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‘Tank Girl’ Review: To Camp or Not to Camp?

In absolute terms Tank Girl is not a good movie. In fact I think it would be very hard to translate the absurdist, nonlinear British comic into a big budget film catered to a mainstream audience. The 1995 adaptation could, however, be considered a good camp movie. Camp for the uninitiated encompasses a wide array of films and meanings, but simply put it’s a genre with a consistently exaggerated tone in acting, writing, music or anything else you see in the movie. Rocky Horror Picture Show might be the prototypical camp film and for our purposes will serve as one end of our de-luxe movie spectrum.

Rachel Talalay’s Tank Girl certainly registers as camp on the movie spectrum by including an exotic dance club madam forced to sing Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” and so-bad-they’re-good zingers like “Look, it’s been swell, but the swelling’s gone down.” Still heavy studio interference impeded a full commitment to camp. The comic creator’s Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett (also of Gorillaz fame) complained that their voices were unceremoniously silenced in an effort to develop a film deemed more palatable for the general American audience. As a result Tank Girl spews references to topical cultural phenomena like Baywatch that are halfbaked in execution and hardly make sense in 2033. If either poles had won out over the other, i.e. a confidently surrealist and explicit cinematic translation of the comic or a straightened out, highly-produced big budget film, I think Tank Girl could have been the exemplar adaption movie for more complex source material than Superman. As it is the film shuffles all over the spectrum resulting in a film unsatisfying from all sides.

Even summarizing Tank Girl’s plot is difficult because a linear storyline has been grafted onto the nonlinear source material, ultimately falling into a pit of cliches. The main character, Rebecca Buck or Tank Girl, starts out the film dropping us some exposition by quickly outlining the three factions in a post-apocalyptic, water starved world: the Water and Power corporation that hoards water with an iron fist, Tank Girl’s commune that illegally siphons off water and the mysterious and dangerous marauding Rippers.

The ensuing narrative about W&P capturing the defiant Tank Girl and her young friend Sam is hardly the point, having overall lost much of its luster in the Hollywood whitewashing process, more compelling rather are the film’s moments. The Tank Girl comics are well known for their strong visual aesthetic seen here in Tank Girl’s many androgynous outfits and the overall rendering of a post-apocalyptic Australia. As one of Tank Girl’s 18 costume changes, her missile shaped bra highlights the striking aesthetic that all too often got papered over in this film. Vivid scenes grace the film such as Tank Girl’s cutting of her stockings in the mode of a strip tease set to one of the delightful 90’s alt rock songs curated by Hole frontwoman Courtney Love. Almost incongruous scenes like this do nothing to progress the awkward plot forward, but Talalay’s smart directorial decision to focus on Lori Petty’s pitch perfect acting are when the movie and the audience has the most fun.

missile bra

A mismatch occurs from the humor and tone of the original British comic set in Australia to the ambiguous locale in the film that houses mostly Americans along with a few unexplained Brits like Naomi Watts’ character Jet Girl and the evil leader of W&P Malcolm McDowell’s Kesslee. Threats of rape on Jet Girl in prison and Tank Girl twice before she even makes it to prison are mined for laughs, but often violent retaliation by spurned men connotes a confusingly vicious edge. The comics contain plenty of violence and far more lewd sex, but the tonal variance make the same kind of themes and plot points overly dark and uncomfortable in the film adaptation. Without Lori Petty playing Tank Girl to irreverent perfection, this film would be an unmitigated disaster, but she manages to stabilize scenes that would have floundered without her comedic timing.

By the end of the film, despite certain humorous highlights, the wavering between almost acknowledged camp and Hollywood drivel makes the film feel overwhelmingly disjointed. This comic probably shouldn’t have been made into a live action movie with its science fiction adaptations of the comic, like the mutant kangaroos and a hologram head, coming across as far more silly than cool. Luckily interspersed animated sequences done by Steve Evangelatos although irregularly incorporated in the film fit much more in line with the edgy comic’s intent. Adapted films rarely capture the essence of its source material, especially when its source material is as nuanced and complex as the Tank Girl comics, so my advice is if you’re interested in Tank Girl read the comics and skip the movie.