But when Levinson toys with ideas, movies can result

December 18, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Toys," Barry Levinson's new film, didn't start with toys at all; it started with a newspaper article.

"I read this little thing," the director recalls, "about how the Russians had learned some defense secret from a plastic model of a submarine. And that got me to thinking -- how the toy industry and the defense industry were getting closer and closer."

This was back in 1979, when the director and his then-wife Valerie Curtin first conceived the elaborate parable about military-industrial usurpation of the toy business, and tried to get the movie made. As the years passed, Levinson said, "I kept waiting for it to leave my head; if it wasn't valid, it would have. But it stayed and became more and more relevant.

"I remember looking at the gulf war footage of the American missiles going in the door of the Iraqi buildings and thinking, yes, the war has become a video game. From there it was just a short jump to imagining a situation where we actually go so far as to have our wars fought by children using the reflexes that they have honed on the video games."

And indeed, one of the most resonant images in the film is a glimpse into a room in which a generation of youngsters preps for warriorhood in the glare of a computer and cathode ray universe, mastering the intricacies of helicopter gunshipping or Mach 3 dogfighting while playing with toggle sticks. It's as chilling as anything in the movie.

But what was theoretical in his mind then is now actual: When he conceived the notion, he wasn't a father. Now he's the father of two and his oldest son is 7.

"Obviously, I can't turn back the clock and not let him play video games. The point is to monitor. You can't just let a kid go when it comes to something like that, or it takes over his whole life. So you say, 'OK, you can play with that for a half an hour and then you have to move onto something else.' "

The movie, which opens today nationwide, represents Levinson's fears that "we are somehow destroying the innocence of children. I was trying to find some metaphorical expression of that idea and I wanted to see it with an innocent's eye."

He's not worried that it's "too dark" for children, as some critics have charged.

"To say that is to forget that kids see movies all the time that they may never quite understand but they can still have a great time . . . . Some of the stuff may pass them by, but that's OK; they'll still respond. I remember all the movies I saw as a kid, and all the stuff about 'colonies' and 'the English' that just flew by. But somehow the movies were still great, and I carried the memories with me."

He ascribes the movie's elaborate look to an unusually long time in development. He hired the great film designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti to work up an overall design, but instead of having just three or four months, as is usual, Scarfiotti had a full 10.

"We were really able to kick it around for a long time," says Levinson. "Yet we brought it in for about $38 million, which is a comfortable amount these days, by consolidating sets and the like. Why spend all that money? It actually cost less than 'A Few Good Men,' and the only thing that has in it is chairs!"

The movie's crowning glory is an elaborate battle sequence fought by surrogates: a sort of Battle of the Bulging Plush Toys.

"It's funny, we no longer feel anything when people get shot in the movies. I remember seeing 'Under Siege' described as 'a knockabout farce about a terrorist takeover of a battleship.' All these guys get shot and somebody's laughing? Anyway, that's not my idea of a good time at the movies.

"So I tried to come up with metaphorical ways of depicting violence, and thereby preserve its horror. When a toy bear gets shot, strangely enough, you really do feel something."

Levinson is a little surprised to find himself the sole author of one of the most flamboyant battle sequences of the year.

"It's like a lot of my work, in that I never set out to do something but that's how it worked out. I never wanted to do a gangster picture, but then I read James Toback's script [for 'Bugsy'] and it wasn't a gangster picture, it was about how Hollywood glamorized gangsters and how gangsters exploited that violence, and all of a sudden I'm doing a gangster piece. So nothing is really out of the realm of possibility. The one thing I don't want to do is a movie that I've seen before."

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