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Who's Soaring Now?

In 'Spider-Man,' technique serves the story. In the frozen 'Attack of the Clones,' it is the story.

June 02, 2002|REED JOHNSON

In 1962, movie critic Manny Farber looked at the work of European art-house directors like Francois Truffaut, Michelangelo Antonioni and Tony Richardson, and pronounced it sluggish and bloated with pointless, pretentious technique. Yes, their films were made with painterly precision and brimmed with elegant eye-candy. But the characters? They were flat, emotionally over-controlled and locked into the frame like figures on a Grecian temple.

"Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones" is no "Jules and Jim," yet in an odd way Farber's description perfectly fits the new George Lucas blockbuster, especially when you compare it with its biggest summer rival, Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man." Lucas has said that digital production and new special-effects technology have freed his imagination to make the "Star Wars" movies he always wanted to make. Maybe so.

But the result, in the series' two most recent pictures, "The Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones," has been monumentally static. "Attack of the Clones" has the same costly special effects, kinetic action sequences and swooping, vertical-angled shots that "Spider-Man" does. But while "Spider-Man" is visually alluring, witty and exhilarating, "Attack of the Clones" is mostly just plain exhausting.

What brings Spidey to life while "Clones" dozes? Maybe it's that while "Spider-Man's" look never loses touch with the movie's comic-book roots, "Attack of the Clones" goes for an overblown, operatic grandeur that reduces character and plot to an afterthought. Without condescending to its pulpy source material, "Spider-Man" elevates the action-adventure genre, while "Attack of the Clones" merely overwhelms it with big, portentous digital set pieces. "Clones" is a bore. "Spider-Man" keeps its feet on the ground, conceptually, and it soars.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 16, 2002 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part F Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Movie commentary--A June 2 commentary should have said a "Star Wars" spacecraft made the leap to hyperspace, not cyberspace.

Like its youthful hero, Peter Parker (played with understated acuteness by Tobey Maguire), "Spider-Man's" design is deceptively simple. The movie's opening credits unspool over a montage of comic-book panels, invoking the eye-tickling graphic environment created by series co-creator Stan Lee (one of the movie's executive producers). But like the seemingly bland and innocuous Peter Parker, "Spider-Man" has a few surprises up its spandex sleeve.

Director Raimi, who earned his spurs with the low-budget yet cunningly stylized "Evil Dead" series, and his production designer, Neil Spisak, have synthesized two very different design sensibilities here: a loud, humorous Pop art syntax, which animates "Spider-Man's" superhero antics; and an affectionate, sepia-toned vision of New York City, with all its gritty charms and architectural marvels viewed from our hero's unique high-flying perspective.

Andy Warhol would have loved "Spider-Man's" combination of radiance and self-aware humor, which stops short of camp. Both Spidey and his adversary, the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), are as brightly attired as Brillo boxes. From the moment early in the film when Peter Parker is bitten by a genetically altered arachnid, "Spider-Man" crackles with brash visual wit, like a New York tabloid front page.

In one dazzling sight gag, we see a high school corridor through Parker's DNA-altered vision: a paper airplane hanging in suspension, a buzzing fly slowed to a snail's pace, a bully's fist inching toward Parker's face. In another, the webs on Spider-Man's tunic morph into Manhattan's tangled street grid, filled with yellow cabs scampering like berserk insects. And in an image that neatly fuses comedy and pathos, Spider-Man receives a grateful kiss from his unsuspecting love interest, M.J., as he dangles upside-down in the rain.

"Spider-Man" drops sly pop references to other movies, a postmodern practice that "Star Wars" helped invent. Peter Parker's bid to raise cash by going mano a mano with a goonish pro wrestler in a cage recalls a similar Mel Gibson showdown in "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" (1985). And when the Green Goblin launches his lethal assault on Times Square, he blazes over the Manhattan skyline on a kind of jet-propelled surfboard, bringing to mind the Wicked Witch of the West skywriting "Surrender Dorothy" above Oz.

Unlike the Gotham of the first "Batman" movie, brilliantly realized by the late Anton Furst, or the Metropolis of the "Superman" films, much of "Spider-Man" takes place in a recognizable New York of elevated trains and grimy streets, of larger-than-life edifices like the Chrysler Building (where Spider-Man goes to brood on an ornamental eagle) and drab, look-alike outer borough residential rows.

This isn't the sanitized, haute bourgeois fairy-tale New York of Woody Allen films. In spirit, it may be closer to the explosive, color-coded Brooklyn of Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" (though without Lee's hip-hop hyperbole). This New York is a dangerous city where buildings topple and people die: The Times Square attack conveys genuine horror and panic, as a high-rise crumbles and terrified pedestrians dodge falling debris.

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