On Friday nights, IndieWire After Dark takes a feature-length beat to honor fringe cinema in the streaming age. 

First, the spoiler-free pitch for one editor’s midnight movie pick — something weird and wonderful from any age of film that deserves our memorializing. 

Then, the spoiler-filled aftermath as experienced by the unwitting editor attacked by this week’s recommendation.

The Pitch: Justice for Lori Petty!

One of cinema’s greatest action heroes is a fiercely feminist freedom fighter captured by an oppressive regime controlling the water supply of a post-apocalyptic landscape. Seeking revenge after her family was ripped from her, the heroine escapes the grasp of the army by stealing a vehicle of war, and ventures across the vast post-punk deserts of Australia with the ultimate goal of eventually slaying the white-haired tyrant who ruined her life.   

No, I’m not talking about Furiosa, Charlize Theron’s iconic badass in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” I’m talking about TankGirl, Lori Petty’s eponymous riot grrrl rebel in the 1995 cult classic film. While the chances that George Miller took active inspiration from a mid-’90s box office bomb while constructing the masterpiece of his career seem slim, the similarities between the films’ themes and story structures are uncanny.

That said, “Tank Girl” received a vastly different reception when it premiered 20 years before “Fury Road” dominated the 2015 box office. Miller’s film earned critical acclaim, healthy box office sales, a plethora of Oscar nominations including for Best Picture, and an immediate place in the action film canon. “Tank Girl,” on the other hand, made barely a fifth of its budget back against scathing reviews, and was disowned by both the creators of the cult indie comic book it was based upon (Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin) and its director (Rachel Talalay), who blamed the final product on studio edits that erased almost an hour of footage.

And yet, a small and passionate group of devotees have kept “Tank Girl” alive as a feminist cult classic for decades. To this day, “Tank Girl” ranks among my favorite comic book movies ever made.  

TANK GIRL, Lori Petty, center, 1995, ©MGM/courtesy Everett Collection
Tank Girl©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

As saturated as cinemas are with comic adaptations, none of the Marvel or DC flicks we once received on a seemingly weekly basis actually feel like comic books. As a reader of the medium, I’m drawn to the feverish imagination, colorful worlds, and unapologetic campiness that the best writers and artists are capable of conjuring up. But too often, the things that make comics fun — their weirdness, their originality — are diluted in the process of translation between mediums, and what’s left on screen is the ugly, gray, and dour corporate sludge of “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” or “Madame Web.” 

“Tank Girl” stands out as a welcome exception, a comic book film so delighted to be a comic book that it peppers its runtime with comic intertitles and deranged animated sequences as if the limits of live-action can’t contain the energy onscreen. Despite the original creators’ unhappiness with the release, everything about the film feels apiece with the punk, anarchic appeal of the comic. Production designer Catherine Hardwicke, pre “Thirteen” and “Twilight,” crafts a dystopian world that’s both stylish and genuinely odd, while Academy Award-winning makeup designer Stan Winston dutifully covers up rapper Ice-T in kangaroo makeup to play one of the mutant Rippers with whom Tank Girl aligns. The soundtrack, assembled by Courtney Love, is an all-bangers collection that includes two Bjork needle drops and tons of other killer punk and rock cuts. Even the casting feels delightfully odd, between a near unrecognizable pre-fame Naomi Watts as the meek Jet Girl and Malcolm McDowell as the snarling leader of the Water & Power Corporation. 

TANK GIRL, Jeff Kober, Lori Petty, 1995, (c)United Artists/courtesy Everett Collection
“Tank Girl”©United Artists/Courtesy Everett Collection

But if there’s one thing that has kept me coming back to “Tank Girl” after I first watched it in high school, it’s Lori Petty’s central performance as the chaotic free-spirit heroine. “Tank Girl” released right as Petty was beginning to break through as a film star with roles in hits like “A League of Their Own” and “Free Willy.” The film’s tanking at the box office killed her momentum so thoroughly that she nearly disappeared from the big screen completely, seemingly punting her off to a career of recurring TV roles. It’s a shame because Petty’s performance is genuinely phenomenal: a well-calibrated turn that feels like what would happen if Bugs Bunny was a member of Bikini Kill. She’s a hilarious and magnetic ball of energy, and so thoroughly perfect for the role that I hear her voice whenever I visit the original comic book.    

And so, in selecting “Tank Girl” as this week’s IndieWire After Dark, I hope to indoctrinate Ali and you into my quest for justice. Justice for Lori Petty! Justice for “Tank Girl!” —WC

The Aftermath: We Can Ride at Dawn, But Tank Girl Is Just Fine

We may not be quenching a planet-destroying thirst, but I like to think IndieWire After Dark offers an important service to our small, emotionally disturbed readership.

An unofficial rebel alliance in the water wars of digital streaming (ba dum tss), this unhinged contingent of midnight movie lovers exists to venture into the cinematic unknown and right archival wrongs where we can. Laying that weekly groundwork in style is half the fun, and this Friday, I’m proud we’ve platformed a queer-coded sci-fi heroine whose effervescence is infinitely describable but I’ll sum up as sexy Pippy Longstocking meets an even sexier Erin Brockovich…on uppers…and Pez? Yeah, just Pez.

Anyone who reads this column with enough dedication to reach its second half (did you watch the movie in between? DID you?) can appreciate that honoring hidden gems like “Tank Girl” might start out as a tribute to under-known actors or productions gone sideways. But the best unbound vessels for campy greatness, like Talalay’s 1995 cult hit for example, endure because of how they make us feel; and something tells me someone out there needed to meet Tank Girl as much as I did tonight.

Yes, the four seasons might be long gone on Martin and Hewlitt’s dry, raisin-like version of Earth. But spring in LA is an odd time for malaise and, even for all the flowers, sometimes you need to feel something. “Tank Girl” does that — and then some.

TANK GIRL, Lori Petty, 1995. ©United Artists/courtesy Everett Collection
“Tank Girl”©United Artists/Courtesy Everett Collection

There’s a shrugging self-assuredness tangled up in Petty’s sexy mess of performance, blurring an accidental funniness (“That’s me unconscious!”) with a weaponized self-awareness (“It’s really hard for me to play with myself in this thing…”) that’s undeniable. Then. Now. In 2033 when “the world is screwed.” No one can watch this movie and pretend its star isn’t dazzling as an entertainer and outright worthy of worship as a futuristic avatar for bisexual female rage. Whether she’s directing the men of W&P for a fake calendar shoot, flirting it up with a first-generation reincarnated non-dog, or straddling the front of a semi-truck in little lilac bike shorts, Tank Girl gets it done her way every time.

Sure, Petty may have fallen victim to choosing the wrong project in a competitive landscape; finding your fanbase among ’90s sci-fi snobs wasn’t easy, just ask “The Fifth Element.” But there’s a fizzy irony in feeling like Tank Girl would want “Tank Girl” to tank — at least with the types of moviegoers who don’t understand her. For all its obvious pacing problems and not nearly enough Naomi Watts (I said what I said!), this cinematic outpost is arguably even more special to visit because it’s guarded by an elite unit who can understand imperfections as assets to the “Tank Girl” philosophy in their own right. Selfishly, I even enjoy her fanbase a little lean. We’re faster on foot and just the right amount of thirsty. —AF

Those brave enough to join in on the fun can stream “Tank Girl” on Tubi, Roku, and Pluto TV. IndieWire After Dark publishes midnight movie recommendations at 11:59 p.m. ET every Friday. Read more of our deranged suggestions…

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