Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man [2012]

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/UCCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert's review -

The Amazing Spider-Man (directed by Marc Webb, story and screenplay by James Vanderbilt along with Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves based on Marvel comics' Spider-Man [Wiki] created by Stan Lee [IMDb] and Steve Ditko [IMDb]) starts a big screen reboot of the Spider-Man story only 10 years after the beginning of the last big-screen telling of the story.  And one could ask the fair enough question: why?

I'd chalk-up the impatience to retell the story to a number of reasons: (1) The enormous popularity of Super-hero movies, and even the enormous popularity of specifically of the previous (less than 10 years old) Spider-Man cycle, (2) advances in technology.  This new version was released in 3D.  While I saw the movie in 2D (it's cheaper) and thought that the 2D version worked just fine, I do believe that the Spider-Man story -- after all it involves Spider-Man swinging from building to building up and down and all around a CGI version of Manhattan -- lends itself to some rather awesome use of 3D.  So spending the extra $4/ticket to see it in 3D could be worth the price.  (3) Shot public attention spans.  The previous Spider-Man big-screen film series may be less than 10 years old, but it does honestly feel like it was ages ago.  It doesn't help that then 20-something actors Toby Maguire and Kirsten Dunst who starred in the earlier series of films are now both rather serious 30-something actors, making that earlier series seem even "older" than it actually is.   These factors certainly contributed to encouraging studio execs to consider investing a new big-screen retelling of the "Spider Man" story.

So do the makers of this new film succeed?  I think that they basically do, but I do believe that the success of this film is going to depend on what audiences think of the actors playing this film's two principal characters: the awkward high school teenager Peter Parker [IMdb] / Spider-Man [IMDb] (played in this film by Andrew Garfield) and his similarly teenage love interest Gwen Stacy [IMDb] (played here by Emma Stone).  It turns out that actor Andrew Garfield is actually almost 30 as well.  So playing the part of a teenager may initially seem like something of a stretch.  Yet both he and Emma Stone play-up the "awkward teenage" chemistry between them so well that they do convince and arguably _better_ than Maguire and Dunst did in the previous series.

On the other side of the coin, I do believe that Martin Sheen's playing of Peter Parker's Uncle Ben [IMDb], (Peter having lost his parents when he was young) was a bit over the top in this new telling of the story and was not nearly as good as Cliff Robertson's playing of the character 10 years ago.  Readers of my blog would know that really like Martin Sheen (a Hollywood actor who hasn't been shy of his Catholic faith).  I also think I understand why he'd want to play the Uncle Ben character.  Indeed, Robertson's playing of the Uncle Ben character in the film 10 years ago so impressed me that I've been a fan of the films based on Marvel Comics [Wiki] ever since.  For comics though they are, I've found Marvel Comics in particular often carry within them some very good moral messages.  Ten years ago, Robertson's Uncle Ben tried to teach Peter Parker that "with great power comes great responsibility."  Toby Maguire's Peter Parker took this message so to heart that he struggled with the question of whether he should pursue a relationship with Kirsten Dunst's Gwen Stacy or whether he should choose to _not get involved_ with her and devote himself instead to his "greater mission" of protecting the citizens of his city (New York) from crime.  Where in today's culture does one have any character at all struggling with the question of _choosing celibacy_  for a greater good??  I honestly found that aspect of Peter Parker's / Spider Man's story positively remarkable and think that I understand then why someone like Martin Sheen would want to play the role of the mentor figure Uncle Ben in that story.  Still, I do believe that Robertson did a better job with the role 10 years ago.

I also do believe that Sally Field does a reasonable but ultimately impressive job at playing Uncle Ben's wife, Aunt May [IMDb] (the script didn't appear to give Field much to do with her character).

IMHO, the supporting actor who shines in this film is Dennis Leary who plays Gwen's rather protective dad, Captain George Stacy [IMDb] of NYPD.

Perhaps most disappointing to me, however, in the film was it's chief villain, Dr. Curt Conners [IMDb] (played by Rhys Irans).  This may not be the result of poor acting acting on his part, however, but rather the result of some surprisingly lackluster choices made by the film-makers regarding wardrobing and CGI.

Now one would think that after spending so much money on the computer generated skyscrapers and Spider-Man swinging from building to building with his webs, that the film-makers would spend the money to make Spider-Man and then Dr. Conners (after he turns into "Lizard Man") look really, really good.  Instead, Andrew Garfield's Spider-Man costume looks like something one could buy at any "two-bit dollar store" around Halloween time in the United States (Okay, the film shows him "sewing the mask" together himself in his room at home one evening, and he's supposedly a high school boy, who presumably wouldn't know how to sew.  But it still looks terrible).  And the in his sequences as a lizard, Dr. Conners looks terrible as well.

Famed sci-fi/horror fiction writer Stephen King in his book The Danse Macabre on such writing/screenwriting mentioned that the most difficult part of making a sci-fi/horror movie work is making the monsters look realistic.  He noted the dreaded and deflating "zipper effect" on a film (if the audience spots "the zipper" running along the back of "King Kong's" costume).  There doesn't seem to be any "zipper" running along Dr. Conner's back when he is "lizard" form.  On the other hand, the CGI that's being used to make him appear like a lizard is IMHO surprisingly awful, especially when one thinks of the amount of money that's generally spent on CGI driven films.  And I just found that really disappointing and for a movie like this almost unforgivable.

Okay, so how does this story work?  How does Peter Parker turn into "Spider Man" and Dr. Curt Conners into a Lizard?  First, remember that this is a story that comes from an early 1960s era COMIC BOOK intended for young boys.  But even Comic Books and 1950s-early 1960s era Sci-Fi films have to give plausible explanations for rather extraordinary situations.  And the explanation given in this film runs closely to that originally given in the Comic, that is, Peter Parker becomes "Spider Man" on account of a "science experiment gone awry."  In this film, Parker gets bitten by a genetically altered spider which injects "spider DNA" into his body making Parker acquire characteristics of spiders.

That genetic engineering research on spiders was being conducted by, none other than Dr. Curt Conners, who had been a friend/colleague of Peter Parker's father.  Peter Parker's parents died, mysteriously, when Peter was very young (hence why it was left to Peter's uncle/aunt to raise him) and it is assumed that they died for some reason connected to Conners' / Peter Parker's dad's research.  Peter Parker was exposed to the genetically engineered spider because as a gifted if somewhat nerdy high school teenager, he (along with Gwen) interned at Conner's / Peter Parker's dad's genetic engineering firm, Oscorp, headquartered in "Oscorp Tower" in lower Manhattan.  Conners and Peter Parker's dad had been working of crossing the DNA of other species with that of human beings to give them new and beneficial characteristics.  Spiders are extremely strong and agile.  Hence, when Peter Parker is accidently bitten by the genetically altered spider in Oscorp's lab one day, he acquires those characteristics.

However, Dr. Conners is working on other projects, specifically one that would mix DNA from lizards with human DNA, allowing humans to regenerate lost limbs like lizards do.   Indeed, Dr. Conners has a particular interest in the lizard research because he had lost, again under mysterious circumstances, one of his arms.  He'd like to, one day, be able to grow it back.  But as a scientist, he tends to be cautious.  He follows the protocols -- First one designs a particular drug or treatment.  Then one runs computer simulations to test the drug's/treatment's effectiveness,  Then one conducts animal trials to makes sure that it actually works on small animals.  Eventually one conducts human trials.  Only then does one make the drug/treatment available for general (or still limited/prescription) use.

It turns out, however, that Dr. Conners has a foreign financial backer who is not nearly that patient.  In the current film, his name is Rajit Rattha (played by Irrfan Kahn) (IMHO, it's somewhat unfortunate that Dr. Conner's "unscrupulous"/"impatient" foreign backer is presented so prominently as someone who is both "foreign" and of decidedly "brown" complexion...).  Rajit steals some of Conner's lizard DNA containing swrum and heads off toward a New York "Veterans' Hospital" to threatening to conduct his own tests _now_ rather than wait for Dr. Conners to follow the proper procedures.  To speed-up the process (and hunt down the "Evil" unscrupulous foreign backer) and save those innocent veterans on whom the inscrupulous Rajit was going to experiement, Dr. Conners injects _himself_ with the lizard DNA containing serum.  Well, Dr. Conners finds that his lost limb rapidly "grows back."  HOWEVER, much more happens to him than that ... the rest of the story ensues ...

All in all, this this new Spider-Man reboot more or less works.  Again, the chemistry between Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker and Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy works very well.  And the 3D effects of watching Peter Parker/Spider Man swinging from building to building _probably_ works well as well (again, out of principle, I saw the movie in 2D rather than 3D).  But I can't bring myself to be particularly excited about the overall product.  Some of the performances in the film are good, others are not.  And even the CGI is mixed quality.  So it's not a decidedly terrible Spider-Man [IMDb], but its certainly not a great one.

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