Monsters vs Aliens

13 05 2010

Do you like a good story? Then Monsters vs Aliens (2009) is not for you.

If, on the other hand, you prefer rapid-fire gags and references mixed with some very nice animation but without any concern for heart or intellect, then this may be your film.

Monsters vs Aliens, coming between Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008) and How to Train Your Dragon (2010), is DreamWorks Animation’s 11th 3D computer-animated film, and it shows. The formula—support a barrage of one-liners and throwaway references with imaginative design and a paper-thin plot—has been fine-tuned by this point, and its calculating cynicism and constant winks to the audience are now more mechanical than ever.

The plot has the necessary moral included, of course, taking Shrek‘s “Accept who you are” fortune-cookie wisdom and giving it a feminist twist. Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon) is all set to marry self-absorbed local weatherman Derek Dietl (Paul Rudd) when she is suddenly hit by a meteorite, causing her to grow to a height of 49 feet 11.5 inches. Captured by the military, she is then sent to a kind of “monster prison” where she meets fellow inmates B.O.B. (Seth Rogen, a parody of the Blob), Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie, a parody of the Fly), the Missing Link (Will Arnett, a parody of the Creature from the Black Lagoon) and Insectosaurus (a parody of Godzilla). In charge of the facility is General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland), a no-nonsense military man who is tough but fair.

Given the film’s title, it’s not hard to guess where all this is headed: soon aliens invade, and it’s up to the five monsters to save the day. Meanwhile, Susan will learn that she’s happy to be an almost-50 foot woman, and she’ll leave Derek and move onto a better, brighter future with her monster pals by her side. (None of these plot points are spoilers, as the entire story is telegraphed within the first ten minutes.)

Monsters vs Aliens was rendered in stereoscopic 3D, and this gimmick is apparent as soon as the film starts, with a character bouncing a ball-and-bat towards the camera in the film’s second sequence, a la House of Wax (1953). The 3D effects aren’t always so gratuitous, but watching it in 2D does highlight certain moments that were obviously designed as “wow” effects for cinema audiences.

Referencing a 1950’s Vincent Price horror is one thing—and there are plenty of similar nods to classic science fiction/horror along the way—but it’s something else to reference Beverly Hills Cop (1984) or An Inconvenient Truth (2006), let alone the videogame Dance Dance Revolution, none of which have anything to do with the genre being targeted and instead seem like desperate attempts to flatter adults who enjoy feeling clever. Even the name W.R. Monger (together with a Strangelove-esque war-room) lacks any real attempt at subtlety or wit.

And then there’s the shot where a character scans his butt in order to gain clearance…

While Pixar make films that respect their audience, DreamWorks Animation seem content to coast along using brain-dead humour and by-the-numbers storytelling. That they continue to succeed at the box office is both depressing and frustrating.

That said, the designs and animation are both very nice (though the humans—with the exception of Susan—look wholly unappealing). There’s a lovely overall look to the production that recalls ’50s Americana and B-movie science fiction aesthetics. It’s also nice to see homages to films like The Fly and The Blob (both 1958) amidst the more contemporary pop-culture references.

But as it stands, Monsters vs Aliens is a missed opportunity. If anything, its whole tone is mirrored in Paul Rudd’s weatherman character: smug, self-obsessed and convinced of its own superiority.




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