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 HOWARD THE DUCK: The Greatest Movie Ever Made?

A confession: I love HOWARD THE DUCK. For years I was reluctant to admit that, and bashed the film every chance I got. However, I’ve finally come around to embracing what I’ve secretly felt about HTD since first viewing it on opening day back in 1986. I was a kid at the time, and saw it with a friend who midway through blurted out “this is quite a movie!” I couldn’t agree more.

     HOWARD THE DUCK, you’ll recall, was a big budget summer release executive produced by George Lucas--the source was a popular comic book about a talking duck from another planet who ends up on Earth. Universal had high hopes for the film, and invested an estimated $30 million (a not-inconsiderable sum for the time). The result was a massive critical and financial disaster that became an immediate and long-lasting embarrassment for everyone involved.

     Sure, by most standards HTD is a rotten flick: insanely overblown, scatter-brained and sensation-happy. But are those entirely bad things? I’d say no, especially in light of what HTD isn’t: timid, predictable or boring.

     In recent years I, like many of my colleagues, have gotten into a new (to us Westerners) brand of cinema emerging from places like Turkey and Indonesia. Such films, which include unforgettable titles like THE WARRIOR, MYSTICS IN BALI, LADY TERMINATOR and SEYTAN, are marked by an irresistible brand of rapid-fire insanity that encompasses multiple genres and never allows one’s attention to flag. These films aren’t “good” by any means, but as mind-twisting thrill rides they’re virtually unsurpassed--and if THE WARRIOR or LADY TERMINATOR have a Hollywood equivalent, it would be HOWARD THE DUCK.

     HOWARD may lack the gratuitous gore or limb-ripping of those films, but is similar in most other respects. The wild, almost psychedelic narrative that emphasizes sensation at the expense of everything else (including logic and characterization) could have been lifted verbatim from an Indonesian programmer. HOWARD’S budget was several times that of most foreign films, but its once state-of-the-art special effects now seem primitive, and about on par with the endearingly tacky FX of MYSTICS IN BALI. In fact, I’m convinced that were HOWARD THE DUCK dubbed into a foreign language and re-released not too many viewers would know any better.

     Regarding the title of this essay, no, I don’t believe HOWARD THE DUCK is the greatest movie ever made. But its stock among film buffs has risen appreciably since its disastrous 1986 theatrical bow. For years the film was unavailable on DVD, but finally turned up in March of 2009, complete with a featurette exploring its impact on the pop culture landscape--and in years to come, who knows? CITIZEN KANE may have a new contender as the world’s top movie.

     Think I’m being silly? Well okay, I am, but still, HTD does have much in common with many “great” movies. To whit:

  • It Was Misunderstood During Its Initial Release. I won’t bother recounting the kind of reviews HTD received, but they weren’t exactly kind-hearted. This would put it in the company of THE WIZARD OF OZ, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, THE WILD BUNCH and even the aforementioned CITIZEN KANE (whose initial reception was decidedly mixed). Another comparison is PEEPING TOM, the unjustly reviled 1961 masterpiece that ended the career of its director Michael Powell; HTD’s helmer Willard Huyck has likewise not directed a film since its release. Michael Powell’s illustrious filmography includes THE RED SHOES, BLACK NARCISSUS and STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN--Huyck’s includes MESSIAH OF EVIL, FRENCH POSTCARDS and BEST DEFENSE.
  • It Broke Taboos. To my knowledge, HTD was Hollywood’s first-ever bestiality-themed movie. The love scenes between the title character and actress Lea Thompson remain uncomfortable, and were heavily censored in many countries. Classics like MIDNIGHT COWBOY, THE EXORCIST and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE were given a similar treatment, although unlike them, the times still haven’t entirely caught up with HOWARD (how many bestiality-themed spectaculars have you seen lately?).
  • It Teaches You Things. Great films are often credited with broadening viewers’ horizons, and in this area HTD certainly qualifies. Example: before watching this movie I was unaware that to make a motorized hang glider work one needs only to find a plastic tube and stick it into a receptacle, which will cause the glider to shoot straight up into the air--or that to open a robotically sealed door you just have to kick it really hard, and the “Access Denied” will change to “Access Granted.”
  • It Started (and Finished!) A Rock Band. HOWARD THE DUCK gave us the Lea Thompson headlined band Cherry Bomb. Robert Altman, one of America’s greatest filmmakers, also introduced a rock band in his 1979 film A PERFECT COUPLE (cited by many critics as one of Altman’s finest efforts) called Keepin’ Em off The Streets. That band, needless to add, failed to break through, and Cherry Bomb didn’t exactly set the world on fire either.
  • It Spans Multiple Genres. The films of the 1960s French New Wave have been praised for their genre-hopping, particularly Francois Truffaut’s SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER and JULES AND JIM, which contain elements of comedy, romance and film noir. HOWARD THE DUCK also encompasses those things, as well as a whacked-out sci fi angle in the final third, which radically changes the entire thrust of the film.
  • It’s Fast and Furious. A longtime George Lucas mantra, utilized in the STAR WARS and INDIANA JONES flicks, is to keep the action fast and furious so that the audience is too distracted to spot any plot holes or inconsistencies. HOWARD THE DUCK is possibly the most potent example of this mantra; here it seems the filmmakers succeeded in not only distracting the audience but themselves as well!
  • It’s Innovative In Its Use of Music. It’s been said that the finest film scores work in counterpoint to the imagery (as in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and MEAN STREETS). John Barry’s score for HOWARD THE DUCK does just that, particularly during the climactic hang glider chase and concluding special effects blow out, two intense action sequences set to bizarrely placid music--did Barry even know what he was scoring?
  • It Introduced New Talent. Actor/musician Richard Edson and frequent Alex Cox cast costar Miguel Sandoval both make early appearances in HOWARD THE DUCK, as does a youthful Tim Robbins. The latter sports one of the goofiest haircuts in movie history, and delivers a performance to match. The fact that Robbins had a career after this film proves he’s got enormous staying power.
  • It Has Some Really Cool Monsters. In all seriousness, the scorpion-like “Dark Overlords of the Universe” who turn up in HOWARD THE DUCK, visualized via stop motion animation, are damn cool. As in KING KONG and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, the critters aren’t shown until late in the film.
  • It Utilizes Repeated Motifs. Critics tend to love it when filmmakers repeat certain elements in a film--think of the slow motion violence of THE WILD BUNCH, the eyeball motif of BLADE RUNNER, the overhead shots of TAXI DRIVER, etc. Here the threat of Howard leaving and/or dying is brought up on several occasions, complete with the same sad music playing each time and teary-eyed supporting characters wailing about how “this world didn’t treat you very good.”
  • It Foresaw the Future. Back in 1986 expensive PG-rated movies based on comic books weren‘t exactly common (which partially explains the negative reception afforded HOWARD THE DUCK), whereas nowadays they’re Hollywood’s bread and butter. Also, with its thoroughly off-putting and unlikable title character, HTD can be seen as the true forerunner of BEETLEJUICE, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT and MY LEFT FOOT.
  • It’s remained in the public eye. Like it or not, over the years HOWARD THE DUCK has endured, and in a way that other, supposedly better 1986 releases--CLUB PARADISE, RUTHLESS PEOPLE, TOP GUN, NOTHING IN COMMON, CROCODILE DUNDEE--haven’t. This is an attribute shared by the likes of CITIZEN KANE, THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, 8½ and SCHINDLER’S LIST--and also GLEN OR GLENDA, ROBOT MONSTER and SHOWGIRLS. In other words, even if HOWARD THE DUCK never succeeds in knocking CITIZEN KANE from its perch, it may yet take the place of PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE.