A film review by Craig J. Koban


2009, PG, 95 mins.

Susan/Ginormica: Reese Witherspoon / B.O.B.:  Seth Rogen / Cockroach: Hugh Laurie / Missing Link: Will Arnett / Gen. Monger: Kiefer Sutherland / Gallaxhar: Rainn Wilson / Derek Dietl:  Paul Rudd / The President: Stephen Colbert

Directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon / Written by Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky, Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger and Letterman


Dreamworks' head honcho, Jeffrey Katzenberg, would certainly like everyone out there to believe that the new 3D technology on display in MONSTERS VS ALIENS will usher in a revolutionary artistic trend for the medium.  3D is most assuredly not a new film innovation (the movies have been tinkering with various versions of it – and mostly unsuccessfully – since the 1950’s), but MONSTERS VS ALIENS is being proudly touted by the studio brass as the very first computer animated film ever produced in Real 3D instead of having the regular 2D images converted to 3D after the fact.  Reportedly, this added a hefty $15 million dollars to the film’s budget. 

Question: Is this “new” frontier of crafting movies the single most important technological advancement since the introduction of color and sound?   

Answer: Hardly. 

There is a problem with 3D that cigar smoking, dollar counting studio chiefs like Katzenberg fail to comprehend: 3D should not be the only reason to see a film, which is largely what the intensely aggressive marketing campaign of MONSTERS VS ALIENS has taken great pains to tell viewers.  

Now, I have not been a fierce opponent of 3D technology, nor am I a staunch advocate for it.  Much like any other type visual effect or creative bit of movie make-believe, 3D is a tool to help tell stories and immerse viewers, but it should not be the end all or be all reason to ensure the film works.  I have seen several examples of recent films that have made use of 3D, ranging from the fun and jovial JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH to SUPERMAN RETURNS: THE 3D IMAX EXPERIENCE (still the finest 3D presentation I've ever seen, which sparingly used the technology to liberally enhance certain action sequences) to, most recently, the hauntingly beautiful and joyously creepy CORALINE.  To an extent with SUPERMAN and to an even larger degree with CORALINE, these films conservatively used 3D as an enhancement to the film’s visually lush tapestry…and it never felt like it overwhelmed the characters and story.  The 3D-enhanced imagery was almost kind of invisible and was not annoyingly overwhelming the whole product.  CORALINE represented the best way to properly utilize the technology. 

MONSTERS VS ALIENS could certainly take a page out of that film’s playbook.  Here’s an example of borderline artistic hubris gone horribly amok.  Unlike CORALINE, the 3D effects here bombard every single frame of the film, and – yes – there is certainly an initial “wow” factor in reacting to the innovative novelty of the images.  Yet, the more the film progressed the more I felt like the force-fed 3D visuals were overshadowing the most basic elements that any successful film should have, which is a good story and well drawn characters.  MONSTERS VS ALIENS has a good level of childlike fun and mischief with its tone, but I found myself never once connecting with its enormously sparse and limited storyline and even less with its fairly generic personalities.  Of course, the film looks great and will certainly boggle the eyes of wee-young tykes, but for older viewers there is simply not much hidden beneath its glossy and easy-to-digest surface.  MONSTERS VS ALIENS is all looks and no brains or heart.  The film is touted as a comedy as well, but aside from a few well-orchestrated laughs here and there, the story lacks wit and sophistication with the humor.   

Just consider the source of influence that past films obviously had on the film:  MONSTERS VS ALIENS, at face value, looks like its trying to satirize well-intentioned targets, like 1950’s B-grade alien invasion and monster films, not to mention war films with a staunchly patriotic agenda.  Yet, the film’s screenwriters (five of them…that’s right…five of them) could not collectively find any enjoyable way of even modestly referencing those past films for humorous effect.  There is something to be said about alienating young viewers whom have never see THE BLOB, ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN, and THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, but what of the more mature audience members?  Too much effort here is placed on flashy and frantically paced visuals and pulsating 3D spectacle for the cheap appeasement of the audience members.  Like too many other modern films, big colorful and flashy moments override every other artistic impulse. 

The underlining story is as bare bones as it gets.  We are quickly introduced to the only interesting and emotionally resonating character in Susan Murphy (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), who is seen early in the film preparing for her nuptials to her fiancé (an utterly wasted Paul Rudd).  Just when the wedding is about to go off without a hitch, a strange, glowing meteorite hits the town and causes Susan to mutate into a 49-foot (not 50) woman.  Within minutes, the military shows up, led by General W.R Monger (first rule of comedy: funny names are rarely funny), voiced with spirit by Kiefer Sutherland.  He and the army quickly capture Susan and take her away to a top secret underground facility where the government hides people (and things) like her with extraordinary abilities. 

Re-dubbed “Ginormica” because of her mammoth size, Susan is quickly introduced to some of the other weird characters that the government secludes from the public:  We meet a gelatinous, one eyed blob named B.O.B. (Seth Rogen, clearly having the most inspired fun out of the lot voicing his character), a mad scientist that is also a cockroach named Dr, Cockroach (Hugh Laurie, a great actor that barely makes an impression here), the amphibian-like Missing Link (Will Arnett), and finally the colossal Insectosauras, a gigantic grub that even towers above Susan.  Soon, these strange misfits are called into duty to protect and defend America after an evil, world-crushing alien race that invades Earth with an enormous mechanical robot.  The leader of the aliens, Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson, also underused here) thinks that the puny military of the earth will be no match for his mechanical beast.  The US president (played by Stephen Colbert, who kind of hybrids the idiocy of Dubya with the conservative/blowhard pundit character he portrays on TV’s THE COLBERT REPORT) thinks all is lost, that is until General Monger reveals the existence of Ginormica and the other “monsters” that he thinks will save the earth and rid the plant of alien scum. 

To be fair, there are some decent laughs present in MONSTERS VS ALIENS: I found Rogen’s clueless and happy-go-lucky B.O.B. to be a hoot, as is Colbert, who revels in playing political idiots and is very funny with a few throwaway lines (“Boys, set the terror level to code brown, because I need to change my pants!”), and the film does take a few pot shots at other alien invasion films, (one reporter hilariously deadpans, “Once again a UFO has landed in America, the only country that UFO’s land in”).  Beyond that, the laughs and pratfalls are of the juvenile variety and lack any semblance of refinement and cleverness.  The real bummer with the comedy here is how many failed and botched opportunities the film commits at satire: the film lacks a subversive and acerbic flair for the underlining material.  There were chances for MONSTERS VS ALIENS to effectively lampoon alien and monster fright flicks, not to mention the war room scenes from DR. STRANGELOVE, but all five writers fail to see the comic possibilities here.  Too much of the film’s script and jokes feel pedestrian, trite, and trivial.   

It certainly also does not help that the film is fairly soulless, especially when one considers the enormous comedic talent lending their voices here.  Just look at this list:  We have Paul Rudd, Will Arnett, Seth Rogen, Hugh Laurie, and Stephen Colbert contributing, but almost all of them fail to muster any memorable personality in their respective creations (Arnett and Laurie in particular, both of whom are capable of being riotously and scathingly hilarious, are all but stunted here, and Rudd – one of the best, most reliable actors at underplaying affable smartasses – never is able to get any comic mileage out of the meager part he plays).   By direct comparison, the robot in WALL-E - which barely uttered a discernable syllable throughout the film - had ten times the heart and soul as any of the charmless creations in MONSTERS VS ALIENS.  The “monsters” (plus one really big human) feel more like toys to include in Happy Meals than involving and intriguing characters.  To her credit, Witherspoon at least makes some attempts at humanizing her astonishing and strange character. 

One thing also rings falsely throughout this film: the notion – overwhelmingly perpetuated by Katzenberg - that its 3D technology enhances MONSTERS VS ALIENS and makes it that much more of a transformative and immersing filmgoing experience.  Yet, under simplistic scrutiny it becomes abundantly clear that the motives behind making this film (and future films) completely in 3D are less out of artistic merits and more out of purely financial ones (3D versions of the film are $3 more in terms of ticket price, not to mention that 3D films are virtually piracy proof).  That’s where the gimmick of 3D really comes to the forefront: it’s a gimmick to lure filmgoers into the theatre and it’s a gimmick that is used to validate inflated ticket prices and more profit.  No doubt, MONSTERS VS ALIENS is a masterstroke in terms of advance buzz and advertising, but somewhere along the line the makers forgot that all of the whiz-bang energy and pacing alongside obtrusive bells ‘n whistles eye candy only serves to further accentuate lethargic, banal, and uninspired storytelling.  Young viewers and less fastidious older viewers will most likely find the film’s flashiness and technological sheen infectious.  As for the rest of us, MONSTERS VS ALIENS is more of an expensive funhouse attraction than a fully developed film experience.  

Moreover, some films intuitively know how to use this technology (see CORALINE) and it remains to be seen how live action films are able to harness it (most previous ones have failed, but James Cameron’s upcoming AVATAR will be the real litmus test).  But...alas...as we stand right now, 3D is a gimmick, a distraction, a profit-minded (and not artistic) choice, and most assuredly, an unnecessary element to craft a memorably enchanting film.  MONSTERS VS ALIENS is all razzle-dazzle, but its flat and glaring artificiality stunts its overall spirit -  it's a ginormica-sized disappointment.

A good-looking film without personality is a tedious thing, to be sure.

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