`Gremlins 2' Signals Film-Clone Summer


AROUND this time in the summer blockbuster season, a sense of sameness hangs in the air, as one predictable joke and expensive special effect blends indiscriminately into the next. Moviegoing turns into clone-watching: Many titles are decorated with numerals to indicate that they really are clones, of the sequel variety, and even the more original epics usually take what inspiration they have from time-tested genre conventions. Under these circumstances, it's not surprising that reviewers find themselves grateful for small favors - a flash of imagination, a smattering of boldness or creativity, even if it doesn't sustain itself over a whole movie.

``Gremlins 2 The New Batch'' has a few such flashes and smatterings. They take the form of satire, aimed mostly at a very deserving character: Daniel Clamp, who's clearly a composite of Donald Trump and Ted Turner, two of today's most overhyped entrepreneurs. He calls himself a developer, and his developments cover a lot of territory. In his New York skyscraper, he fosters every kind of business from real estate to genetic research. He also runs a TV network that specializes in new-and-improved versions of classic films. One of the movie's most rueful jokes involves a telecast of ``Casablanca,'' advertised as ``now in color - and with a happier ending!''

One of Clamp's employees is Billy Peltzer, hero of the original ``Gremlins'' and now just another anonymous functionary in that Manhattan highrise. His life picks up renewed excitement when the gremlin named Gizmo comes back into it, as cuddly as ever - and as dangerous, since he multiplies every time a human gets him wet, and his offspring are as nasty as he is adorable. Billy is determined to keep Gizmo as a safe and dry house pet this time around, but - wouldn't you know? - a stream of water lands smack on the critter's head before the movie is half over. Guess what happens.

The praiseworthy parts of ``Gremlins 2'' take place mostly before that fateful dousing, as we discover the high-tech idiocies of Clamp's empire, not to mention the self-centered manias of the man in charge. The movie also aims a few good shots at one Marla Bloodstone, a crazed careerist who runs Billy's department and would do anything to get noticed for five seconds by Clamp himself. Billy and Marla are amusingly played by Zach Galligan and Haviland Morris, with support from Phoebe Cates as Billy's girlfriend and the great Christopher Lee, as the obsessive boss of Clamp's designer-genes operation.

Of course, most of the people who flock to ``Gremlins 2'' are interested in the special-effects fantasy scenes featuring the gremlins themselves, and the nastier the better. Here the filmmakers are at their most energetic and most wearisome, dishing out so many silly-gruesome variations on the crazy-creature theme that you can't help being impressed, even as you feel like ducking under your seat for a moment's relief from the relentlessness of it all.

The makers of ``Gremlins 2'' are a smart and savvy group. Chief among them are director Joe Dante, who made the underrated ``Explorers'' and one of the best segments in ``Twilight Zone - The Movie,'' and writer Charlie Haas, who has ``The Edge'' and ``Tex'' among his credits. It's not surprising that they serve up many good laughs during the under-control portions of their new picture. What's disappointing is that they disappear down the voracious black hole of the dreaded summer-blockbuster syndrome.

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