In preparation for Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D, I consulted Wikipedia on the history of odor technology in the movies. I was not surprised by the sparse results. I came across an article on Smell-O-Vision, which was created by Hans Laube and used only once for the 1960 Mike Todd, Jr. production of Scent of Mystery. At that point, the system had been modernized; rather than scents being manually released through pipes connected to each seat in the theater, they would instead originate from a series of perfume containers linked by a belt, which was wound on a motorized wheel and synchronized to the film’s projector. The scents would then be blown by fans to vents underneath the theater seats. The process was not successful. The fans made a distracting hissing noise, the scents were too faint in certain sections of the theater, and balcony audiences wouldn’t pick up on any scent for several seconds, at which point the onscreen action had already moved ahead.
After a few notable resurrections – first with Odorama in John Waters’ Polyester, then with Rugrats Go Wild! – another attempt has been made with the release of Spy Kids 4D. This time around, the process has been dubbed Aroma-Scope. When you pay for your ticket, you’ll be handed a scratch-and-sniff card. When the film starts, an image of the card will float through a star field while the voice of Ricky Gervais explains that, when a number flashes on the screen, that’s your cue to scratch the corresponding number on the card (eight in total) and take a whiff. We, of course, have already gathered this from the instructions printed on the card, but never mind. This process fails in spectacular fashion. Although we’re supposed to be smelling things as diverse as candy, bleu cheese goop, and a dog fart, I could not tell one scent from another. They were kind of fruity, kind of floral, kind of musty, completely artificial, and totally indistinct.
It doesn’t help that the film has also been released in 3D. Not the immersive 3D James Cameron has passionately pursued, but the intrusive, gimmicky 3D in which computer-generated objects pop out at you. So now you’re being distracted on two fronts; your field of vision is being assaulted, and you must pause every few minutes to scratch and smell another number on your Aroma-Scope card. Although I had my card and a coin ready at all times, I was often caught by surprise; by the time I put my nose against the number and inhaled, the action had already shifted to something else. It could be that I have slow reflexes. You might fare better than I did. You might even be able to tell the scents apart. Perhaps my card was defective.
Say you decide to see it in 2D, and you conveniently “forget” to ask for your Aroma-Scope card. You’ll have saved yourself a couple of bucks, and you’ll be watching a noticeably brighter picture, but I’m sorry to say the experience will not be much enhanced. Spy Kids 4D tells a dreary, repetitive, unfocused story, one suggesting that writer/director Robert Rodriguez has completely lost his touch for imaginative, exuberant family entertainment. His first two Spy Kids films, essentially from the junior division of James Bond, brimmed with excitement, action, humor, and remarkable creativity. The third film, an unfortunate Tron rehash (also in 3D), took the franchise to the breaking point. Now with the fourth film, he’s merely traipsing through the wreckage, desperately searching for parts that can be salvaged and perhaps restored. Alas, some things are beyond repair.
Although Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara give supporting performances as Carmen and Juni Cortez, the film features an entirely new cast of characters. The plot focuses on Carmen’s aunt, Marissa (Jessica Alba), a former agent for the Organization of Super Spies (OSS). A year after giving birth to a daughter and retiring into domestic life, she’s drawn back in when a madman known only as the Timekeeper gains control of time as we know it. In a matter of seconds, an entire day will have passed. It’s now up to Marissa’s disrespectful step kids, the competitive Rebecca and Cecil (Rowan Blanchard and Mason Cook), to resurrect the defunct Spy Kids division and stop the Timekeeper before … I was going to say before time runs out, but then I’d be playing into Rodriguez’s annoying tendency to lace almost every line of dialogue with time-related puns. Meanwhile, we follow Marissa’s useless husband, Wilbur (Joel McHale), who fancies himself a spy hunter and has the reality TV show to prove it.
So many things about this story bothered me. Let’s first consider Marissa’s disturbingly curious habit of involving her infant daughter on dangerous missions. During the opening scene, she’s on a mission despite the fact that she’s nine months pregnant. She then goes into contractions, but that doesn’t stop her from going on a high-speed chase with one of the Timekeeper’s henchmen, the helium-voiced Tick Tock. There’s also a talking robot dog named Argonaut, voiced by Gervais. His distinctive dry wit and sarcastic style of delivery is all wrong for this kind of movie. The character would have been better served by someone like Russell Brand, who has at least some appeal to children. There’s also the scatological humor, including the vomit bags Cecil uses as bombs during an air chase, and the smells a baby can produce. And then there’s the clunky sentimentalism that ends the film, stemming from the notion that time is precious and shouldn’t be wasted. But the greatest offense of Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D was the belief that it needed two extra dimensions. Like the Aroma-Scope card, this movie stinks.
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