A film review by Craig J. Koban
MONSTERS VS. ALIENS
2009, PG, 95 mins.
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
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
Question: Is this “new”
frontier of crafting movies the single most important technological
advancement since the introduction of color and sound?
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.
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
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.
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
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.