MOVIE REVIEW: “Monsters vs. Aliens” (2009)

Republibot 3.0
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I was holding off seeing this movie because Republibot 1.0 didn’t like it, and usually we’re of a mind on these sorts of things - I mean, hell, it’s a Dreamworks CGI movie - how good could it be? Their products are, well, more products than films, and they’re uniformly terrible to boot.

I’m happy to say I was wrong about this one, though, it was a good, solid, fun movie. My first clue this might not suck as much as Shrek XXVI: Colon Blockage was when the cloying Dreamworks logo came up, and then one of the space ships from “Earth Versus The Flying Saucers” came by and blew it up. Hooray!

Even so, I expected that to be pretty much the only gag of the movie, but no, no, I was wrong. The whole thing was pretty funny throughout. There’s lots and lots of scattered gags and in-jokes - typical Dreamworks smartass “I’m so clever” fare - but unlike their normal smug way of throwing in Paris Hilton gags and anachronistic references of every sort, this time the gags are actually pertinent to the story at hand and aren’t just audience-asides. You know, names of SF movies worked in to conversation, visual nods, hommages, that kind of thing.

In fact, there’s scads of hommages in this film, all pretty obvious, and most of them kind of funny and eye-popping. Doctor Strangelove, Close Encounters, It Came From Beneath The Sea, Independence Day, The Blob, Star Wars Episode II, The Creature From The Black Lagoon, Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman, The Fly, The Thing, Godzilla, The Invisible Man, and at least a half a dozen others are all pretty lovingly referenced or otherwise sent up.

Remember those old “Dracula meets The Wolfman” kind of movie-monster team ups from the 50s? In concept and in practice, this is essentially one of those. All our protagonists are thinly-veiled parodies of vastly more infamous fifties counterparts:

- Susan (AKA “Ginormica”) is “The Fifty Foot Woman.”
- Link is “The Creature From The Black Lagoon.”
- Doctor Cockroach is essentially a variation on David Hedison’s character from “The Fly”
- Bob is “The Blob” (A film which holds the record of scaring me more than any other ever made, though I was only three when I saw it)
- Insectasaurus appears to be based on Godzilla but (Spoiler alert!) is actually Mothra.

There’s a lot of deliberate nods to 1950s movies in here, as you’d expect, and that even extends to the visual style of the movie. For no particular reason, in a number of random scenes, cars and aircraft look rather foreshortened, shorter and taller than they’d normally be. Why? To give it the look of a ‘50s Cinerama film that’s been squished in on the edges to fit your TV screen. A minor, and deliberately intermittent detail, but it cracked me up that they’d deliberately do something like that.

The plot is pretty standard fare: adorable girl gets bonked on the head by a meteorite, which causes her to grow to fifty feet tall, and she gets abducted by a super secret branch of the military which imprisons her along with other freaks of nature and misfits of science (“Don’t think of it as a prison, think of it as a fun-filled and pleasant hotel that you can never leave”). Aliens attack the world - coincidentally to get the meteorite which caused her to grow - and pyrotechnic hilarity ensues. It’s fairly standard plotting - plucky girl introduced, along with her problem; plucky girl saves the day when the aliens attack; plucky girl suffers a setback and gets introspective, bonding with her new friends; plucky girl and new friends save the world (Again, for real this time); girl decides she didn’t want her old life after all, the end.

In typical family film style, they attempt to tug at our heartstrings by explaining the emotional basis of the characters, but atypically for a Dreamworks film, they don’t utterly blow it and make us want to throw things at the screen. Yeah, Susan/Ginormica’s problems and their resolution are pretty flagrantly obvious from the first moment we see her, but it’s not nearly so cloying as we’re used to, it’s not accompanied by a crappy montage set to a current Adult Contemporary song about believing in yourself, and, on the whole, it’s not so bad. It could work better than it does, but - and this is an important distinction here - it does not completely fail either, which it certainly would in any other CGI film from this studio. (And just as an aside, how the hell is Dreamworks still making movies? Didn’t they dissolve several years ago? Like several times? Do they even still exist as anything more than a letter head? Geez!) As Female Empowerment stories go, this one is fairly obvious and fairly innocuous, but it’s not nearly so hamfisted as the kinds of things we would have seen in the eighties (I always like to haul out that scene from Remington Steel where Mildred Krebs goes on and on about how it’s a “Whole new world” for women simply because it is now ok for them to Jog. No, I’m not making that up. Or those “Let your girls play sports” Public Service Announcements from the late 80s/early 90s).

Speaking of the 80s, this movie has a very 1980s feel to me - the president (Stephen Colbert) has a vaguely Reganesque look to him, the music and pacing feel very 80s to me, and the whole thing just has the somewhat inept joir de vivre of all those Spielberg-school adventure romps that were cranked out in the mid-80s (Back to the Future, The Goonies, Gremilins, Explorers, that kind of thing) Movies that work, and are fun, but don’t fully connect with their audience for whatever reason.

And in fact, it fumbles the ball very slightly in the final act, just like *most* of those examples do: when all higgledy piggeldy is breaking loose in side the alien command ship in the end, it just doesn’t feel…uhm… well it just doesn’t feel higgledy piggeldy enough for me. Nothing is wrong with it, it works, but it’s like they took their foot off the gas, and as a result the action never really transcends to the next level where every scene is an “oh my God! That’s fantastic!” It works well enough, it just kind of gets cold feet in the last few minutes. That’s my only minor quibble.

The 3D really is beautiful. Aside from a couple deliberately cheesy "In your face" gags, it's mostly used the way Hitchcock used it in "Dial M For Murder" - in order to show depth of field. The locations we see are massive and vanish off in to the distance, with a sense of scope that really wouldn't pop nearly as well if you weren't looking them in 3D. Well worth the experiment, it works.

Voice casting is pretty good for most of the major characters, though the only ‘brilliant’ performance is Will Arnett as “Link.” He’s fantastically good. Conversely, whoever does “General W.R. Monger” is pretty lame all the way through. All “I wanna’ be George C. Scott” and no real depth or soul.

So I liked it. Check it out.