Sci-fi musicals are a rare breed, which is understandable given that the forms of escapism present in both those genres tend to be quite different.
There have been musical plays made out of sci-fi movies because you can make musicals out of just about anything. But for a sci-fi movie to temporarily become focused on Busby Berkely-style dance routines, a very special energy is required.
Those lucky few to draw successfully from both worlds have become cult classics, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Earth Girls are Easy. And though achieving such heights would be a tall order for any filmmaker, Rachel Talalay’s Tank Girl fought hard to join the ranks of such beloved sci-fi curios.
Now that Tank Girl is streaming on Amazon Prime, here’s why you should revisit it.
A clear influence on Margot Robbie’s depiction of Harley Quinn in films like Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey and James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, Tank Girl is the alter ego of one Rebecca Buck (Lori Petty). She lives in post-apocalyptic Australia, which, since a comet struck the Earth, has become a mostly barren desert. Ninety-five percent of all land is controlled by the evil Water & Power, run by the maniacal Kesslee (Malcolm McDowell). That other five percent is home to Rebecca’s commune.
Despite these dire straits, Rebecca has a hot boyfriend (Brian Wimmer), who likes role-play, great music, and zany outfits; she’s also popular in the commune, where young girls look up to her and everyone seems to look out for each other. As Rebecca says in her opening monologue, “It hasn't rained in 11 years! Now, 20 people gotta squeeze inside the same bathtub. So it ain't all bad.”
But after Kesslee makes a general walk on broken glass, Water & Power launches a full-scale attack on the commune. Killing her boyfriend, the corrupt water baron chooses to enslave and torture Rebecca, hoping to use her to hunt down the mysterious Rippers who keep sabotaging his pipelines.
Though at Kesslee’s mercy, Buck never loses her quick, scathing wit. When the water baron throws her in a meat locker tied up in a straitjacket, she’s able to tell him through her freezing that, “It's... really... hard for me... to play with myself in this thing.” He eventually shoots her down a long pipe, hoping to induce claustrophobia.
Eventually, Rebecca makes her way inside a tank, assuming the alter ego Tank Girl and heavily modifying the attack vehicle. It’s love at first sight, emphasized by an animated sequence. Her friend, Jet Girl (Naomi Watts in one of her earliest roles), has a similar awakening as she discovers a fighter jet. The pair are eventually used as bait for the Rippers, who attack and are able to kill most of Water & Power’s soldiers while seriously injuring Kesslee. That’s when Tank Girl and Jet Girl escape — and when things get really weird.
Writing for the New York Times when Tank Girl first hit theaters, film critic Janet Maslin wrote that Tank Girl is “so overloaded with playful gambits that they become numbing quickly.” And it’s true that Tank Girl feels filled past the brim. On the hunt for the Rippers, Tank Girl and Jet Girl sneak into a sex club where they force the Madame (Ann Magnusson) to lead the crowd in Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall In Love” at gunpoint.
Though such elaborate sequences are a little confusing at first, it’s fascinating that Talalay doubled down in creating a whole Esther Williams-style aesthetic for Tank Girl (minus the pool). Speaking to EW in a retrospective last year, she described her thinking:
"I am and was obsessed with Hollywood musicals, Growing up, absolutely obsessed. Fred Astaire. Gene Kelly. Busby Berkeley. That was my escapism. And I’m like, 'Well, we’re going to do whatever we want, so I’m going to do a Busby Berkeley number!' And Adam Shankman (director of 2007's Hairspray) ended up choreographing it. That entirely came from out of my head saying, ‘We’re going to stop, we’re doing a musical number and that’s that.'”
Behind the anarchic spirit of what was playing out on-screen, Tank Girl was an extremely difficult movie to make on just about every possible level. Adapted from a comic (by the young British comic artist Jamie Hewlett) at a time when this practice was far less common in Hollywood, the film struggled to find financing for over a year.
Talalay’s convictions about what the movie could be led her to turn down Disney, afraid the Mouse House would water her down. The movie eventually found a home at MGM, where Alan Ladd Jr. had a pretty terrific record of picking sci-fi projects, with Star Wars and Alien under his belt. But Ladd left MGM in 1993, before Talalay had gotten to make the film, leaving Tank Girl in a tough spot with uninterested execs. “It was a war," she told EW.
She and Hewlett at least had each other to lean on throughout the struggle. Looking back on the film’s development in 2006, Hewlett described Tank Girl as a “horrible experience,” filled with endless rewrites and scenes that had to be animated because the studio had “[forgotten] to film them.” In 2008, Talalay described the musical sequence as being “chopped...to threads,” alongside a number of other scenes. While these scenes tested well with audiences, executives couldn’t be swayed. “Now I understand that the film scared them,” she told EW. ”It scared all the male executives.”
And that’s not even to mention the sheer physical exhaustion of making a movie in a “semi-closed-down copper mine” in the Arizona desert. The Rippers — eventually revealed to be half-man, half-kangaroo rebels, designed by Terminator legend Stan Winston — wore heavy outfits that boiled away in the sun. The tank kept getting stuck in the sand and was impossible to reverse.
Some movies feel like they shouldn’t exist. That Tank Girl found an audience despite all these obstacles must have felt to Talalay like giving Hollywood a wet willie. Constantly challenged and undercut by executives during production, Tank Girl is in many ways a victim of studio involvement. Read another way, its strangeness is a credit to the collaborative nature of movies.
Stan Winston cut his fee to work on the project, Courtney Love agreed to create a soundtrack, and Ice-T told Howard Stern he started hopping around like a kangaroo when he found out the studio was going to pay him a million dollars to show up as the supporting character T-Brain. Somehow, all of these people found themselves making Tank Girl.
Even with free reign, it’s no sure bet that Tank Girl would have been a box-office hit. It’s a weird, unapologetically feminist movie in which human-kangaroo hybrids serve as romantic leads. But that’s the entire charm of Tank Girl. A critical and financial failure at the time, and blasted as the weirdo venture it always was, Talalay’s film has since found an audience more than ready for rebellion.
Tank Girl is now streaming on Amazon Prime.