The Salkinds seem intent on becoming the most seasonal of movie producers. They're bringing us Santa Claus for the Christmas of 85, and they're offering us a turkey for this Thanksgiving. (It's an old joke, but I couldn't resist.) Supergirl isn't a very good movie. I think the Salkinds realized this, because they haven't spent much money on building it up. Maybe it will make its money back, but probably Supergirl signals the end of the Superman movies. If this film and Superman III are the best ideas anyone can come up with, it's just as well.

Supergirl (Helen Slater) lives in a city saved from the destruction of Krypton. The filmmakers don't bother explaining how this happened, and it's been a long time since I read comics, so you'll have to go to net.comics to find out. (If you must, please do. I have absolutely no interest in finding out, myself.) At any rate, the city is kept going by a couple of power sources known as octahedrons. Due to carelessness, Kara (that's Supergirl's Kryptonian name) loses one. It lands on earth, in the hands of Faye Dunaway, a witch with dreams of world domination which the octahedron can fulfill. Kara goes to Earth to retrieve the octahedron, as the city cannot long survive without it.

For obscure reasons, she disguises herself as Linda Lee, a student at a girls' academy in the Midwest. The long arm of coincidence makes Lois Lane's cousin her roommate. The only point of this seems to be to introduce Jimmy Olsen as Lana Lane's boyfriend, but, since he has nothing to do other than represent the otherwise absent cast of the Superman movies, this point seems pointless. Rather than bustle about looking for the octahedron, Supergirl wastes her time attending classes. There's another worthless subplot involving Dunaway's and Slater's rivalry over Hart Bochner, a gardener who attracts their attention.

The screenplay of Supergirl is very arbitrary and makes little sense. Would two idiots really try to rape a woman in a Superman costume, particularly when she had already blown one of them through a wall and heated up the knife the other one pulls? Why does the octahedron make its container grow? Why does the voodoo wand Dunaway lays her hands on suddenly give her complete control over the octahedron's power? Why, when a love spell goes awry, doesn't Dunaway immediately break it? Again, don't bother sending me justifications, I really don't care. There's no point plugging holes in a Swiss cheese. David Odell deserves the blame for the screenplay. A few good lines do not make up for the overall dreadfulness of this script.

Some people protested when, earlier this year, I predicted that Supergirl would be a disaster due to the choice of Jeannot Szwarc as director. They said that my assessment of Szwarc as a hack was too harsh. Well, I was right and they were wrong. Szwarc, in fact, gives a bad name to hacks. He has absolutely no visible talent. The man just cannot direct. Since Alexander Salkind has chosen him to direct Santa Claus, too, that film also is doomed to disaster. No great matter, it was a rotten idea anyway, and by keeping Szwarc busy on it, Salkind may have kept him from ruining a film with some potential. I am quite sure that Szwarc's main attraction for Salkind is that he works quickly and cheaply. Rapid shooting is OK, but not if it shows, and Supergirl displays telltale signs of shoddy, careless direction, probably due in part to cutting corners.

One of the few good things about Supergirl is the production design, which is superb. The sets are beautifully dressed and are quite original. The special effects are of variable quality and sometimes detract from the otherwise excellent surroundings. Many of the flying effects are unconvincing. To paraphrase the advertising slogan of the first Superman film, I do not believe that a girl can fly. There are also some overly obvious mattes and composite shots. On the other hand, some of the effects do work, particularly the carnage of an invisible monster sent to destroy Supergirl.

The acting is also variable. Helen Slater starts out very badly, but eventually turns out all right. She is much better as Linda Lee than as Kara, and she is certainly not the find Christopher Reeve was. Hart Bochner has such a rotten part that it's hard to say whether he's unbearable through his own fault or not. Brenda Vaccaro, on leave from tampon commercials, is pretty good as Dunaway's sidekick. Peter Cook is largely wasted as Dunaway's ex-mentor, though he does have a good moment teaching the girls of Linda Lee's academy, reminiscent of some of the great skits he used to do with Dudley Moore in reviews like Good Evening, classics like The Frog and Peach, One Leg Too Few, and Down the Mine. But I digress. Mia Farrow and Simon Ward share only one scene as Kara's parents.

Acting is a mystery to me, despite the fact that I have seen thousands of performances in films and have even done some acting on stage myself. Why is it that when Peter O'Toole, a very talented actor, lets out all the stops he is utterly delightful, whereas Faye Dunaway, also quite talented, is merely embarrassing when she uses the same tactic? Perhaps O'Toole would have been equally annoying if he had more scenes, but I don't think so. His eventual reappearance is one of the highlights of the film, even though his duties are just as silly as everyone else's. Faye Dunaway, on the other hand, overacts so outrageously that her perpetual presence is very hard to take. Some people may view her performance as high camp, and I suppose that that is what she was trying for, but I found her only intermittently amusing.

The careless nature of Supergirl makes it completely unengaging. Only the less discriminating fans of special effects extravaganzas and those with a taste for surfeits of camp will get much out of it. Supergirl isn't really much fun, and, for this kind of film, that is the ultimate indictment.

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