Revisiting once cherished 80s films is a dicey game and shouldn’t be taken on by those unprepared for disappointment. I’m not talking about timeless classics like Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Princess Bride or The Empire Strikes Back, I mean those films that are drenched in the decade in which there were made. Even with that proviso you don’t need to worry about masterworks like Back to the Future and Die Hard, which you won’t be rediscovering anyway because we’ve all watched them with some regularity ever since we first picked up a VHS copy, right? No, I’m talking about those movies that you kind of know you love but haven’t ever felt compelled to test whether your affection is fuelled by anything more than nostalgia. In these cases, the rewatch is generally prompted by stumbling across it on TV or by finding a copy for a few quid in a supermarket or even in some brave cases by an anniversary release on shiny new Blu-ray. Walking this tightrope sometimes you win, as I have recently with Heathers, but sometimes it can be an embarrassing and painful loss as it was when I excitedly made my family watch Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure a few weeks ago.
It was with anticipation and some trepidation then that, having spotted it on the shelf in my holiday home, I sat down to watch Splash, the famous Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah romcom from 1984. The two big potential issues with rewatching old movies are that the general quality is just not what you remember or worse, that sensibilities have changed and what was once funny is now offensive. In a very light way, Splash suffers in both respects.
The film opens with a full two minutes of the camera just focused on the surface of some water while the names of the cast and key creatives come up so it’s not a punchy start. Anyone who has ever skipped past the beautifully designed yet lengthy opening credits sequence of Game of Thrones will understand but compared to this kids today don’t know they were born.
Beyond this the movie is pure male fantasy just like Mannequin made three years later. (At least Mannequin had a great theme song, does anyone recall Love Came for Me by Rita Coolidge?) Here Tom Hanks plays Alan who is unlucky in love until the most beautiful woman imaginable walks naked out of the sea and kisses him before following him home and, no questions asked, sleeps with him. The conflict comes when it turns out she is actually a mermaid, literally a fantasy creature. It feels like it should be some kind of allegory but it really isn’t that sophisticated. It is a surprise to find that writer producer Brian Grazer was 33 when he came up with this story because frankly you’d think it had come from the imagination of a guy half that age. There are some fish out of water scenes (not just an expression in this case) and a shopping montage but there is very little focus on developing the character of the female lead at all. I suspect the plot came across as cliched even thirty five years ago but sadly the sexism probably passed unnoticed.
Unsurprisingly the casual chauvinism doesn’t stop there. Generally the camera avoids catching Daryl Hannah’s bare breasts but not always and at one point it deliberately stares right at her naked butt. Later on an angry cabbie suggests Alan keep her on a leash which doesn’t smack of respect either. Then there is John Candy’s entire performance as a boorish perv who likes to drop coins on the floor so that he can look up women’s skirts when he picks them up. This, almost unbelievably now, is played for laughs. Elsewhere inappropriate humour is drawn from a woman’s head injury and at one point when a sales assistant is trying to sell Hannah’s Madison a tight dress she delivers the line ‘I couldn’t get one leg in there, my daughter on the other hand, she’s lucky she’s anorexic’.
Of course the charm of the central couple carries the film a certain distance but the moment when the typically affable Hanks forces himself in on a woman in the bathroom who is shouting at him to keep out undermines his likability a little. Hannah is good but what she has to work with is so insubstantial compared to her work in Roxanne and Wall Street let alone her brilliant breakout in Blade Runner two years previously.
With all of this though, in one respect, Splash does compare favourably to the two films it most obviously evokes. In a couple of places the film almost provides shot templates for the 1980’s other big ocean nymph movie, The Little Mermaid and the whole plot is very similar to last year’s The Shape of Water. Unlike both of those movies though here the woman is not forced to give up everything she knows for love, it is the man who gives himself over completely to her way of life. From a feminist point of view that is quite progressive. How many fairytales do you know where it happens that way round?
Splash was an early hit for noted director Ron Howard but while I had fond memories of it I now I have to say that it is eclipsed by every film he made in the ten years following; Willow, Parenthood, Backdraft and, teaming up again with a post Oscars Hanks, Apollo 13. I’m not sure about Cocoon, the movie he made immediately after this. I shall have to catch up with that one again next. As for Splash, I’m throwing it back in the water.