Despite my elementary school diploma, I loved Spy Kids: All the Time in the World. Why? It's a chilling examination of an alternate reality in which children have become fellow travelers in global espionage, a parallel universe where Langley is run like Willy Wonka's candy-colored calorie mill. Like Ender's Game mixed with The Mickey Mouse Club, this is hands-down some of the grimmest shit ever to limbo under a PG rating.
Let me first admit that before yesterday, I'd never seen a Spy Kids film. I chalk this up to pure conceptional kismet — being born in the wrong decade meant I was oblivious to the entire franchise, never mind Sharkboy and Lava Girl. My childhood heroes were Tintin (whose exploits inculcated in me a fear of fakirs, cobras, and the opium trade) and those anthropomorphic rodents of Redwall, protagonists defined by their hardscrabble, can-do attitude and opposable digits.
I'll admit that the prospect of sitting through Spy Kids 4 was leaving me cold. Sure, the preview demonstrated that the characters had thumbs, but what of the pluck? Also, I'm generally too lazy to attend screenings of movies, so I go to matinee showings. Do you know how goddamn weird it is to be single man attending Spy Kids 4 at 10:30 AM on a Friday? Those ushers have the withering-est of gazes.
As a straightforward kids' movie, there's not much to Spy Kids 4. The film opens with Jessica Alba doing some acting as a pregnant secret agent. It's charming, but nothing Saturday Night Live didn't do 20 years earlier with Lisa Pongrasic: Very Pregnant Undercover Cop. After giving birth, Honey 007 retires to be the stepmom to Joel McHale's kids, but a villain known as The Timekeeper is making time accelerate uncontrollably, without the sped-up shenanigans of, say, the ending of Ice Pirates.
Anyway, the kids soon become entangled in their stepmom's double life and meet her coworkers, namely the original Spy Kids (who have grown up to be semi-competent Spydults), Jeremy Piven dressed like a pimp, and a robotic dog with the voice of Ricky Gervais.
(Also, the movie apparently came with some scratch-and-sniff Smell-O-Vision cards, but I bought my tickets at the computerized kiosk and the whole theater had the bouquet of rancid popcorn anyway).
Honestly, it's jarring seeing the original Spy Kids get so much screen time — they yammer a bunch about their exploits since 2003's Spy Kids 3: Game Over. Imagine if in Home Alone V — yes, there was a Home Alone IV — a strung-out Kevin McAllister advised the next kid with negligent parents how to not dial 911. What if Jurassic Park IV starred Night Vision Goggles Kid and Jeff Goldblum's Daughter Who Fought Velociraptors With Gymnastics? You're not unhappy that the original Spy Kids are still alive, but they really should be off at Spy University, doing bong rips laced with Sodium Pentothal and waterboarding sleeping roommates whose hands are dipped in bowls of warm water.
One of the weirdest facets of Spy Kids 4 is its focus on the mythos of all that is Spy Kids. At first, this obsession with history makes diddly sense whatsoever. The Spy Kids franchise is not known to inspire otakuesque outbursts from adults, and it will be a solid decade before any of the franchise's prior demographic is going to be ironically excited about it, à la the same way everybody's now losing their minds about midnight showings of Clarissa Explains It All.
The first Spy Kids movie came out ten years ago — the audience that propelled it to $148 million is now too teenaged, apathetic, and ashamed to have fond memories of that family-friendly movie made by the fellow who made Salma Hayek gyrate the best gyration in the history of things that gyrate. Also, it is an empirical fact that all nostalgia post-Y2K is inherently not interesting.
So yes, why would Rodriguez spend so much time dusting off old mythology the target demographic doesn't care about? Six-year-olds don't give a crap about canon. My read is this — despite its Happy-Meal-primed veneer, Spy Kids: All the Time in the World is the gritty reboot of the series, a narrative that details the aftermath of an American government complicit in the employment of child soldiers. The franchise has grown up, and Rodriguez is determined that a world of prepubescent espionage would be a grim place to live indeed. It is his Christopher Nolan moment.
For example, the original Spy Kids — Carmen and Juni Cortez — are a dysfunctional duo by the time they hit adulthood. The film establishes that the Spy Kids division was shuttered after Game Over, but the Cortezes bear psychological scars. Carmen is still a spy, which suggests that she's too mentally entrenched for civilian life. On the other hand, Juni has struck out on his own. It is not clear whether he's a soldier of fortune or a black ops agent. Either way, we must assume there is blood on his hands.
Spy Kids 4 is a children's movie, so death is a fate reserved solely for saintly, offscreen parents. The franchise leapfrogs over the Cortez children's tumultuous teenage years, where they were presumably forced to confront A.) their childhood living on the edge of mortality; and B.) their newfound world of Spydulthood, which is neither black-and-white nor a variegated CGI rainbow.
The Spy Kids didn't just grow out of their childish antics, they realized that they were pawns of an unscrupulous extragovernmental entity who sent 10-year-olds to death's door, like Halloween UNICEF collectors in a demilitarized zone. All The Time In The World seems to indicate that the world has since repented for the first three films. But as soon as the new Spy Kids Rebecca and Cecil save the day, the cycle begins anew. Only this time, Juni and Carmen are perpetuating it and goading on the new recruits. After all, a 10-year-old secret agent is less of an investment than a full-grown company man.
The film ends with Rebecca and Cecil plucking new Spy Kids out of cineplex audiences, activating them like so many Skittles-drunk Jason Bournes. This flash conscription is an understatedly disturbing scene — the ending suggests that America's entire stock of quasi-literate elementary schoolers are renewable cannon fodder for spy games. And just who are they spying on? We honestly do not know. Is this the onset of a Gymboree surveillance society?
This is the military-industrial complex by way of Playmobil, a reality where Fun Dip keeps the memories blurry. Chronology is meaningless when you spend night after night staring into the bottom of a Juicy Juice carton. You can't lose your innocence when you grow up guilty.