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Monsters vs Aliens

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

Monsters vs Aliens: An IMAX 3D Experience (2009)
Directed by Conrad Vernon and Rob Letterman. Featuring the voices of Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen, Hugh Laurie, Will Arnett, Rainn Wilson, Kiefer Sutherland, Paul Rudd, Stephen Colbert.

Monsters vs Aliens disappointed me. “Disappointed” isn’t a term I normally use regarding a DreamWorks CGI-animated film. Or any CGI-animated film that doesn’t start with the Pixar logo. I’ve come to expect that computer-animated fare from anyone aside from Pixar means overused celebrity voice-acting and tiresome, unrelenting pop-culture references placed over the needs of story and character. So why would I feel disappointed when Monsters vs Aliens ended up in the same DreamWorks ballpark of the mediocre?

Because the trailers looked good. Because it was going to play theaters in IMAX 3D (not actual IMAX, but a blow-up for the larger format). Because it was an homage to one of my favorite genres, the 1950s science-fiction ‘B’-movie. Because it has giant monsters and robots.

For all its possibility, Monsters vs Aliens still ends up a stale non-Pixar ‘yuk-yuk’ festival. The filmmakers could have striven for something higher. They could have gone for Coraline—or even Monster House. Instead, they ended up with a movie somewhat superior to Shrek 2, Shrek 3, Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar, and Shark Tale. That’s a victory, of sorts. And the 3D in the IMAX enlargement is, at the very least, breathtaking.

You should see Monsters vs Aliens if you fall into one or more of the following groups:

  1. You have children or are supervising children.
  2. You have an interest in IMAX or the burgeoning RealD process.
  3. You love ‘50s science fiction.

I fall into the second and third group, and if you do also, don’t waste time seeing the film on a 2D screen. Spring for the IMAX 3D, or at least the standard screen RealD. It’s not true IMAX, but it’s still an enormous screen and helps with the immersive 3D experience. If you only fall into the first of the three groups, seeing the movie on 2D or waiting for video is adequate—and cheaper—but you should still try to make it to an IMAX 3D or RealD screening. Your optical sensors will thank you for it. Plus, the kids will look hilarious wearing over-sized scuba-shaped IMAX 3D goggles.

The various 3D formats have always fascinated me, from the first attempts in the 1930s (viewers were more interested in hearing movies talk than watching objects pop from the screen), through the thrilling anaglyph-mania of the 1950s, up to our current—and probably permanent—flood of digital 3D with polarized glasses. What’s interesting about the current RealD explosion (and Monsters vs Aliens had the largest roll-out of any RealD film yet) is how the filmmakers are beginning to reach maturity about the way they use the screen depth effects. Filmmakers are no longer solely obsessed with “gags,” like poking sticks at the screen incessantly. (If you want to witness 3D gaggery at its most gag-inducing, see the awful 1980s Western Comin’ at Ya! Actually, I’m kidding. Don’t see it.) But with the amazing Coraline earlier this year, 3D seems to have come of age, where the effect is to mold a diorama simulation, a sense of looking into a glass case image with genuine depth and breadth.

Monsters vs Aliens marks the first time a CGI-animated movie was conceived for the RealD process from inception, and it shows. It can’t match the stop-action of Coraline, an absolute marvel of the process, but it creates some beautiful vistas and action sequences using the available depth. The effects animation, such as jagged energy bolts, snow, and fields of asteroids, feel as if you could walk among them. Giant monsters truly loom. And characters speaking to each other across vast chambers provides a sense of real distances involved. In fact, the only overt “gag” is a reference to a gag: a man slapping a paddle-ball toward the screen, which is the most famous stunt from House of Wax, the most famous 3D movie of the 1950s.

But all this is in service to an unmemorable movie that, despite its razzle-dazzle animation, is merely a squib. It fires, and then it’s done, and it didn’t really do what it was supposed to look like it was doing.

The story adheres to the title: standard Atomic Horror-era alien invaders against archetypes of Atomic Horror-era homegrown monsters. The squid-like alien conqueror Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) needs the quantonium radiation emanating from Earth, which comes from Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon). Because of exposure to a crashing meteorite, Susan surged to fifty feet in height in the middle of her wedding ceremony. To stop Gallaxhar’s invasion, the U.S. government under the command of General W. R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland) gathers together a coterie of imprisoned monsters and sends them after Gallaxhar and his robot minions. The “Monster Squad” consists of oozing amoeba B.O.B. (Seth Rogegn), insectoid mad scientist Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), gill-man Link (Will Arnett), three hundred and fifty-foot Insectosaurus (wordless screeches from co-director Vernon), and Susan, given the new name Ginormica against her will.

As a ‘50s homage, the film packs in a lot of references. A flying saucer from Earth vs. The Flying Saucers attacks the DreamWorks logo. The alien base on Earth and humanity’s first contact with it comes from The Mysterians. Gallaxhar issues an order to “Destroy all monsters.” (Yeah, that one made me smile.) Super-sized Susan comes straight from Nathan Juran’s cheese-classic Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, but also Burt I. Gordon’s The Amazing Colossal Man. (The movie’s most obscure reference is a comic repeat of the ‘impalement-on-giant-syringe’ moment in The Amazing Colossal Man). The other monsters fall into classic ‘50s niches: Link is the Creature from the Black Lagoon. B.O.B. is the Blob. Dr. Cockroach is any number of scientists who mutated themselves, particularly The Fly and The Hideous Sun Demon. Insectosaurus is a Japanese kaiju based on Mothra. The movie’s action highlight is the requisite big-monster smackdown in a major city, where Susan and Insectosaurus face the cyclops-eyed alien probe in San Francisco and do the same number on the Golden Gate bridge that the “sextopus” did in It Came from Beneath the Sea.

However, Monsters vs Aliens starts to leave the ‘50s roots behind after a stretch, angling for more topical gags. This probably arises from a fear (justified, sadly) that most children watching the movie didn’t grow up on a diet of Them! and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers on afternoon TV like their parents (and I) did. Thus, we have prolonged and unfunny scenes where the U.S. President (Stephen Colbert) segues from playing the Close Encounters five-note call signal to jamming “Axel F” on the synthesizer to communicate with the alien probe, and Dr. Cockroach performing Dance Dance Revolution to override Gallaxhar’s computer. Most of the comedy is built on flimsy joke premises that make no actual sense, and consequently don’t work as humor. Pixar films work entirely on “in-universe” comedy, using inspiration from other films, but not overtly waving toward them. But Monsters vs Aliens waves its hand at its own jokes constantly, and repeats them even if they don’t work—which they frequently don’t. Having six writers on a screenplay often causes this “let’s throw stuff and the wall and hope something sticks” feel.

Susan and B.O.B. emerge as the most memorable of the cast of characters. B.O.B. benefits from Rogen’s voice work, which has the great easygoing “goofy fellow” charm that’s made him such a likable comic actor. The animators also have a lot of fun with B.O.B.’s amorphous shape, and you get to watch him flirt with fruit Jell-O. Reese Witherspoon as Susan’s voice comes across a touch anonymous, but it is great to have a strong female lead in a CGI film, especially in an homage to a genre that doesn’t have a good track record with double-X chromosome protagonists. Susan is a lead who isn’t defined by her romantic relationship, but rather her resistance to one.

The rest of the characters are either forgettable (Link and Dr. Cockroach) or aggravating (the President and W. R. Monger). Poor Paul Rudd, who would have made a nice foil to Seth Rogen, gets wasted as the voice of Susan’s spineless fiancé. Most of these characters get stuck with the mealy-mouth morals, and by the finale aboard Gallaxhar’s ship, the film’s momentum has gone, leaving only the 3D panorama and some cool gags with B.O.B. I really do like B.O.B.

And even as an homage to 1950s genre movies, Monsters vs Aliens lags far behind two other animated films, both from director Brad Bird: The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. The latter needs no introduction, but if you haven’t seen The Iron Giant, put it on whatever “must-see” queue you keep handy. It has a warm love of its genre that the occasional smirks of Monsters vs Aliens miss entirely.

Still… oooh, 3D! Big screen! Oooooh… ahhhhhh…. pretty…

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