As someone who generally dislikes Whedon's work and has never seen the hugely popular TV version of the character, it's not obvious which specific aspects of 1992's Buffy didn't work for Whedon. However, it is easy to critique Buffy as a movie, which feels pretty half-baked even in the context of what director Fran Rubel Kuzui and her husband, producer Kaz Kuzui, clearly were going for. Swanson's Buffy is a cringe-inducing stereotype of a teen girl, amped up for comic effect but lacking the kind of crackle and snap of future, similar comedies like Clueless and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion. Buffy and her friends Nicki (Paris Vaughan), Jennifer (Michele Abrams), and Kimberly (future Academy Award-winner Hilary Swank) are vacuous in a mean-spirited, snide, condescending way, one which feels like it's straining to create four hateable characters that the audience is meant to feel superior to.
The movie picks up when Buffy is introduced to Merrick (Donald Sutherland), who is reborn throughout the decades in order to teach a "Chosen One" how to claim her destiny battling the undead. In scenes between Buffy and Merrick, the dialogue tones itself down, Buffy becomes smarter, and the movie becomes more entertaining, especially as she takes on Merrick's training ritual. In these sequences, watching Swanson (and her various stunt doubles) flip, fly, kick, and stab their way through a montage that would fit right into a Rocky movie, it's easy to suspect that this is where the appeal of movie Buffy and TV Buffy are briefly aligned. It's not just fun to see a woman kicking ass on screen, but there's an empowering appeal to seeing her embrace her destiny as a warrior against evil. Inevitably, she puts her skills into action as the movie goes on, but just watching her training and enjoying it is thrilling too.
On the other hand, even though Buffy's transformation from shopper to soldier fits the definition of character development, it inadvertently makes the movie kind of regressive. The future hit comedies that echoed Buffy's approach managed to develop their protagonists without painting their silly, sunny, carefree personalities as inherently negative. In one intimate moment, Buffy's handsome assistant slayer and impromptu dance partner Pike (Luke Perry) tells her, "You're not like other girls," and Buffy replies, "Yes, I am." It's a nice moment, speaking to traditional teen dreams of crushes and first kisses, but it's already been undermined by a scene where Buffy tries to tell her friends about the new developments in her life, and they can't even understand what she's talking about. It's one thing for a character to tap into resources they never knew they had, and another for a character to simply develop into a "better" person.
Swanson's spirited, charming performance and sharp comic chemistry with Sutherland provide a strong foundation for the film, but Kuzui struggles as a director and presumed ghostwriter. Large swaths of character motivation are left unexplained (what exactly are these vampires trying to accomplish, just taking over the world?), and scenes, such as a mid-movie confrontation between Buffy and the film's underdeveloped big bad, Lothos (Rutger Hauer), play out in ways that make no sense in terms of what each character is supposedly after. Kuzui has a minimal grip on tone, with blatantly comic scenes (like Paul Reubens' final bit as Lothos' right-hand man Amilyn) clashing with supposedly dramatic moments, and no skill at stretching the film's limited budget into impressive action sequences (all vampire flight sequences look stiff even when you can't see the wires, and a car chase is mostly swerving, set to a pulse-slowing rock tune). There are bright spots here, perhaps more than Whedon would be willing to admit, but this Buffy lacks bite.
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