Hapless hacker Gus Gorman has breached the firewall, and touched the face of God.
In a dimly-lit room, the machines are awakening, like a cavern of ancient dragons becoming aware of an intruder in their midst. He tames them, and brings them under his control. The ensorcelled computers mutter to each other, in their secret binary parseltongue. There are flashing lights, and whirring tape drives. A man has his finger on the ignition key of the world, and hacking is occurring.
And once again, I find myself compelled to criticize a comedy scene, which is contrary to my nature and I do not appreciate it.
For one thing, we’ve had so much comedy by this point in the movie that we could use some dramatic relief. So far, Superman has saved a guy from drowning, he put out the chemical fire, and he picked up Ricky in the wheat field, and everything else in the movie has been nothing but wacky.
This moment is the first intentional act of villainy in the movie, where Gus takes control of the blue-ish space lasers, and uses them to harm real people. Webster may talk about it as “destroying the coffee crop”, but you can’t wreak that kind of devastation on a country of 28 million human souls without casualties. The loveable loser who’s been clowning around for the last hour is currently in the process of committing mass murder.
So this would probably be a good time to play some dark tones, just to help the audience understand that this is an important plot point, with material consequences that drive Gus’ character development.
Or you could do this, I suppose.
The movie presents us with three examples of computers creating social disruption, to demonstrate the theme that Chris Reeve talked about in Omni magazine: “Ultimately, computers can be a destructive force that prevents people from relating to one another.”
And I have to admit that the sequence does show people who are having trouble relating to one another. Each of the three scenes shows people coming into conflict as the result of minor technological errors, in a pantomime routine accompanied by a chirpy Viennese waltz.
And, oh, they make me tired, in the same way that Dark Superman blowing out the Olympic torch will make me tired, twenty minutes from now.
They are weak sauce. They involve characters who do not respond to stimuli in a recognizably human way. And they can’t even keep basic day/night visual continuity, which bothers me way more than it should.
I mean, this is just elementary filmmaking. The montage is cutting back and forth between Gus tapping on the computer, and the impact on people outside. The basic grammar of film tells us that these events are happening at the same time: Gus taps some keys, tape drives whir, and something occurs in the world.
We know that it’s night-time, because the whole point of the previous sequence was that Gus found a way to sneak into the WheatKing office after hours. The first little scenario happens at night, with the guy pulling cash out of the ATM, and there’s no problem with that.
And then the Bloomingdale’s sketch violates the grammar, showing the computers printing incorrect bills… and then fast-forwarding to, I don’t know, breakfast time, maybe two days later?
I don’t think that I’m being overly harsh here, nitpicking an unimportant detail. Everyone watching the film feels that sense of disconnect here — that we’re suddenly cutting from now to a couple days from now, and then back again. It’s the only way to understand this sequence of images, because we’ve seen movies before.
It’s also not funny, even in a world where it’s okay to squash grapefruits on people, for several reasons that I don’t need to get into. But the night/day thing is the worst.
And then there’s the Calgary traffic catastrophe, demonstrating what doesn’t happen when there’s a problem with the computer controlling traffic signals.
Again, it’s during the day, so screw you Aristotle, and also the joke is ridiculously over-extended by the massive crowds of extras getting tugged back and forth around the intersection. The sidewalks are absolutely jammed with people who are all trying to walk through each other; it’s like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for assholes.
And you hear people screaming, which is not typical behavior for city dwellers in a superhero movie. In the previous film, there was a dangerous sky battle between superpowered alien criminals right overhead, and Metropolis still went shopping; a faulty traffic signal isn’t going to move the needle like this.
It feels false. Every single person in the audience has had some experience with a malfunctioning traffic light, and it does not lead to mass violence.
You know what would have been funny? If this sequence was Clark Kent walking down the sidewalk, and noticing a string of strange occurrences, as the computers all break down. He could be puzzled by the guy at the ATM, and then maybe the traffic lights, and then more examples of computers acting strangely as he continues down the street, to demonstrate that modern life is controlled by computers, and wouldn’t it be weird if they all started acting in an unpredictable way?
The sequence that we see here is trying to make a statement about the impact of computers on our lives, but it doesn’t connect any of these occurrences together. It doesn’t say that computers are everywhere in our society; it just says that there are computers in several places that impact random people at various times during the week.
Worst of all, it doesn’t involve mild-mannered Clark Kent aka Superman, even though the security breach is taking place in the small town that he is currently bumbling around in. In this movie, Superman is not allowed the courtesy of noticing the strange events, and figuring out that they’re all part of a villainous scheme. It’s just stuff that happens in some mediocre sitcom world, unnoticed and sadly unfunny.
4.28: The Stokis Uprising
A few cast members of note in this sequence:
The ATM guy, credited as Man at Cash Point because the movie takes place in Britain apparently, is played by Peter Whitman, who also appeared as the comedy deputy in Superman II. He went on to have minor roles in a lot of movies over the next decade, including Yentl, Little Shop of Horrors and actually those are the only two that are worth mentioning.
Sandra Dickinson, who plays Wife, is probably best known for playing Trillian in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy TV series. She’ll return briefly to the franchise as Pretty Young Lady in Supergirl. She had small roles in The Batman and Ready Player One, and her ex-husband and son-in-law are both Doctor Who.
Husband is played Ronnie Brody, a comedic actor who Richard Lester also cast in Help!, The Knack… and How to Get It, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Bed Sitting Room and The Ritz.
4.27: The Stokis Uprising
— Danny Horn
10 thoughts on “Superman III 4.27: The Funny Part”
Good thing this movie probably never played in the Cold War USSR so that they didn’t come up with the idea of sending their own Igor Gormanovich to a matchbook computer correspondence course to learn how easily they could bring down the decadent West controlled by our computers.
And good thing nobody could hack our computer systems to do the same thing today.
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“My eye! I’m not supposed to get grapefruit juice in it!”
Apparently the original grapefruit bit in 1931’s The Public Enemy was also a non sequiteur of sorts (the director allegedly lived vicariously through James Cagney, who also allegedly did it to crack up the crew), so I suppose it works amid this oddity. Or would, if we haven’t had little BUT oddity from the get go.
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As I recall, this sequence of events is pretty much what people expected to happen on Y2K. Btw, the book says that these incidents are happening around the world, not just in Smallville, hence the shifting day/night cycle. But it’s true that the husband-and-wife grapefruit scene takes place at a later date, and it’s disconcerting to cut to it and back to the present.
Anyway, the unfortunate thing is that this sequence is played for comedy. It seems that, even with Lester’s desire to show the risks of relying on computers, he can’t stay serious long enough to make a proper point. No one is in danger except if Sandra Dickinson gets citrus in her eye. Why not use these scenes to show some people in actual peril? That way you can build up to the climax of Gus causing a major disaster that, yes, logically would have killed some people. This part would have come across quite differently with more serious threats and a heavier soundtrack. Instead it’s an absurdist farce. Comic relief is one thing, but watch the walk signal scene and tell me if this belongs in a movie that’s trying to say anything serious at all.
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Y2K was the first thing I thought of–I remember people really thinking all clocks would stop working and planes plummet from the sky on the stroke of midnight.
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The scene with the figures in the crossing signal fighting was the last straw for me and I gave up on this movie being decent because the figures getting into a fistfight was infantile.
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Some of the problem (not all of it, by a long shot) is simply time passing, in two senses.
The first is that when this film was made, in 1983, computers as part of everyday life as opposed to a Forbin Project taking up an entire building was just beginning to really take hold. They weren’t unheard of, of course, but they were still costly and mysterious, something businesses bought and entire schools were put in place to train enough people to approach them, like if we decided to put lions in charge of all our electronics and needed lots and lots of lion tamers entering the workforce.
Nowadays, of course, our phones could conceivably do this little satellite sabotage using Tik Tok or whatever the kids are doing today, Gus’s version of hacking is today’s app.
The second time problem is Richard Lester’s, in that time had passed his version of comedy by as well. Even when he was in his heyday with Help! and other groundbreaking stuff, his roots were clearly and firmly in vaudeville/music hall theater, in pantomime; in a variety of set pieces that are designed to give a series of cues as to what’s funny when. It’s reliable and workable, but he’s using a slide rule in a movie about computers taking over the world, and the seams really show, even when he was filming SIII. Nowadays, of course, everybody might as well be wheeling around on velocipedes wearing giant feather-crusted hats.
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You need to put that Bloomingdale’s bit in historical context to see why someone thought it was a funny thing to put in a movie. When the movie was written, it had been less than 10 years since women were widely allowed to have credit cards in their own name. Pop culture humor in movies and television for the decades preceding that considered it fair game to portray a woman as running up the bills and the husband (or maybe father) being stuck with them. It was just considered humorous to use that stereotype. The people making these movies are older, so the woman runs up credit card bit would seem like a safe universal humor to use. Yes, that means a little bit of misogynistic slapstick was also okay.
I was a tweener when this movie came out and I thought it was funny to see the man’s reaction to the bill.
It would be decades before I understood that part of the reason I personally had such a struggle getting my first credit cards in my twenties was tied to the history that came before where single women couldn’t have them at all. Then a few years later credit card companies handed them out on campuses like candy.
Times change. That’s why now I would still think it’s funny and then I’d be disgusted with myself for smiling about it.
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I seem to remember a similar (yet different) plotline being used in a ‘Lois & Clark’ episode, where another hapless villain builds a broadcasting mind control device – – people at a crosswalk walk when signaled, then freeze mid-street when the DON’T WALK signal flashes. Other mayhem also ensued.
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Ronnie Brody was a cast member on the Dave Allan show on the BBC in the mid 70s to early 80s.
Dave Allan was an Irish comedian, very popular in the day. A combo of sketches and standup.
Have a watch on Youtube. Hilarious!
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I totally forgot that Superman had no idea what Gus and Webster were up to at this point, nor how he figured out they were behind it, but I guess that’s for a future entry. Now that I think about it, what was the point of these shenanigans, other than a bit of unneeded “comedy relief”?