As you watch "Howard the Duck," you get the vivid sensation that you're watching not a movie, but a pile of money being poured down the drain.
Based on the short-lived Marvel Comics series, "Howard the Duck" is a $40 million extravaglandular case, an overinflated special effects epic with little heart and less story. It focuses on Howard T. Duck, who is transported, via a high-tech botch, from his planet to ours, where the level of intelligence, if the movie is any indication, is rather lower.
On Earth (or more specifically, in Cleveland), he meets Beverly (Lea Thompson), a rock singer trying to Make It. She takes the webfoot to her friend Phil (Tim Robbins), an aspiring scientist, who in turn introduces him to Dr. Jenning (a fun Jeffrey Jones), the inventor whose errant "laser spectroscope" brought Howard here in the first place.
Alas, the laser spectroscope also gave a hearty "Come on down!" to the Dark Overlord, who inhabits Jenning's body. The Dark Overlord, as you might have guessed, is the embodiment of pure evil. What follows is an excruciatingly long series of battles between baddie and bill-face to determine if life as we know it will survive.
"Howard the Duck" is one of those movies where all the filmmakers' energies went into set design and special effects. As you'd expect from a movie that involves George ("Star Wars") Lucas (he's executive producer), that work is masterly, even spectacular, from the vivid, many-colored bolts of energy that stream out of the Dark Overlord's head, to a many-jawed monster -- a sort of five Godzillas in one -- who arrives in time for the film's climax.
But effects without story and characters are nothing -- you might as well take a tour of a hardware store. In which regard, writer-director Willard Huyck never gets around the fact that he's made a movie about a stuffed animal.
Steven Spielberg made a movie about a toy, too -- "E.T." -- but he made it work by giving his dingus a touching relationship with a young boy; here, Howard's relationship with Beverly goes nowhere -- the movie's only interested in Thompson's legs. And where the E.T. character was a kind of sensitized vessel of pure emotion, the essence of Howard is that he's emotionless, ironical, a wiseacre. Often as not, you just feel like sending him back to Toys R Us.
It would have helped if Huyck and his cowriter, producer Gloria Katz, had given Howard some snappier lines, but what passes for wit in "Howard the Duck" is mostly dumb duck-puns ("kung fu" becomes "quack fu") and the familiar Indiana Jones-style aplomb: When the Dark Overlord destroys a diner with a beam coming out of his mouth, a cook quips, "He must have eaten the chili."
So what's left is a me'lange of fistfights, car chases, rock 'n' roll, explosions and electrical storms that makes "Howard the Duck" the noisiest movie since, uh, last week. Howard the Duck, at area theaters, is rated PG and contains some profanity.