Saturday, July 7, 2012

Of teen love and CGI overloads: 'Amazing Spider-man' review

"Didn't we just do this?"

That might be a question that rings in your ears for most of Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-man, a re-telling of Peter Parker's transformation into masked crimefighter made just ten years after the wild success of Sam Raimi's first Spider-man movie. Its mere existence has brought up the old proclamations about how those studio bigshots only care about taking our money (of course they do) and that this new Spidey is merely pummeling us with a brand that we'll flock to like sheep. Fair criticisms to be sure, even if they don't exactly take into consideration that Spider-man himself (like almost every major comic book character) has gone through his own revitalizations and re-tellings since the 1960s.

So then, if Sony is taking that same approach, we should expect this new movie to be something completely different, a la Chris Nolan's Batman Begins, right? Well, sort of. The Amazing Spider-man is tonally different (if not drastically) with a bit more blood and a bit less campy than Raimi's vision, but it has its own adolescent growing pains that keep it from emerging as fully engaging and engaged.

Part of the problem is the writing, which simply feels wildly inconsistent depending on what part of the story we're in. Considering the trio of screenwriters are James Vanderbilt (Zodiac), Steve Kloves (the guy who wrote all the Harry Potter scripts), and Alvin Sargent (who wrote Spider-man 2 and 3), this actually makes sense. It reads and breathes much more like competing visions than a single organic one, where elements are being jerked back and forth, constantly threatening to go off-balance and off-sync. When it falls into the conventional genre structure, it's a pretty boring movie, but when it forgets about being an action movie and is more about lost people trying to form relationships, or about the nature of choices and responsibilities, it's got plenty to offer.

This is a detriment to Marc Webb's direction, which also feels scattershot and inspired only in bursts. Spider-man is a far cry from his debut feature, (500) Days of Summer, which crackled with lots of creative narrative gamesmanship and different filming styles, but here he simply feels burdened by a visual obligation. His own flourishes, like the first-person point-of-view scenes of Spidey slinging through Manhattan, feel more random because they don't link totally to the movie's aesthetic as a whole. In a film so big, it's hard to discover that same kind of intimacy he worked up in (500) Days, and despite serving as a competent craftsman, his ideas still feel lost under the surface shine.

And yet, the real magic of The Amazing Spider-man is in Peter Parker and his high school crush, Gwen Stacy. If anything, the film confirms what we might have suspected about Mr. Webb as a director: he's pretty darn great at directing relationships. The scenes with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone sparkle with a kind of effervescence the action scenes only occasionally reach for, an awkward spontaneity that emerges in the beats between the actors and not from the structural demands of the story.

If Webb's version sets itself apart from Raimi's in one major area, it's in Peter Parker himself. Nothing against Tobey Maguire, but Andrew Garfield simply seems to take more time with and inside the character, developing awkward mannerisms and motions that he keeps so close to his body. Tall, spindly, and with hair that's just the slightest bit out-of-control, Garfield exerts a quiet eccentricity that grounds Peter. He's nerdy and lonely in a way that's identifiable and charismatic. When he dons the Spidey outfit, he's also a snarky little bastard, using his physicality to showboat -- and Webb and cinematographer John Schwartzman back off and let Garfield really explore space. Stone is his perfect counterpoint, with both matching each other beat-for-beat. It's the kind of special chemistry that feels both completely natural and the result of great acting and directing -- it's also something that sadly vanishes far too much in the second half of the film.

It may be hard to remember, but Spider-man was the first superhero movie to come out after September 11. You might even remember that trailer with the Twin Towers that got pulled from theaters. In a sense then, that film's free-wheeling spins through New York's streets revived our perception of the city itself. With The Amazing Spider-man, it's hard to see Webb's portrayal of New York, or the web-slinging scenes, as particularly fresh or inspired. It resembles Raimi's film most when it moves into CGI, and that might be because a lot of the CGI simply looks underwhelming. It doesn't have that same sense of spectacle because it looks too much like what came before.

That's not to necessarily say this is a huge fault of the film, because the action scenes breathe with a better sense of time and space than a lot of the Raimi action scenes (see Spider-man 3 for more evidence). The editing and camera movements work in great concert for most of the film to add as much intensity as it can to the action, it's simply that there's little sense of stake in Amazing Spider-man. The villain -- The Lizard, the result of mad scientist Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) trying to heal his lost arm via cross-species technology (the same technology responsible for Spider-man!) -- is simply too weak, too cartoonish. Peter's conflict with Connors resonates because they represent two sides of the same coin, implications for how technology can be used and its limitations, but planting that conflict inside New York City merely makes much of the last act a bizarre riff on Godzilla and King Kong (references not lost on the film, thankfully).

There's much to enjoy and much to find fresh and exciting about Marc Webb's version of Spider-man, but it rarely feels like Webb's vision for the character. The film is at its best when it's inside high school hallways instead on top of skyscrapers, when it's in Gwen's bedroom instead of back alleys, or when Garfield lets a dorky smile spread across his face instead of a bit of spider string fly off his wrist apparatuses.

Is The Amazing Spider-man the result of studio greed, a made-to-order cash cow instead of pure bolt of energy? At times, it sure might feel that way, but it's got a soul at its center that's genuinely disarming and bare. In a perfect world, Spider-man's battle with a super baddie would be the background to his struggles at home and his relationship with Gwen, and not the other way around. But there's money to be made, and money to be put on the screen.

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