TANK GIRL is a bit of a conundrum. Given the film’s 1995 release and its uniquely 1990s aesthetic is should have been a runaway hit, but instead it flopped at the box office. Big time. Perhaps what set it apart from its contemporaries made it tough for audiences to approach, but these characteristics are also what make it the cult classic that it is today.
Just as grunge music was settling in for its long residence in the mid-1990s, film was trying its best to keep up with this new cultural mode. Rather than the flash and decadence of the previous decade, teenagers—one of most profitable audiences—were wearing combat boots, baggy jeans and brown lipstick. Apathy in fashion and attitude were in vogue which made creators of cultural products a bit uneasy. How can artists function when passion is out of style?
TANK GIRL, based on the British comic strip by the same name, seemed as if it should be a solid choice for the next big film. The story takes place in year 2033. All of the earth is a desert and water is now a precious and guarded commodity. Workers are enslaved to harvest and contain what little water is left to claim. In typical dystopian fashion the major corporation that owns all of these workers as run by a tyrant who only cares for himself and his riches. When the Water & Power (W&P) captures Tank Girl (Lori Petty) and her young friend Sam (Stacy Linn Ramsower) they get more than they bargained for. Tank Girl quickly escapes, not without taking a tank with her, bringing her friend Jet Girl (a young and brunette Naomi Watts) accompanied by her corresponding jet.
The film’s plot gets a bit jumbled after Jet Girl and Tank Girl encounter a group of genetically modified soldiers named the Rippers. They go to save Sam from a brothel, do a song and dance number, and then try their best to take down W&P. Truth be told, I never quite remember the plot of TANK GIRL without rewatching the film, because the plot is not the best part of film. Tank Girl herself is.
To borrow from Dungeons and Dragon’s system for categorizing characters, Tank Girl is the epitome of “Chaotic Good.” She changes outfits in nearly every scene. She talks off the cuff. She is focused on saving Sam, but gets distracted by kangaroo men and insists on decorating her tank to make it her own. She is unpredictable and surrounded by manic energy, but this makes her a kinetic and fascinating character.
Suitably, the structure and style of the film TANK GIRL often mirrors the chaos of the girl herself. The film has animated sequences, which function as both a nod to the source material’s comic roots as well as to establish that the film is putting form ahead of function. The lengthy montage sequence of Tank Girl decorating both her clothes and her tank sure is fun but it has no reason to be in the film’s story other than decoration.
Though Tank Girl was the unhinged type of it-girl I wanted to be when I watched the film as a teen, she was a bit too much to handle for most audiences back then. Any self-respecting grungy teenager could not have let their friends see them looking up to such a vivacious character. Tank Girl loves color and celebrates life, neither of which would be permissible for the grunge scene. Conversely, her chaotic nature and non-traditional fashion sense was alienating to the more conservative kids of the day. These are the same teens who would go on to make CLUELESS a big hit just a few months later.
TANK GIRL’s status as the 1990’s stylistic Goldilocks is what makes her perfect for audiences today. Like clockwork, the current generation of teenagers is interested in what teens did twenty years ago. But unlike TANK GIRL’s contemporaries, there is little concern about her amalgamation of styles. TANK GIRL is truly a hodgepodge of the various cultures in the mid-1990s. This pastiche may have been off-putting back then but now it comes across as retro and quirky. The adaptation of all of the various styles of 1990s fashion and filmmaking make TANK GIRL an appropriate nostalgia vehicle for anyone who wants to revisit the era, even though the era never really embraced the film.