Millennial Malaise 34: Tank Girl

In Which Ice-T is a Mutant Kangaroo

I will admit that Millennial Malaise is not an entirely above the board affair. Yes these articles are expressly made for the purpose to explore the recent history of film, but there’s a dark underbelly to such a quest. I have been using this project to scrounge around the junk bins of culture to resurface some exciting or interesting cult films and trashterpieces. Movie that delightfully fill the obligations of movie night in high school and college. Where pizzas and potshots at our entertainment were the name of the game as we jumped at the opportunity to scour every streaming service for something that would be conducive to a few chuckles.

So as I’ve been squirreling away curios (Hackers, Johnny Mnemonic, Virtuosity) like food for the winter I’ve frequently had to confront what makes these movies engaging even as they usually wallow in incoherence. Usually quick plotting and a commitment to outmoded aesthetic garishness are just the ticket for midnight movie fun, but sometimes even those things can’t keep a cult item from succumbing to the weight of tedium or be overly grating with their obvious excesses.

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Which all leads to 1995’s Tank Girl. A movie that includes all things that should be catnip for the kitsch obsessed. Stuffed to the gills with over the top practical sets and costumes, featuring not one but two Bjork needle drops, multiple song and dance numbers, intricate prosthetic makeup by Stan Winston, and gloriously unglued performances from Lori Petty, Malcolm McDowell, and Ice-T, Tank Girl should be the 90’s cult film par excellence. Instead it’s mostly a leaden drag, rolling around in the muck of things that are conceptually fun and cool, but fall apart when put to the screen.

Rachel Talalay’s adaptation of the underground comic follows the rollicking adventures of Rebecca (Petty) in the post-apocalyptic waste land. In a world that’s part Mad Max and part Nickelodeon cartoon Rebecca is kidnapped and imprisoned by the Water and Power company, under the control of the diabolical Kesslee (McDowell), who seek to control every drop of H2O in the eternal desert.  Rebecca makes a daring escape with Jet Girl (a very young Naomi Watts), meets up with a group of mutant Kangaroo warriors (which does include one Ice-T), and makes a daring last stand against W&P for control of the wastes.

All this tomfoolery seems like fertile ground for all the inspired zaniness that mid 90’s film can produce. Talalay and company seem to be aiming at a mish-mash of Mad Max and Riot Grrrl; A dizzying post-apocalypse for impish feminine anarchism. A film that is both effortlessly tossed off with a, “I don’t give damn” attitude lovingly juxtaposed with try-hard art damaged aesthetics. It’s also a big studio once again trying to tap into the deep well of the culture to connect with a youth audience whose interests lie in stranger places. This is a film that wants all this, and can’t actually achieve it’s goals in the end. The whole affair feels like a spurious imitation, a thing that should be cool, but isn’t.

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The movie includes a few bits that explicate why the whole project just doesn’t work. Multiple times the movie transitions to pieces of full 2D animation, transforming what was a live action cartoon into a literal one. In these moments you can actually see why this movie doesn’t pull together. Despite all the fun resemblances the live action characters have to comic people, the world can never have the feather footed zippiness of pen and ink. In drawing the characters you are allowed to defy physics, with real people tromping around real sets you are pulled down by gravity no matter the wire work or special effects you apply.

That’s not to say live action productions can’t reach the manic highs on animation, but that the film Tank Girl is never able to achieve liftoff. It feels to strapped down and uncertain about what it wants to do. The production knows they have the perfect presence with Petty, but they still feel unsure of how to use her. She seems to be the free-wheeling anarchist most of the time, like an irradiated Bugs Bunny dancing through the destruction, but this falls apart whenever the movie wants to add some sort of emotional grounding or stakes. Rebecca has traumatic flashbacks to her kidnapping, which is weird given how blithely she treats every other serious event in her life. And if you want your movie to be mostly daffy fun, don’t include a bit about child rape, that always just brings things down too far tonally, especially when it’s followed up by a silly Busby Berkley-esque dance number.

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So Tank Girl never lives up to the promise of some of it’s isolated bits, but there are moments of enjoyment to be pulled from the wreckage. Petty and Watts have a lively and flirty chemistry that lets you bathe in the not-so-subtle queer subtext. The costume and production design are truly thrilling in their way (no expense was spared in the conjuring of this wacky world), the mutant kangaroos do look amazing with the actors fully able to express themselves with ears, tails, and twitchy noses. And there’s a gnarly bit of body horror where McDowell sucks the blood/water out of people with a weird gurgling pump, that’s some good stuff as well.

But in classic fashion, Tank Girl is less than the sum of its parts. Certainly some culture vultures might be able to mine some nuggets of 90’s interest out of the pile, but it’s too inconsistent on its own to be recommended as a viewing. Perhaps the introduction of pizza and friends back into the fold will give this the thing the boost it needs to join the cult cannon. But watching it alone to write an article, Tank Girl just gets crushed under it’s own weight.

Odds and Ends

  • Talalay has fared much better in the world of television, where she has made some of the best episodes of the recent runs of Doctor Who.
  • Ice-T is second billed in the credits, but does not appear on screen until about the hour mark. He does provide a half-assed tie in rap that does describe what the viewer is watching though.
  • Amusingly much of the trenchant political insight made by this film (that vindictive men will destroy the world for water and power) was transmogrified into the action brilliance of Mad Max: Fury Road. So watch that instead

As always, twitterletterboxd, and I Chews You (the podcast about cooking and eating Pokemon).

Another week where I’m open to suggestions for the next article. But who knows what flick I’ll choose next.