The real challenge in watching 'Spawn' is not letting your mind wonder why anyone ever greenlit this mess. From the start, as Nicol Williamson's corny voiceover narration describes a war brewing between heaven and hell, the movie seems like a DTV release made with inexpensive computer graphics even from a 1997 price point. Fifteen years later, things are made visibly worse as animated characters, especially the devil-like creature in Hell that looks like a hairless Chinese Crested (you know, the world's ugliest dog) with horns, jump into action with the same fluid movement as a 'Gumby' episode. I had to keep reminding myself that this wince-inducing adaptation of Todd McFarlane's comic book series did in fact hit theaters at one point, but I don't recall the CGI being anything to gloat about even then.
In fact, if memory serves right, much of the publicity attention went to John Leguizamo and his scary clown prosthetics. Of the entire movie, he's the only real highlight, which is actually rather sad since his performance and dialogue are genuinely awful. The one thing he does right in the part is making the character a frightening children's performer and proving that clowns really are Satan's foot soldiers from the lower depths of Hell. Aside from that, he spends most of his time spewing lame jokes about farts, rotten food, and doing out-of-place impersonations. Oh, and he supposedly plays a confusing role as the ringleader of the Apocalypse, which leads to the one and only sincere piece of humor to garner any laughs when he tells Martin Sheen with a straight face he only wants to bring the apocalypse now.
Speaking of which, how did Sheen get roped into this hellish debacle? This is the man destined to be President of the United States only two years later on the Emmy Award-winning series 'The West Wing,' and here he is as the amoral, nefarious head of a covert government agency. We could shrug off his appearance as one which shows his range as a talented actor — after all, he does decently well as a truly vicious baddie, Wynn, compared to his kindhearted but reasonably tough Jed Bartlet. But truth is the 90s were a very slow period in his career, possibly doing this role for both the payday as well as a means to stay relevant with moviegoers. Whatever the case, his performance is downright silly and more cartoonish than serious. You can almost imagine him twirling a handlebar moustache every time he smiles with pride at the camera.
I suppose I should get to the plot at some point in this review, so here goes. Michael Jai White plays a mercenary turned Faustian-like superhero dubbed "Spawn" and meant to lead Hell's army into Armageddon. Leguizamo's overweight clown functions as a sort of guide, continually trying to influence White's path towards the dark side, like a little floating devil over his right shoulder. Of course, there's just enough humanity left within Spawn to create doubt and a hokey drama ensues where White is expected to show emotion over his family beneath the burn-victim prosthetics. Williamson comes in as the little angelic mentor floating over White's other shoulder, cajoling him to use his evil powers on the side of good. This eventually evolves into another videogame-like battle where lots of forsaking takes place and makes obvious hints at a sequel which never happened.
Visually, 'Spawn' does have something to offer in terms of entertainment value with darkly gothic photography by Guillermo Navarro ('Pan's Labyrinth,' 'Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn') and the sinfully moody music of Graeme Revell ('The Crow,' 'The Craft'). Unfortunately, it all goes to waste due to the sloppy directing of Mark A.Z. Dippé, who's done far more respectable work as a visual effects supervisor on films like 'Jurassic Park' and 'Terminator 2.' The entire movie is embarrassingly amateur with a choppy pace that's always at odds with itself and never settles long enough on a single emotional level to be engaging. Had this actually been released straight to home video, many of this film's negative aspects could be forgiven, but since that is not the case, Dippé doesn't have the chops for a modestly-budgeted, live-action origin story, and 'Spawn' suffers for it, coming in as a sophomoric superhero flick just a cut above 'Batman & Robin,' 'Supergirl,' 'Superman IV' and the horrendous 'Catwoman.'
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Home Video brings 'Spawn' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD50 disc inside a blue eco-vortex keepcase. At startup, the disc goes straight to a main menu still with generic options and music in the background.
This is one ugly AVC-encoded transfer that offers only a slight improvement to its DVD counterpart. The 1.85:1 frame is blurry and indistinct for a majority of the runtime, with a couple moments of decent detailed clarity reminding viewers that they are in fact watching a Blu-ray.
For a very dark movie, black levels are a real disappointment and rarely pleasing to the eye, alternating between passable and mostly dingy. Shadow delineation is thankfully not affected much, but it's neither as good as it should. Contrast is flat with whites that tend to run a tad hot, creating some minor posterization and blooming in the highlights. Strangely, several sequences appear washed out and noticeably dull, ruining skin tones and often pronouncing the grain structure to the point of mosquito noise. Topping it all off, colors are generally lifeless and drab, although not as bad as the rest of the picture.
Had 'Spawn' been properly remastered for his high-def debut, I'm sure this DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack would sound much better than what we actually get. Don't get me wrong, the track does offer a great deal of activity in the rears, feeling quite immersive in several occasions. Whether it is atmospherics which nicely extend the soundfield or action sequences with tons of clear directionality, the way in which the design employs the back speakers is the one major positive this otherwise bad lossless mix.
Where we come across some serious issues is in the front soundstage, starting with the dynamic range. The higher frequencies noticeably clip and distort during much of the action, sounding like high-pitched squeals with hardly any distinct detail. This is made especially apparent when Spawn's cape expands and flies all around the room. It's far too bright and piercing, basically like someone turned up the volume on the special effects and called it a day. The low-end is also loud and heavy, but not at all articulate yet very boomy with several hints of noise. The only good moments are during the songs. Through all this, vocals are occasionally drowned out by the commotion, as in the scene when Spawn and Clown race to Wanda's house.
In the end, the film's sound design seems to have much to offer in terms of a good lossless mix, but just ends up sounding loud and obnoxious instead.
Special features are ported over from the DVD and they're decently extensive.
In 1997, Todd McFarlane's hugely popular comic book series, 'Spawn,' was brought to the big screen with massively disappointing results, feeling more like a DTV release than something that actually hit theaters. Despite some attractive photography, the film suffers from mediocre direction, a choppy pace, bad acting, and terrible CGI effects even for a 1997 feature. The Blu-ray arrives with an ugly audio and video presentation that only mildly improves upon its DVD counterpart. Supplements are the same, but only the most devoted fans and those with fond memories of the movie will even consider picking this up.