There really isn’t much to say about the narrative of the latest installment of the Spy Kids franchise. It’s an incoherent, garbled mess, one that seems to have written pretty much on auto-pilot. The jokes and sight gags were equally tedious, making it difficult for me to grasp how the franchise had managed to last this long. There is a basic message about spending time with family, one that is reflected in the film’s time-travel plot, but even that seemed utterly cynical. Of course, All the Time in the World has been promoted almost entirely on the basis of its use of “Aroma-Scope,” the scratch-and-sniff cards that incorporate smell into several of the film’s scenes. But as Maryann Johanson observed in her review, these 4-D elements seemed to expose the limits of the New Gimmick Cinema.
Like Johanson, I found that the film worked to hard to make it appear that the incorporation of scent was seamless. During the opening sequence, a robotic dog, voiced by Ricky Gervais, explains that when a number appears on screen, viewers are suposed to scratch the corresponding number on a card they were given upon entering theaters. Simple enough, of course, but given that you are fumbling with a card in a darkened theater (one that is even darker thanks to the darkened lenses on your 3D glasses), you have to glance down away from the screen and feel around a little for the appropriate number.
Even worse, the scents were almost too mild for me to smell. Johanson also complains that most of the scents actually resembled “cardboard,” while other critics noted that pretty much all of the smells recalled “fruity gumball.” The faint smell actually became even more of a distraction since I wasn’t sure whether I was just missing the smell or whether I needed a key or coin to scratch off the surface of the card. So, I spent one or two minutes fumbling with the card without any real payoff from the movie. In addition, even walking to the theater while carrying 3D glasses, the card, my ticket, my phone, and a book meant that my hands were full. While entering the theater, I almost felt as if I needed an equipment check.
That being said, it was interesting to observe when Rodriguez incorporated smell into the movie and how the movie teased viewers with references to various scents. For the most part, the smells were introduced during scenes with little dramatic significance. In one scene, the two kids were exiled to a lounge in the spy headquarters building soon after a big action sequence. The kids stumble into the kitchen and dive into the snacks they find there, unleashing three different smells in succession, most of them of the synthetic fruit variety. To some extent, this choice seems to acknowledge that viewers might find Aroma-Scope distracting.
I’ve been struggling against the impulse to create an opposition between immersion and distraction when describing Spy Kids 4D. The film, to a great extent, is not meant to be an immersive narrative but instead offers a spectacle (broadly defined). Spectacle isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but for the most part, the execution in this film came across as relatively lazy, as if Aroma-Scope was enough to drag us off our couches and back into theaters. But when my biggest memory of the film is of fumbling in the dark to find the right number to scratch, something isn’t working.
Update: Last night’s comments were admittedly somewhat impressionistic and written when I was pretty much exhausted. I’ve mentioned in some other places that I saw the movie in a completely empty theater, so that may have made the movie more difficult to enjoy, but crowdsourced grades on Box Office Mojo and other sites suggest that Spy Kids 4D hasn’t really connected with audiences. The more crucial question for me continues to be how these forms of augmented cinema fit within current trends. It’s hard for me to imagine too many other films using “Aroma-Scope” or any other variation of the scratch-and-sniff cards, although some might.
Rodriguez has tapped into various forms of kitsch quite a bit in his previous work, and many of his Spy Kids films use what might be called a form of juvenile kitsch meant to entertain younger audiences, even while amusing their parents (Pixar does this quite well, of course). As I was writing about the film this morning on Facebook (and this comparison crossed my mind last night), I found myself comparing Sky Kids 4D to Speed Racer, another critically maligned movie that deployed a similar presentational, rather than immersive, aesthetic. Both films knew we were watching a movie and frequently winked at us, and Rodriguez’s movie focused more on staging the stunts and scents while playing to our sense of anticipation of experiencing the smells. But it felt more like I was at Universal Studios on a movie ride rather than simply watching a movie.