Friday, March 27, 2009
Monsters Vs. Aliens begins with a meteorite landing outside the church where Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) is getting married to a smug TV anchor (Paul Rudd). The meteorite turns her a glowing green and soon she finds herself 50 feet tall (well okay 49 feet). She gets whisked away by a covert government organization that already has a quartet of monsters tucked away in an underground compound where the government has been groomingthem as secret weapons -- sort of goofy Mr. Manhattans if you will.
The monsters are drawn from classic 50s sci-fi: Susan recalls The Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman ; Missing Link (Will Arnett) is like the Creature from the Black Lagoon ; B.O.B. (Seth Rogen) has a gelatinous consistency reminiscent of The Blob ; Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie) undergoes an experiment gone wrong like in The Fly ; and Insectosaurus pulls its reference from across the Pacific and a later decade by ultimately turning into something akin to Mothra (from Japan's Godzilla franchise). Then, as with Universal's Frankenstein , all the monsters are made sympathetic. Now add in a multi-eyed, squid-legged alien that decides it wants to take over earth and destroy all the people (but he assures everyone, it's "nothing personal, just business"). So the government unleashes it's secret weapon to deliver what the title promises -- monsters vs. aliens.
Bad alien! Bad! Monsters Vs. Aliens (Dreamworks)
Co-directors and co-story idea men Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon, definitely have a funny idea here. They also have some talented voice actors. But the clever premise gets dumbed down to the point that it's all just silly fluff. Verifying my theory that films with more than three screenwriters generally have problems, Monsters Vs. Aliens never finds the right style for its humor. The multi-writer team includes Letterman, Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger. Each seems to pull the film in a different direction or at least that's the way it feels. Since they want the kiddies to flock to the theater, they aim most of the jokes at them - that would be the potty humor and slapstick gags. But since they want older teens and adults to come as well, they occasionally add some in-jokes and references to films made decades before the kiddies were even born. And that brings up the question of why make a family film that uses as its foundation a genre of sci-fi that these kids may only know from references in Family Guy ? Is it because the younger audiences won't realize what you're ripping off and the older audiences can pretend like they're cool because they get the in-jokes? Or is it because you just needed a gimmick and this one seemed good enough when making a pitch?
The problem with the film is that it's not playing very knowingly or cleverly off of the sci fi genre. The references feel superficial rather than loving and you need that affection for a spoof like this to really work. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz were funny and appealing because creators Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright really seem like geek fans that know the genres they are playing in. Letterman and Vernon just seem like casual tourists who read a guidebook and want to check out a few key landmarks. The Godzilla reference, for example, could have been so much more fun. Insectosaurus turns into a giant moth like Mothra from the Godzilla series but it would have been funnier for Godzilla fans if the singing twins who always accompanying Mothra and sing its theme song were somehow present too. That would reveal that the filmmaker knew what it was they were poking fun at. The filmmakers also stray out of the genre for references to Dr. Strangelove (in the war room) and Wizard of Oz (B.O.B. has no brain but has a flexible form like the Scarecrow for instance). And San Diego locals might enjoy the home grown Killer Tomato reference.
The war room in Monsters Vs. Aliens (Dreamworks)
Monsters Vs. Aliens succeeds best with some of the voice talent. Stephen Colbert makes a hilarious president and Rainn Wilson is wicked fun as the dumb and unmenacing multi-eyed and tentacled evil alien. Rogen also proves entertaining as the blobbish B.O.B.
The film is available in IMAX 3D, another gimmick to try and lure people out of their home theaters. Again there's a missed opportunity to play off of the gimmicks Hollywood tried in the past to lure people to theaters - everything from Cinemascope to 3D to William Castle's assorted stunts. The 3D, like that in Coraline , is technically impressive. With the exception of a paddleball and a few assorted items "thrown" at the audience, the film generally uses the 3D for an enhanced visual experience -- making the images more dimensional in a general sense rather than in the more gimmicky manner of pointing things at the audience. But on the downside, the animation style is less than thrilling. The monsters are cleverly conceived and executed but the humans - once again - are appalling to look at. This was also the case with the 3D Monster House . The alien ship has some fun elements to it but other than that the animation is uninspired in its design, which is a shame since you can animated anything you want without really increasing your budget.
Monsters Vs. Aliens (rated PG for sci-fi action, some crude humor and mild language) has occasional moments of humor but nothing sustained. It feels like a half-hearted riff on sci-fi. Tim Burton may have also failed to successfully spoof the genre with his Mars Attacks! But at least he had a more sustained and cohesive visual concept of how it should all look, and he seemed to be playing off of something he genuinely enjoyed. Monsters Vs. Aliens feels more like a Hollywood product designed as much as a movie as it is an extended commercial for toys and a video game.
Companion viewing: Mars Attacks!, Invaders from Mars, Wicked City