Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over continues a fine tradition of turning third installments of film series into three-dimensional efforts; Amityville 3-D and Jaws 3-D exploited the gimmick long before Robert Rodriguez made clever use of the numeral signifying the milking to death of a franchise. But what Rodriguez lacks (say, Tony Roberts and the rubber shark) he makes up for with the latest, greatest golly-gee-whiz technology -- in this case, the high-definition, three-dimensional camera system developed for Jim Cameron's Ghosts of the Abyss IMAX feature, itself a return to the Titanic's sunken ATM machine. The camera, which features two lenses side by side and is meant to capture images the way we see them, will allegedly revolutionize the film business; I'll wait to pass judgment till it's put to use on an actual film. Or till my headache, which is very three-dimensional, subsides.
But Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (hereinafter shortened to SK3D: GO, which sounds like a character in a George Lucas movie) doesn't pretend to be an actual movie. It's more like a demo reel, complete with "glasses on" and "glasses off" instructions, a story and CG scenery lifted from Tron, and Alan Cummings's suggestion early on that if the movie gives you a headache, pop out to the concession stand for popcorn. (Should have listened. Should have listened.) Apparently, how much you actually enjoy the movie depends upon how well you can see through the blasted red-and-blue glasses: Everything looked irritatingly fuzzy to me, less 3-D than too-blurry, but a colleague two seats down ooohed and aaahed at the appropriate places -- say, when something or someone reached out into the audience and slapped them awake.
This movie's critic-proof, like an amusement-park ride; Rodriguez, who writes and directs and scores and edits and probably caters, could not take offense at the reviewer who damns and dismisses the latest in the franchise as sleek and shallow (though hardly as addictive) as a video game. After all, that's the whole point: SK3D: GO takes place in a video game, also titled Game Over, designed by The Toymaker (Sylvester Stallone) and his myriad holographic counterparts, a few of whom resemble Dr. Strangelove and a toked-out Woody Harrelson at 3:24 a.m. SK3D: GO has no interest in narrative or subtext; it wants only to throw everything at you at once -- from self-deprecating celebrity cameos (George Clooney and Elijah Wood, not even trying to keep straight faces) to visuals as stomach-wrenching as they are eye-popping -- and doesn't mind if you keep pace or lag behind or duck your head. It's Pop Rocks cinema: kinda cool, ultimately forgettable -- and after a while, enough's enough.
The plot is this and no more: Carmen Cortez (Alexa Vega) has been rendered catatonic inside The Toymaker's video game, and her brother Juni (Daryl Sabara) is sent into the game by Salma Hayek and Mike Judge (outed as a bad guy in last year's Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams and, inexplicably, still a good guy here) to retrieve her. (Put your glasses on now.) Inside, Juni dresses like Iron Man and encounters dorks cyberacting as black-leather toughs (a clever commentary on the illusion granted by modern technology) and copious racers and robots designed by Gen-XBox, all of which zoom up and "off" the screen.
But a movie designed to wow winds up feeling cold, not, ya know, cool; the charm of the 2001 original has been decimated, its heart replaced with a microprocessor. Spy Kids, for all its dazzle, was about the bonding of a family over shared and thrilling secrets (Mom and Dad are spies!), and the movie won you over because there were warm-to-the-touch people at the center of the bright, swirling colors -- parents trying to keep their kids out of harm's way, kids proving to their parents they weren't so fragile anymore. It also indulged in the ultimate kiddie wish-fulfillment: the discovery that the folks you once thought strict and square are actually superheroes. Last year's sequel might have been fun enough -- it was like buying a ticket to a computer-generated theme park populated by Ray Harryhausen stop-motion freaks (not including Steve Buscemi) -- but it lacked the original's tenderness.
For the third installment, Rodriguez has completely forgotten about what brung him and decided instead to show off his new gizmos, gadgets, and gewgaws. Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino, Pa and Ma Cortez, are in the film for but a few seconds, and that's at the very end, when every single actor who ever appeared in a Spy Kids film (from Tony Shalhoub to Bill Paxton to Haley Joel Osment's eerily android-clone-like sister) descends upon downtown Austin, Texas, for a battle scene as back-slapping and self-satisfied as a Dean Martin roast. Even Alexa Vega's role feels like an exaggerated cameo, leaving Sabara to shoulder the burden for a film in no need of actors anyway. Only Ricardo Montalban, as the kids' grandfather, has a substantive role, and he does a remarkable job of acting with only his face and voice; it's touching for us, and perhaps thrilling for him, to see the wheelchair-bound actor walking and leaping again, even if he's been digitally inserted into an animated shell. But it's an apt metaphor for the film itself -- all head, with no beating heart anywhere to be found.