and I promise I will not give a single spoiler in this review -- I am disappointed to report that 'Superman II' is not the lost masterpiece I and many others were hoping for. Definitely, Donner's footage is superior to Lester's -- I've always far preferred Donner's humorous but still respectful treatment of the Superman mythology, whereas Lester's take just seems cheesy and condescending. However, neither director was able to erase what I found to be a flawed, core conception of the material.
'Superman II' has always felt like two-and-a-half different movies to me -- unfortunately this is even more the case in Donner's version. There is the story of Clark Kent/Superman and his love affair with Lois Lane, an attraction that eventually proves so strong Superman is willing to give up his superpowers to be with her. Then there are the three-arch villains (led by the excellent Terence Stamp as Zod), who spend most of the movie wreaking havoc on the Earth, having little to do with Superman until the last twenty minutes of the movie. The final "half story" is a gratuitous appearance by Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), who helps Zod track down Superman, but is wholly wasted otherwise. Was Hackman just fulfilling a contractual obligation, as his listless performance suggests? I can't say I would blame him, as his character goes nowhere and hits no emotional notes.
Even in this restored version, it doesn't feel like Donner cared all that much about the Zod storyline, and certainly not Lex Luthor's. Instead, the heart of the film is the Superman/Lois dynamic, although nothing much happens here of any great substance, either. As good as Reeve and Kidder are together, the freshness and zing of their verbal sparring in the first film is impossible to recreate. The charm of the "Will Lois discover Clark is Superman?" gags quickly run thin, and the back-and-forth editing between the love story and Zod plots deflate the film's pacing and tension. By the time Superman and Lois get down to business, I quite frankly was bored to tears.
Worst of all, the "new" climax of 'The Richard Donner Cut' will leave viewers with an extreme case of deja vu. In all fairness, Donner was never able to shoot a proper ending for his vision of 'Superman II,' and he and Thau elected not to use Lester's version. But as is explained on this disc's extras, even if Donner had shot a proper ending, the emotional arc would have been the same. Personally, the idea of simply reversing time in order to regress the Superman/Lois Lane love story -- if only to facilitate more sequels, as Donner suggests -- was never a sound dramatic device. In fact, it feels pretty cheap and manipulative.
Still, I would never dream of dissuading anyone from seeing 'The Richard Donner Cut.' This is still a Superman film, it still has Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, and fun is fun. It is also fantastic that Warner listened to the fans after all these years and spent the time and money to try to restore the film to Donner's original vision. This is a true piece of cinematic history, so whatever flaws it may have, this long-lost "missing link" of the Superman series is truly worth celebrating.
'Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut' is quite literally a Frankenstein's monster. It has been pieced together using previously unseen twenty-six year-old footage that had collecting dust in a vault, plus material more familiar to fans of the theatrical cut of 'Superman II' (which Warner already remastered a few years back for a standard-def reissue). Yet despite such challenges, 'The Richard Donner Cut' is a very impressive restoration -- I simply did not expect such a piecemealed film to look this consistent. Sure, there are problems and rough patches, and a few of the new effects shots are obviously CGI, but 'The Richard Donner Cut' is always highly watchable, and more often then not I found myself completely unaware of which footage came from where.
As for comparisons, the Blu-ray transfer is again a 1080p/VC-1 encode from the same master used for its HD DVD counterpart. The source material has really been rehabbed nicely. Blacks are rock solid -- I did not detect very much in the way of wavering or washed out shadow areas, even with the old effects scenes. Color reproduction is strong, too. Blues, reds and greens are especially vivid, and vastly improved over any previous video versions I've seen, even the previous theatrical cut of 'Superman II' on standard-def DVD. However, the mix 'n' match footage does suffer from some wavering. Colors sometimes will drop out for a frame or two, and fluctuations in solid backgrounds appear randomly. It is nothing severe, but it certainly won't go by unnoticed by more critical viewers.
Even more impressive is the lack of grain and dirt visible. I expected 'Superman II' to be a blemish-fest, with lots of screwed up old matte shots and the like. Though some of the new CGI is pretty phony and obvious, on the plus side there are no sequences that otherwise stand out incongruous with the rest of the film. Note, however, that like its predecessor, Donner and his director of photography Geoffrey Unsworth made extensive use of soft filtering throughout 'Superman II.' What looks like a fine mist permeates the entire movie, so while this transfer is sharp, it certainly does not have the super-smooth, ultra-clarity of a modern film. However, I did review 'Superman II' using the Blu-ray player in the PlayStation 3, and so far I've found it outputs a bit smoother, less harsh image than the Samsung BD-P1000. That said, depth is just as impressive as the HD DVD transfer, and the film really does look quite three-dimensional. Color me impressed.
The original sound elements used to construct 'Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut' have also been given an extensive clean-up and remix. Here on the Blu-ray we get a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track encoded at 640kbps, which is the same bitrate as the Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 track on the HD DVD version. Both suffer the same plusses and minuses. I still feel that the mix is a bit front-heavy, if technically it remains a very clean restoration. I don't know where they found all these old sound elements, and how much had to be re-recorded, but the end result is almost seamless.
I was especially impressed by the lack of cheesy ADR, with most of the dialogue particularly smooth and consistent (one notable exception is a scene that had to be pieced together from actual audition footage with Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, where out of sync, overdubbed dialogue is clearly audible). Dynamic range is well above-average for a project like this -- high-end is not harsh or scratchy, and low end if not incredibly powerful does pack more than enough punch.
Surround use, alas, is spotty. John Williams' excellent score gets some deployment to the rears, but is not quite as forcefully presented as it is on the next-gen releases of 'Superman: The Movie.' Discrete effects are present and stand out -- Superman's cape whooshes by nicely, and the third act battle with Zod and his minions has a few cool rear channel pans. But atmosphere is kinda lacking, with little in the way of sustained ambiance. Certainly, though, this is a noticeable improvement over past video versions of 'Superman II' in any form.
Soon after 'The Richard Donner Cut' was announced, Donner himself seemed to downplay his involvement with the project, approving of the concept but taking a "hands-off" approach to the restoration and re-editing of the picture. Apparently that was PR hubris, because judging by the extras here he was quite active throughout the process, and his considerable presence on the extras is a truly welcome surprise.
After a heartfelt introduction by Donner, a good place to start is the 13-minute "Restoring the Vision" featurette. Though none of the cast participates, and little nitty gritty on the behind-the-scenes bickering is discussed, this is an essential look at the herculean technical effort required to bring 'The Richard Donner Cut' to life. What makes "Restoring the Vision" so compelling (if too short) is that a video team was hired to document the restoration, so the wealth of behind-the-scenes footage makes for a fascinating watch. Definitely don't skip this one.
Donner and Creative Consultant (aka the real screenwriter) Tom Mankiewicz also sat down to record a new audio commentary, and it is also essential listening for any serious 'Superman II' fan. It is clear Donner remains badly stung by the experience of 'Superman II,' which is understandable -- how do you accept being fired after the film you made becomes a blockbuster, grossing hundreds of millions worldwide? At least the decision the dreaded Salkinds made still rankles the fans as well, so Donner isn't alone in his pain. Anyway, this commentary is loaded with great info -- all the behind-the-scenes hand-wringing, the arduous shoot, and the intricacies of the story Donner and Mankiewicz were originally trying to tell. It has often been said that 'Superman' and 'Superman II' are really two halves of one long movie, and never has that been more clear than in watching 'The Richard Donner Cut.' This commentary fills in all the still-missing blanks, and even if I didn't really like 'Superman II' (in either form) nearly as much as the first film, it is terrific to finally hear Donner and Mankiewicz explain and dissect their interpretation.
Finishing up the extras are six Deleted Scenes. Just about all of them are extra bits involving Gene Hackman and Valerie Perrine, though I already felt there was enough of them in the finished cut as is. The only scene I really enjoyed was a very short encounter between Clark Kent and Jimmy Olsen -- the latter was underutilized in the sequel by Donner, so this one would have been nice to have reinserted. As for the quality of these scenes, all are presented in 2.40: 1 widescreen and 1080p video, though both the video and audio quality are more fuzzy and degraded than the full-on restoration.
Sadly no theatrical trailers or any other promotional material is included, though I suppose Warner is saving that for the inevitable Blu-ray version of the theatrical cut of 'Superman II.'
No exclusive extras for Superman this time.
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'Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut' is a fascinating experiment. Who would have thought fans would ever get to see what is the closest approximation to Donner's original vision possible, and in such high quality? Though the ultimate version of 'Superman II' remains an impossibility, kudos to Warner for even attempting such a crazy feat. This Blu-ray release is hitting stores concurrent with the standard-def DVD and HD DVD versions, and it is easily the equal of the latter. The transfer and soundtrack are as good as is possible considering the source material had to be welded together, and the illuminating extras feature Donner's direct involvement. If you are at all a 'Superman II' fan this is a must-have, and even if you're just curious you've gotta at least give it a rent. 'The Richard Donner Cut' is certainly an incredibly intriguing footnote to the history of an American pop culture icon worth revisiting on Blu-ray.
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