Friday 12 August 2011

From the archive: "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over"

The cleverest plot point in the slightly disappointing Spy Kids 2 was that the franchise's two teenage leads (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) eventually had to junk their many malfunctioning gadgets to overcome their opponents with simple common sense. Spy Kids 3D, which maintains Robert Rodriguez's exceptional strike rate of one Spy Kids film a year for the past three years (even as we await the arrival of his long-delayed Once Upon a Time in Mexico), doesn't entirely throw common sense to the wind, but certainly ups the reliance on gadgetry: here, young Chuni (Sabara)'s quest to rescue his sister Carmen (Vega) from the clutches of an all-consuming computer game programmed by the shadowy Toymaster (Sylvester Stallone) is shot, and intended to be seen, in the long-defunct 3D format. Buy a ticket for the movie, and you should be handed a pair of red-blue spectacles with whatever change you're lucky to get back these days.

3D was originally introduced by the American film industry back in the 1950s as a way of luring people away from their exciting new television sets and back into the cinema. Spy Kids 3D correctly identifies the increasingly photorealistic (and time-consuming) third-generation console game as the movies' latest enemy, and it's easy to see why they might be considered such a threat. Over the last few years, with lucrative synergies on the rise, event movies have started - implicitly or otherwise - to ape the narratives of their tie-in computer games, reaching their nadir in the conveyor-belt plotting of Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, whole sections of which felt like watching a Playstation over somebody's shoulder, rather than a big-screen spectacle directed by a grown-up male.

Rodriguez and his effects team here do an excellent job of pursuing the console aesthetic to its logical extreme, taking sideswipes at the irritating, pre-programmed repetition of computer game monsters and the flat way these entertainments tend to render crowds of human beings, while also working in plenty of geeky tech jokes: one character is called Rez, allowing for the groan-inducing greeting "Hi, Rez", and Sabara mourns the loss of a fellow on-line player with "I never even got her e-mail address".

As an opponent to the zombifying joypad, 3D proves to have some merit as an endearingly tatty format; the end credits thank Texas Instruments, which presumably means this is the first summer blockbuster to have been brought to the screen using Speak & Spell technology. Perhaps owing to the (not inconsiderable) cost of issuing millions of viewers worldwide with 3D glasses, the technology doesn't seem to have moved on much since the 50s: the audience still has to wear a pair of scratchy cardboard specs that dig into your nose and are prone to breaking. (Indeed, the elastic on mine snapped even before the first scene was over.) Though the format does wonders with space, 3D continues to have real difficulty rendering colour as anything other than a blur of uncertain shades and half-perceived tones; it also necessitates too much self-conscious pointing, or objects being thrust at the camera, to work. At times, Rodriguez appears to be shooting nothing more than an Army recruitment poster: Hollywood wants YOU to buy their product.

One of the reliable pleasures of this series has been its unusual casting of grown-ups to support the kids. This third feature somewhat disappointingly reduces the majority of them to walk-ons and cameos, although Ricardo Montalban ("Boss! Boss! De game! De game!") is given an extended - and unexpectedly touching - run-out as Chuni's wheelchair-supported grandfather, given legs by the computer game's new technology. Mom and Pop (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino) don't appear until the very end, and even Vega takes a lesser role this time around, perhaps busy pursuing the singing career she launched at the end of the second instalment. (Several of her songs adorn the soundtrack.)

Stallone gets more to do in the antagonist role than Steve Buscemi did in Spy Kids 2, playing four roles for the same paycheque, but it's a moot point as to whether this much Stallone is an entirely good thing. That said, he's involved in the film's standout gag, paired with another actor who (maybe surprisingly) looks and sounds like him. The threedophilia may be a one-off revival or gimmick, but in a summer where there's been very little else leaping off the screen in our event movies, at least it has a gimmick to begin with. Certainly SK3 is more fun than its predecessor; for more, why not take a bottle of red food colouring into the cinema with you, place a few drops either side of your glasses, and emerge from the screen screaming something like "My eyes! My eyes! Disney, I'm gonna sue your collective Mouse ass!"

(August 2003)

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