"Spawn", the big new special effects summer pic based on the comic book series, is a witless exercise in reheating leftovers.

By Laura Miller

Published September 1, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

every so often, suffering lives up to its reputation and leads to a little bit of enlightenment. Under normal circumstances, sitting through "Spawn," the new movie based on Todd McFarlane's hugely popular comic book series, probably would have been merely uncomfortable. But turn the screening into a premiere, add endless waiting in lines and lobbies packed with people craning their heads to glimpse celebrities and interminable speeches about the wacky, wonderful experience of making "a big summer effects picture," and the needle red-lines ever so slightly into the "pain" category.

With an astonishingly good-natured friend, I waited an hour and a half to discover that "Spawn" -- the story of Al Simmons (Michael Jai White), an elite government assassin who gets melted by his boss (Martin Sheen) in an explosion in North Korea, sent to hell a couple of times, returned to earth looking pretty bad but endowed with assorted superhero powers, tormented by a squat little clown (John Leguizamo) with about 90 teeth who farts glowing green gas, seeks vengeance on his murderer and reunion with his wife (Theresa Randle) and winds up foiling a complicated scheme involving multiple viral bombs and infernal hoards in jumpsuits -- is a witless exercise in reheating leftovers. The character is a rehash of Spiderman, the film's look borrows liberally from Tim Burton's "Batman" and White is the poor man's Denzel Washington, the way Randle is the poor man's Angela Bassett and Leguizamo and Sheen (in these roles at least) are the poor man's Danny DeVito and Gene Hackman, respectively.

Before learning this, we stood outside the theater for what felt like hours, shivering in the chilly fog of a San Francisco summer evening and wondering why the other people in line weren't getting surly and restless, too. They exhibited that combination of animation and docility you see in crowds waiting to get into stadium rock concerts, content to camp out overnight if need be, they're so confident the show will be worth it. We wanted only to see the movie, crank out a review and be done with it, but for them this was clearly some kind of event. Men with tiny sunglasses, long hair and strangely trimmed beards and women who looked like Morticia Addams on casual dress day scurried up and down the length of the line. When the limos pulled up and disgorged Sheen, Leguizamo and a few young women in rubber dresses and heavy pancake makeup with hair resembling the synthetic floss attached to the heads of Barbie dolls, we figured everyone was simply jazzed to be gawking at the margins of an admittedly diluted drop of Hollywood glamour.

Inside, but still waiting, we sat in front of a group of young men who guffawed loudly and kept calling each other "dude." More eavesdropping revealed that they were computer game designers and more clever than their loutish manner indicated. "They're the kind of guys who're actually smart, but act like they're stupid," I whispered to my companion. Then three similar young men climbed onstage to hearty applause. They were Mark Dippe, Clint Goldman and Steve "Spaz" Williams, respectively the director, producer and visual effects supervisor of "Spawn."

Goldman commenced a long speech acknowledging a host of technical workers (the people whose names appear in the endless credit sequences at the end of movies like "Spawn"), each one greeted with recognition and more hearty applause. He asked everyone who'd worked on the movie to stand up and about half the crowd did. The figure of $40 million was mentioned. Williams interrupted Goldman every so often with a faux-moronic pronouncement ("Mark and I used to sit next to each other at work") in a Beavis-like voice. "Everyone here is a smart person pretending to be stupid!" I hissed to my friend. "Forty million dollars!" he hissed back.

Dippe, Goldman and Williams are all, it turns out, former employees of Industrial Light and Magic, the visual effects house founded by George Lucas in 1975. "Spawn" represents a Big Break for "the three Silicon Valley musketeers" as the production notes gamely dub them, attempting to spin the guys as plucky, visionary underlings finally given a shot at running the show. According to the high-tech world's pet mythos, boy geniuses like Dippe, Goldman and William have sharper, sassier, hipper and less pretentious/mainstream ideas than the big shots (Lucas, Spielberg, etc.) they've slaved for. Why, given half a chance, those spunky youngsters will show us all a trick or two!

Well, time to wake up and smell the Jolt, gang: This movie sucks. The special effects look model-shop cheesy, as if they'd been created using a handful of action figures and MacPaint, and the rest of the picture has the flat visual finish and phoned-in performances of a TV movie. Which wouldn't have been so bad if "Spawn" showed any humor, panache or sense of its own ridiculousness -- Todd Haynes, after all, worked wonders with a handful of Barbie dolls and cardboard sets in his legendary (and suppressed) no-budget biopic "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story." But no. The filmmakers seem to take the sixth-grade-level moral operatics of McFarlane's comic quite seriously (Spawn's a superhero, but he's a servant of hell, but he adores his wife, but he's lost to humanity -- oh, he's so torn!), and during the introductory formalities, many contributors were congratulated on their uncompromisingly "dark" aesthetics, as if this were something daring, rather than the default setting of half the movies and TV series out there right now.

Finally, there's no indication that anyone with a sense of dramatic structure had a hand in "Spawn" -- which is not surprising, perhaps, in a film helmed by technicians. For example, if the unimaginative hell sequences had been reserved for, say, the climax of the film, audiences might be distracted from the fact that the hero really only seems to be trapped inside a lava lamp with a rickety lizard marionette. ("It brings whole new meaning to the concept of the banality of evil," my companion observed.) Instead, the characters are constantly being sucked down a vacuum tube of flames to be menaced by the above-mentioned marionette, whose impressiveness, never great to begin with, decreases radically with each visit. Likewise, Leguizamo's Clown is constantly and annoyingly inflating/deflating his head, rubberizing his limbs and bugging out his eyeballs on stalks like a hyperactive child jonesing for attention, until he, finally, turns into yet another lizard marionette, and stupor sets in.

This was one crowd where no one walked out on the ending credit sequence. As the huge list of names scrolled up the screen, it suddenly struck me, with a reality more palpable than the usual garden-variety ruminations on Hollywood decadence, that the number of people who'd worked on "Spawn" -- and whose salaries accounted for much of its $40 million cost -- probably equaled the number of people in that (capacious) auditorium. Creative people, talented people, likable people, most of them, and people with a genuine enthusiasm for their work and their colleagues. Smart people, too, but smart people pretending to be stupid -- and doing a pretty good job of it.


Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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