Tank Girl (1995)

Some movies just have cult film status imprinted on them from the beginning.  Tank Girl was definitely one, and I think early on the executive at MGM that gave it the go-ahead understood what this was going to be.  Director Rachel Talalay and Tank Girl creators Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin probably hoped that it would be one of those strange exceptions where a strange non-commercial film suddenly becomes a big hit, but I'm sure when this was put in production that MGM knew that the profits would most likely come from video and cable rather than the theatrical release.  Sure, I was there to see it, and the audience I remember seeing it with loved it, but it reached those of us who wanted to see it at the time and that was about it. 

Unfortunately, as happens quite often in Hollywood, the person that was enthusiastic about the project left and the guy to step in had no idea what to do with Tank Girl.  Suddenly the appearance of female sex toys in an R-rated film made him nervous, as did the fact that the lead character didn't look attractive while being tortured.  The movie was eventually taken away from Talalay, butchered and then dumped into theaters.  Rather than take responsibility for what they did to her movie MGM blamed Talalay for it being a box office failure, and a director that was just at the beginning of what showed to be a promising, if quirky, career was suddenly shut out from making anything else. 

Rebecca (Lori Petty) is living with her boyfriend and a number of other squatters in a home in the desert.  Civilization was largely destroyed after the Earth was hit by a comet.  Water resources are scarce and controlled by a giant corporation called Water and Power.  Rebecca and the others living in the home are self-sufficient, but have been siphoning off their own water - something that W&P suddenly cares about as their CEO Kesslee (Malcolm McDowell) decides he wants control over every inch of the desert.  Those who are not killed in the raid, like Rebecca, are taken prisoner and forced to do hard labor, while others, such as the young girl Sam (Stacy Linn Ramsower), are sold into slavery. 

While in custody Rebecca befriends Jet Girl (Naomi Watts), a shy Australian woman who keeps the corporation's jets in order while trying to avoid the advances of Sgt. Small (Don Harvey), Kesslee's right-hand man.  When an attack by the mutant Rippers suddenly results in their freedom Rebecca steals one of W&P's tanks and, with the help of desert merchant also known as Sub Girl (Joan Cusack), customizes them for their own use.  Tank Girl and Jet Girl then go about trying to rescue Sam and, with the help of the Rippers, go about bringing down Water and Power. 

The Rippers, enhanced humans combined with kangaroo DNA, were some of the most memorable characters from this movie.  The actors wore animatronic suits designed by special effects expert Stan Winston, with working ears, tails and other parts - one of which was supposed to be seen after Rebecca and the ripper Booga (Jeff Kober) get some private time.  However, it was another piece that was chopped by MGM executives, thinking it promoted bestiality.  The leader of the Rippers, T-Saint, was played by Ice-T, who received a bit of a critical drubbing for appearing as such in the movie.  In hindsight the Rippers look great, and Winston was always proud with what he had done with them, and they are far from the weirdest part of the movie. 

That belongs to a Busby Berkeley style musical number to Cole Porter's "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)", which Tank Girl forces a number of brothel denizens to perform at gunpoint.  Again, too weird for executives or for the teenagers they brought in for test screenings, so much of it ended up on the cutting room floor.  In fact, so much of the movie was cut or didn't get filmed as planned that Jamie Hewlett ended up animating a fair amount of it.  What were originally supposed to be inserts of comic art evolved into having to fill in missing pieces.  I didn't realize how much of this there was until rewatching it, as what I've retained over the years after seeing this was the off-color humor and the camaraderie of Lori Petty and Naomi Watts.  I was sad to hear even Watts was embarrassed by this, even if it is her first feature film.  

Talalay for years, although she has gathered her own fan base due to directing a number of Doctor Who episodes as well as a long list of work with other shows, was also embarrassed.  Strange, because people who one would think would be most concerned - Lori Petty, Ice-T and Malcolm McDowell - were all proud of their time working on the film, despite having to endure summer conditions around Tucson, and were pretty much pleased on what little of Talalay's movie did get released.  Belatedly she has also started to accept that people enjoyed the film even if it didn't become the rebellious feminist comic book film classic she hoped it would.  

That's a shame because, even though she is a generation behind, Rachel Talalay managed to make a film that scream Generation X.  She meant it to be unabashedly feminist, but the attitude exuded by Lori Petty throughout takes the manic pixie dreamgirl stereotype, completely turns it on its head and gives us a character that we can relate to.  I tend to find this more culturally appropriate than Reality Bites, largely because the attitude of a lot of Gen X is still to let a certain finger say all we have to about a situation.  Rebecca, the Tank Girl, should be frightening to the previous generation, not just as a strong woman but also as a warning to what lies under our apathetic veneer.  

Even in its current form Tank Girl is a lot of fun.  Sure, Lori Petty's Cyndi Lauper-inspired voice for Rebecca may grate for some, and there is the promise of both a better version of this movie hiding somewhere and perhaps a revival coming at some time in the future.  Watching this again right after watching Zack Snyder's Justice League, I was thinking if any movie needs to have the director's version released for reevaluation it is this one.  Other than Rachel Talalay not being willing to revisit a painful part of her career I haven't been able to find anything about the footage being lost or destroyed, so hopefully this is something we will get to see someday.

Tank Girl (1995)
Time: 104 minutes
Starring: Lori Petty, Naomi Watts, Ice-T, Malcolm McDowell, Jeff Kober, Stacy Linn Ramsower
Director: Rachel Talalay



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