There is a conspiracy theory that I’m starting right now that one day back in 1987, as he was driving in the desert outside Austin, Robert Rodriguez was abducted by aliens as part of an ongoing interplanetary cultural exchange program — they really liked El mariachi in the cosmopolitan systems of the central Milky Way. And so now every few years, when the aliens need Rodriguez represent Earth at the Galactic UN, they simply relace him temporarily with a simple android doppelganger, so that no one will miss him. The android, we will most certainly learn, has been programmed with as much knowledge of humanity as the aliens have, which isn’t much. There’s some stuff in there about how a considerable number of Earthlings consider flatulence amusing, but nothing at all about how the homo sapiens brain functions, on a biological or a cultural level, to perceive a narrative.
While the real Rodriguez is away, the alien android one makes kiddie movies. No one knows why, not even the alien scientists who created the android. But it’s the only really satisfying explanation for movies such as Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D.
By a strange coincidence, this is also the plot of the alien-replacement-android Rodriguez’s next kiddie movie, Spy Kids: Fast Five.
How else to fathom a movie so breathlessly incoherent and yet so confident in itself? The mind behind Spy Kids 4 cannot possibly be the same mind that was behind the brilliantly subversive Machete and Planet Terror. Yet it is clearly an intelligent mind, if of an intelligence immeasurably remote from our own. A peculiar sense of physics is at work here: quantum physics, metaphysics, probably other realms of physics our puny human brains are as yet unaware of. The “4D” may be the first great clue given us as to the grand secret of kiddie-movie-Rodriguez’s true identity. Perhaps this movie coheres into something sensible only when viewed in spatial dimensions beyond our ken — perhaps this movie is merely the projection into our three spatial dimensions of something existing four, eight, or twelve spatial dimensions.
Oh, sure, we’re told the “4D” is the scratch-and-sniff card that comes with your ticket and your 3D glasses. We’re told that at certain points during the movie, when a number pops up on screen, we’re meant to scratch that number on the card and inhale deeply. Never mind that between the dark of the theater and the added darkening factor of the 3D glasses, you won’t be able to see anything to do so. The real tipoff is that if you do manage to scatch and sniff, you won’t smell anything other than cardboard, and perhaps a random whiff of chemical aromas such as might be encountered when opening a plug-in indoor “air freshener” or a box of nuclear-colored breakfast cereal.
The occasional command to scratch and sniff is just about the only aspect of Spy Kids 4 that manages any sort of lucidity.
You may want to count your blessings that, for a movie filled with dog farts, baby-diaper “bombs,” and kiddie vomit, the “fragrant aromas” are mostly absent. But at least scratching-and-sniffing is something to do while you pray for the film to be over. The “super rich sensory multidimensional experience” we are promised as the film opens, by a talking robot dog voiced by a bored Ricky Gervais (The Invention of Lying, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian), consists of a lot of random unpleasant chaos interrupted sporadically by some sheer what-the-fuckness. The latter commences with the opening scene, which treats us to the bizarre spectre of Jessica Alba’s spy lady running around doing spy shit while wearing a fake nine-months-preggers belly and six-inch heels. You will cheer when she says, mid kicking bad guy ass, “I think my water just broke,” and we are not immediately invited to scratch and sniff.
It’s downhill from there, as we jump ahead a year and Alba (Little Fockers, Valentine’s Day) — her thoroughly miserable mug is now plastered on for the remainder of the film — is now juggling the new baby and two obnoxious elementary school brats (Rowan Blanchard [The Back-up Plan] and Mason Cook) and a useless husband (Joel McHale: The Informant!, Spider-Man 2) and a recall to spy work. It seems the alien Rodriguez replacement has been watching Doctor Who and entirely misunderstanding what makes it so cool, for the bad guy here is a mysterious figure called the Timekeeper who is speeding up time because (we later learn) he wants to go back in time, which makes no sort of sense at all, at least in the three spatial dimensions and one temporal dimension as perceived by our human brains. Strained metaphors about parents who can’t make time for kids burst out in the form of the baddie saying things such as “If you have no interest in being a family you don’t deserve any time.” Scratch and sniff that.
Appearances from the original Spy Kids, Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara, now all grown up, add to the pain, inducing a sort of retro anti-nostalgia that simultaneously makes you reconsider the idea that that first Spy Kids movie wasn’t so bad and makes you realize you never, ever gave a single thought to how these kids fared and were just fine with that. All this while you’re coping with nauseating 3D effects and cheap cartoonish CGI that could be the result of an American– er, I mean an alien filmmaker trying to translate bizarre Japanese television anime into something vaguely live-action.
There are logical inconsistencies in the plot, but to enumerate them would lend a sense that by just reaching a little more, the film might have achieved an aesthetic totality appreciable by the human mind. This was, I fear, not a possibility. For Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D was conceived by an intellect so unlike our own as to be, by its very nature, incomprehensible. Who am I, puny limited primate that I am, to complain about why spy Mom would give an irreplaceably valuable weapon to her daughter as a pretty prezzie, merely because it looks like a necklace a princess would wear?
Who knows: perhaps alien android Rodriguez is experimenting on us, attempting to find our intellectual breaking point. Stay strong, my human friends. Stay strong.