One sequel is usually one too many, and a second sequel inevitably forces the film makers to draw from the bottom of the barrel of ideas, since most of the good ideas have already been used up. So it is with Superman III.
The razzle-dazzle of fancy sets and complex machinery finally fails to dazzle. What saves the film, if anything, is the human touch embodied in Richard Pryor's comic antics: he has insufficient opportunity to indulge his talent in this one, but he makes the best of a stupid script. Christopher Reeve plays Virtue Triumphant with his usual aplomb, except in the second of the three parts of the film, during which he undergoes a radical change of personality. For Superman to turn bad as a result of some rays from Krypton is not only out of character, it tarnishes the image of Superman as a Good Guy, whose do-good exploits are the main reason that children (often chronologically adults) go to the theater to see him.
Reeve walks a neat tightrope between being himself and playing the whole thing for laughs. But almost the only laughs in the film are of the slapstick kind that open the picture and give it its best five minutes.
The devastating effect and immense popularity of Hitchcock's Psycho were due not to blood and gore but to a totally absorbing and credible plot combined with the brilliant use of the unexpected. Contrary to all cinematic conventions, the star of the film (Janet Leigh) was dispatched after the first half-hour of the film by being stabbed to death in the shower (a scene imitated in countless films since); the detective, the last person we expect to be a victim, is stabbed to death at the top of the stairs; and so on. Sudden death at the least expected moment for the least expected persons was a device used with maximum effect in the greatest of all thrillers, Clouzot's The Wages of Fear, and Hitchcock adapted it with maximum effect, particularly in Psycho.
In the current Psycho II, Hitchcock's lean and brilliant strokes are conspicuously absent. The film makers try valiantly, however, and the successor—though it does not match the original film—is absorbing throughout because of the chess game the film makers play with the audience. There are leads that seem plausible, so that we think we have it figured out, only to watch them turn out to be red herrings; then something else strikes us as the inevitable solution, only to have that too turn out to be a dead end. Is the killer in the original Psycho (Anthony Perkins, the principal character in Psycho II) going to remain sane or return to his old ways? Is he really going bananas, or is it a part of a sinister plot to have him recommitted, or is he the sane one battling an insane and unseen antagonist?
The film is successful as a constant challenge to the viewer's ingenuity at problem solving. Its plot is far more complex than the original. The question is whether it is all worth the trouble.
Fast on the heels of his Blue Thunder comes John Badham's War Games. Both can be described as action thrillers, but War Games is a much better film. One reason is the two principals, teenagers Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy, who add a human touch to the film that was lacking in the strictly "techno-trash" Blue Thunder. Largely as a result of their winning characterizations, there is an upbeat ambience in this film that is reminiscent of E.T. Another reason is the importance of its theme—the possibility of accidental nuclear confrontation, which in this case is no confrontation at all but a false alarm that occurs when the teenage computer whiz taps into a NORAD (North American Air Defense) computer when he thinks he is only playing a war game by computer with an unknown game-playing antagonist.
One is never really convinced that the events depicted could actually occur. For one thing, only the command of the president of the United States can release the deadly missiles; in the film, the computer does it. For another, it is rather absurd to believe that NORAD experts would use the computer as their only evidence of an approaching attack, in the total absence of any independent verification (sightings, radar, etc.) that such an attack was imminent. Criticisms of those in charge of NORAD may be in order, but they are hardly that stupid and trigger-happy.
One line in the film, which is as applicable to nuclear war as to other games being described, is: "The game cannot be won—the only strategy is not to play it." The line draws loud cheers from the audience. But what is it supposed to imply? What if one side refuses to play but the other side refuses to refuse? Doesn't the side that refuses to play the game instead play into the hands of the side that doesn't refuse?
The film solves no problems. It misleads people about the simplicity of solutions. It does not even give a plausible scenario for how a nuclear war might start. But it does present to us a scary kind of chess game, well plotted and well acted, maximizing our edge-of-the-seat suspense.
John Hospers is the author of Understanding the Arts. He teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".