In the earliest days of cinema, audiences would sit through anything just because moving pictures themselves were so new and fascinating. Thus, folks actually paid to see the Kinetoscope *Fred Ott's Sneeze*, in which one of Thomas Edison's mechanics sneezes. *La sortie des ouvriers de l'usine Lumiere* (*Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory*) is a primitive 1895 film, historically significant, somewhat lacking in drama, and a regular blockbuster in its day. Although the visual language and narrative conventions of cinema, which we now take for granted, were still being created in those early films, cinema then was limited more by primitive technology than a lack of imagination on the part of pioneer filmmakers.
Today, the reverse is true. A few years ago, a film with really spectacular and innovative special effects could get away with a fairly marginal story and still be visually exciting, because the technology was new enough that there was something on screen that had never been seen before. Computer animation has opened up a whole new world of possibilities in moviemaking and cinematic storytelling. Unfortunately, as often as not, film stories have failed to keep up with advances in special effects technology. Ironically, the technological innovations are usually ushered in by pretty good films (*The Abyss*, *Toy Story* and *Star Wars*, for example), only to be exploited by bad films which rely entirely on special effects to shore up a dull, vacuous story. *Spawn* is in this latter category.
The prologue to this yawn-fest is some silly claptrap about an army from hell burning down the gates of heaven (as if they wouldn't be fireproof -- please!). The Devil is apparently a sort of administrator who chooses to delegate rather than lead the army himself, so he sends his minion Clown (John Leguizamo) to recruit someone on Earth. Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) is the unlucky winner. A government assassin, he is set up by his evil boss Wynn (Martin Sheen), a nutjob bent on world domination. Burnt to a crisp in a biological weapons factory explosion, Al dies and goes to hell. End of story? Oh, to be so lucky.
After five years in the fiery pit, which looks exactly like a computer generated cartoon version of Hell as Sid and Marty Krofft might envision it, Al is sent back to Earth, where a battle for his soul ensues. Clown wants him mad and evil and bent on revenge. An annoyingly cloying mentor type, a Saxon assassin named Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson), tries to steer him away from the dark side, so he can use his necroplasmic body armor for good. Assuming that the audience isn't sharp enough to get the *Star Wars* reference, the script makes a point of mentioning it. Likewise the references to *It's a Wonderful Life.* The influences this derivative movie doesn't mention are *Darkman*, *RoboCop* and *The Crow*, to name but a few.
So Spawn, as Al is now called, is all mad and irritable, and his skin hurts a lot, and Clown and Cogliostro keep pestering him, and his faithful dog Spaz follows him everywhere. Like everybody else from Hell, Spawn has a bad case of the vapors, and green fumes emanate from his body whenever he gets really steamed. Clown farts green fumes, which, of course, is the height of hilarity. Or at least, the height of hilarity in *Spawn*.
Based on the comic book series by Todd McFarlane, *Spawn*, written by director Mark A.Z. Dippe and Alan B. McElroy, shores up the confusing plot by relying on a comic book convention that is inappropriate to movies, even bad ones: characters who explain what's going on by talking to themselves out loud. Another handy source of plot exposition is the omniscient voiceover provided by Cogliostro, who also talks to himself rather a lot. These distracting bits of exposition are necessary to understanding *Spawn* because most of the action in the movie has nothing whatsoever to do with the various plots. Spawn is supposed to kill Wynn, but he mostly flies around and admires his own neato necroplasmic abilities (a subtle hint to the audience that they, too, should be filled with admiration and awe). Meanwhile, Wynn is being used by Clown in a plot to release a killer virus that will wipe out the entire planet. Clown goes to an awful lot of trouble to do something that should be quite simple to do for a demon beast such as himself. And I don't know what the Devil's problem is, but he's so lame his mouth doesn't even move when he talks. It just hangs open and his big grey tongue wiggles a little. Which is exactly what a Sid and Marty Krofft Devil puppet would do, which is why the world of the Kroffts was so morally simple, and all of their shows were a half hour long.
*Spawn* is substantially longer, and has lots and lots of sophisticated computer-generated special effects, some of which are almost interesting. I liked Spawn's big red cape, which looked a bit like molten lava, or cinnamon ribbon candy. But most of the special effects in *Spawn*, like the silly scenes of Hell, are not only unbelievable, they're totally unimaginative and uninspired. The technology is squandered in service of a dumb story and dimensionless characters who are given absolutely nothing interesting to do or say. I would rather watch Fred Ott sneeze.
The opening and closing title sequences of *Spawn*, designed by Imaginary Forces, deserve mention. Jiggly, off-kilter and hard to read, they were visually aggressive and assaultive. The film stock itself seemed to be disintegrating, creating an unsettling sense of instability and descent which, coupled with the fiery images, were genuinely hellish and much more interesting than the movie sandwiched in between.