REDUX REVIEW: Batman & Robin (1997, Joel Schumacher)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

B&R

Watched: 5 January 2020.
Format: A DVD from my collection.
Seen before? Yes. Sadly.

Note: I’ve already reviewed Batman & Robin on this blog, back in 2015 when I wrote a series of reviews about Batman and Superman films. I was fairly damning, but rather than rake over old ground, this redux review will instead focus on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s contribution as lead villain Mr Freeze…

Review: The magic of filmmaking is in its ability to create new sensations of time and space. It isn’t theatre, which mostly plays out on a defined stage with its pace dictated by the actors’ choices. Cinema can redefine geography and chronology through editing, and create the impression of a natural flow by cutting together takes that have been filmed at different times. Sometimes wildly different times: a conversation between the characters of Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), for example, had its two close-ups filmed a year apart for logistical reasons.

At least in that instance, actors Elijah Wood and Sean Astin were acting together during both performances – the fact their respective ‘over the shoulders’ were filmed in November 1999 and November 2000 is not detectable in the finished movie. The same can’t be said for certain scenes in the spectacularly terrible Batman & Robin. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was collecting $25 million for playing the villain Mr Freeze, often feels like he’s in a film all of his own – and not just because director Joel Schumacher had an ‘anything goes’ attitude to acting styles.

Watching the movie today, you can’t escape the feeling that Schwarzenegger is not exactly in sync with anything else that’s going on. He seems detached from the action, isolated from the drama, uncoupled from the cinematic flow. He doesn’t *fit*. A few years after the film came out, his co-star Chris O’Donnell – making his second appearance in the series as Robin – provided an explanation. ‘I’m in a lot of scenes with Mr Freeze,’ he said. ‘But I didn’t work one day with Arnold.’ It turns out that Schwarzenegger was not the only person to play Mr Freeze. A succession of body doubles and stand-ins were used for shots where the character’s face isn’t seen, largely because it took so long to apply the elaborate make-up and costume. Arnie’s close-ups were often filmed in isolation too, with the ‘performance’ being stitched together in post-production.

Not that the situation improves when Arnie himself is on screen. The most notable aspect of his contribution is dialogue that groans under the weight of its own awfulness. The character has around 100 lines of dialogue and every single one is dreadful. Nothing he says, in fact, sounds like dialogue. Instead Mr Freeze’s words are a combination of shallow pronouncements (‘Nice of you to drop in’, ‘I hate uninvited guests’, ‘Ah! A laundry service that delivers!’) and a never-ending conveyor belt of tedious puns. Most of the wordplay involves the character’s icy theme, with practically every variation wheeled out at some point: ‘The Iceman cometh!’, ‘You’re not sending me to the cooler!’, ‘You’re skating on thin ice!’, ‘Chilled to perfection!’, ‘Nothing frustrates a man like a frigid wife’, and many, many more of an equally tiresome flavour. For good measure, the character also insists on leading his henchmen in a singsong while wearing polar-bear slippers.

All this childish nonsense is a double disappointment because Mr Freeze is one of the most interesting villains in the Batman canon. Victor Fries is a scientist attempting to find a cure for his terminally ill wife, but an accident involving liquid hydrogen has led to him needing a cyber-suit to keep his body at a low temperature. There’s pathos in that story, even if the present film mostly ignores it. He first appeared in the Batman comic-book series in 1959 under the name of Mr Zero. Renamed Mr Freeze, he was then a recurring villain in the 1960s TV show (played by a different actor each time – George Sanders, Otto Preminger and Eli Wallach).

But it was Heart of Ice, a critically acclaimed 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series, that introduced the tragic backstory. Voiced by Michael Ansara, this cartoon iteration of the character has become the default and has inspired almost every subsequent Mr Freeze – including various comic books reimaginings and his appearances in the TV shows Gotham (played by Nathan Darrow) and Harley Quinn (voiced by Alfred Molina). In comparison, Arnie’s attempt at the character feels like something from the last Ice Age.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘There’s a moment going into [heart] surgery that I really hate. It’s the moment when the anaesthesia start to take hold, when you know you’re going out, when you’re losing consciousness and don’t know if you’ll ever wake up. The oxygen mask felt like it was suffocating me – I was gasping for air, short of breath. This was a much bigger version of the claustrophobia I fought when I was having face a body masks made to play the Terminator or Mr Freeze in Batman & Robin. For me, Stan Winston’s special-effects studio was torture.’

One chilling sound of your doom out of 10

Next: Aftermath

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