TV MOVIE REVIEW: “Ben 10: Alien Swarm” (2009)

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About three years back, the original “Ben 10” series was drawing to a close, and Cartoon Network decided on the rather odd choice of doing a live-action TV Movie, just to see if there was any interest in that sort of thing. Curiouser still, CN maintained that the movie was actually ‘canon’ - that is, that it was actually part of the continuity of the long-running series that had just ended. This was probably more about publicity than anything else - it didn’t fit terribly snugly, to put it politely - but there have been subsequent half-hearted attempts in the current Cartoon Spinoff (“Ben 10: Alien Force”) to smooth over some of the wonkier bits from the movie. Of course these aren’t entirely effective, and at some point during its run, they decided to simply stop trying and just ignore the stuff that didn’t make sense.

It was a fairly ‘meh’ movie, clearly little more than a test balloon to see if there was a market for this kind of thing, but now that “Alien Force” is, itself, drawing to a close, they decided to give it another go. The new movie, “Alien Swarm,” is, itself, kind of ‘meh’, but then we knew that going in, right?

PLAY BY PLAY

Kevin drives in to a warehouse to buy some illegal alien technology from some motorcycle-riding pushers. The deal quickly goes south as more and more people keep turning up - first the middleman posing as a seller, then Kevin, then the real sellers, then Gwen and Ben, then the *real* person who hired the sellers, and then some crazy bald guy who tries to kill them all with a cloud of CGI bugs which were - of course - the alien tech that was up for sale to begin with.

It’s a hopelessly overwrought scene that looses focus almost immediately, with a lot of expositional info-dumping taking place to set up what’s going on, and more-or-less useless explanations of who the characters are, what The Plumbers are, who’s this long-lost-best-friend that everyone knows , but we’ve never heard of previously, and so on. It goes on for a long time, and really the one bit of information they don’t focus on is the actual point of the scene: what this alien tech is, how it came to be fore sale, and what it does. They also don’t lay out their opinions of the founding father’s reasons for setting up a government that is effectively a Roman-styled triumverate writ large, but the way they were yammering on there for a while, it wouldn’t have surprised me if they did. Anyway, they talk and they talk and they talk some more, and then they talk about talking, and then, just when you think they’re done with both the talking and the talking about talking - bang - they talk some more. Then the bad guy shows up, activates the chips, and tries to kill them all, which, mercifully, causes the story to move forward.

A fight ensues, with Ben turning in to a mediocre CGI representation of Big Chill who easily cleans up the situation, but the long-lost-best-friend-that-everyone-blah-blah-blah (“Elena” to her friends) is gone, as is the bald whackamole who tried to kill ‘em all.

From that point on, things improve considerably. They go to the secret Plumber Base underneath Bellwood - the theoretically-average Midwestern town Ben lives in - and start to study the captured chips, which are super-high alien tech. Grandpa Max comes in, sees what they’re doing, and they discuss the attack. Then Elena sneaks in, and Grandpa goes off the deep end, refusing to even listen. She leaves, and Ben decides to go help her. Grandpa forbids him to do so, but he defies orders. We later find out that Elena’s dad was a plumber among plumbers, and Max’s chosen heir for leadership of the organization. Then he went bad and was stealing alien tech - the chips - so he was thrown out and blacklisted three years prior to this movie, which puts it two or three years after the last movie/previous series. Whatever. We’re told (Eventually) that Elena was Ben’s first crush, and was on his soccer team when he was 12 or 13.

Ben steals Grandpa’s motorcycle - ‘cuz he’s a rebel now - and hooks up with Elena on her motorcycle - ‘cuz she’s a tough chick or something - and they go to her dad’s lab - she tells him the old man is missing, and she needs Ben’s help to find him - and there they’re ambushed by a whole bunch of people who’ve been “infested” by the alien chips, and are controlling them as a hive mind. Yup, that’s right: We’re in the middle of another one of those tedious “One of us! One of us!” mind control plots and from this point on, we’re in full on - and I mean *blatant* - Invasion of the Body Snatchers territory.

Ben and Elena escape, but she wrecks her bike in the process, so the two of them share a hog from that point on ‘cuz they like each other.

Meanwhile, Gwen and Kevin have decided that Grandpa’s own feelings of betrayal are hampering his judgment, and realize that Ben might be right. They hack Grandpa’s computer, scan for the chips, and discover a massive cluster of them about 100 miles away from Bellwood. They drive there and find a UPS store (Or the Ben 10 equivalent thereof: “Shipit”) where the chips are being shipped out, then get attacked by a possessed UPS worker, and then a massive cloud of more flying alien chips. This time the chips turn in to large balls and chase Kevin’s car around for a bit, destroying it. Ben shows up, turns in to Humongosaur (The CGI on this one is actually pretty good), and saves the day, in the process destroying Kevin’s car even more.

They head back to Bellwood (by cab) and study the chips, and then one of ’em possesses Grandpa who escapes before he can impart any useful exposition. Ben takes charge, and they again scan for the chips. They realize they’re mostly clustered in major cities, excepting a huge gaggle of ‘em in central Missouri, which happens to be the main headquarters for UPS. They take a new car (Yawn) to Missouri, and infiltrate the UPS hub where they realize that the crazy bald guy is Elena’s dad. He’s been possessed by the queen, and is excreting thousands of chips per minute via a bunch of transparent garden hoses that have been shoved in to his body at random intervals. (At this point my 11 year old had to leave the room).

They confront Elena about lying to them, but realize that the end is near for the human race, so Ben transforms in to a new alien - “Nanomech” - while the others basically just stomp around and punch people. Ben flies in to Elena’s dad’s nose and gets in a battle with the alien queen of the chips, which, of course, he wins because “Humans never give up.” Excepting those useless pansies from “A Bridge Too Far.” And the Confederate States of America. And the Royalist Forces defeated by Oliver Cromwell. And the Bad Guys in Both World Wars. And the Soviet Union. And really pretty much at least half of the forces who’ve ever fought about anything in all of human history, if we’re honest. But aside from them, “Humans Never Give Up.”

So the queen dies, Elena’s dad and all the rest of the chip-zombies are freed, Grandpa Max turns over control of the Plumbers to Ben, who immediately refuses to take his resignation and orders him to take charge again, Elena joins the team, and they drive off in their new car, with Ben more assertive and in charge. “I’m driving from now on.”

Cue closing credits which - I swear - look like they came out of a grainy 1973 grind house movie with a title like “Kung Fu Negro Vampires” or “Bloodbath Shuffle Disco” or whatever.

OBSERVATIONS

Let’s just concentrate on Continuity for a bit, shall we? Get it out of the way? Kevin isn’t deformed yet, and he’s still got his ‘absorptive’ powers, so this movie takes place at some point prior to the third season of “Alien Force.” Ben makes an ambiguous comment about saving the world “Again,” which would seem to imply it’s after he’d defeated the DNAliens and Highbreed at the climax of season 2, but obviously prior to the accident that befalls Kevin in the first episode of season 3. Ergo - and I use that word correctly - it takes place in the couple of weeks between Episodes 26 and 27 of the “Alien Force” series.

While the fit isn’t nearly as bad as with “Ben 10: Race Against Time” three years ago, it’s still a bit sloppy, and it doesn’t tie in as tightly as they want it to, either with the cartoon, or with the previous TV movie. The biggest point of annoyance here is that in the movies, there’s a massive (Yet decommissioned and empty) Plumber Base under Bellwood, whereas in the cartoon, the Plumber HQ is located under Mount Rushmore. The Bellwood location is never mentioned nor hinted at in the cartoon. It’s also perplexing when Grandpa attempts to turn command of the Plumbers over to Ben, since it’s never been said nor implied that Grandpa Max was in charge of the organization, and they’ve always made it very clear in all the shows that he’s retired, and has been for quite some time. In fact - though the cartoon is fuzzy on this - the Plumbers appear to have been mostly decommissioned for quite some time, and are - at best - a caretaking operation in the shows. This conflicts, obviously, as does the fact that all the retired plumbers we met in the previous movie (Including Robert Picardo) are conspicuously absent from this film. The issue with Kevin’s car getting destroyed in this movie is also a little wonky, since his car was destroyed at the end of Season 2 of Alien Force, yet here it is again, working fine just a week or two later, up until it’s destroyed. Then it’s back, again, fine and working, in the start of Alien Force, Season 3. I’m willing to believe Kevin could fix his car in a month or two, but could he do it twice in that period?

Yeah, yeah, it’s just a kid’s show, I’m overanalyzing, I know.

Some of these problems stem from the fact that there wasn’t *supposed* to be a third season of Alien Force. Instead, they’d intended to end that show at 26 episodes, and then pick up a new show (“Ben 10: Evolution”) the next year. Ratings were good enough, however, that CN decided on a third season, which obviously commenced production *after* the script for this movie was already fairly well set.

The plot is fairly obvious and uninspired, and they’re really not even trying to hide the “Body Snatchers” ripoff. You’ll recall the aliens used shipping to spread their infestation in that movie, as well. Even beyond that, however, it’s just hard for me to get worked up or enthusiastic about a plot that was used at least 30 times on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I mean, come on!

According to the map on the wall, Bellwood - always Midwestern - appears to be located somewhere around the northern borders of Mississippi and Alabama, where they touch. Of course nothing we see in the movie actually looks like that. Most of the movie looks like a pissy autumn in central ohio - grey and wet and kind of blah, but no snow as yet.

Acting is mediocre, and every character has been recast since the “Race against Time” movie. Of course you’d have to do that, since the kids are five years older now, but it is strange that they decided to recast Lee Majors as “Grandpa Max” as well. This time out, he’s played by Barry Corbin (Best known as “Maurice” from Northern Exposure), who’s generally pretty good, but just seems too long-in-the-tooth and tripped out for what he’s doing here. I presume it was simply a budgetary thing - Grandpa isn’t really in all that much of the movie, and Barry’s probably less expensive than Lee.

Fifteen-year-old Ben is played by twenty-three-year-old Ryan Kelly, in an odd casting choice. Granted, he doesn’t look 23, but he certainly doesn’t look 15 either. I get the decision to use older actors in younger roles (the “Arnold Drummond/Alex P. Keaton” effect) because you get a better performance than you would from someone who’s authentically a kid, but this seems like pushing it. He’s adequate, he doesn’t embarrass himself, but he seems slightly out of place. Also, curiously, Ben’s got a much more technological and scientific mind. Ben’s never been stupid, but he’s hardly a genius, and it’s strange to just abruptly have him be ridiculously good at everything with little or no effort. He’s also quite stalwart and not nearly as immature as we’re used to seeing him. Again, it’s an odd choice. Previous to this, Ryan Kelly played Young Derek Reese in “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.”

Fifteen-year-old Gwen Tennyson is played by Galadriel Stineman, who gets my award for coolest actress name. She actually appears to be a teenager, but I can’t find her age anywhere, so she might be a bit older than she looks. She does fine, but isn’t as maternal as the Gwen in the cartoons, and her powers appear to work a bit differently (No force field walls or shields this time out). As an actress, she’s perfectly adequate for this kind of thing, but - not to be negative - I was struck by how awkwardly she moved in the action sequences. This might just be a result of working with CGI and having no idea what the special effects flying out of your fingertips look like, but as a result the stunt double work was pretty obvious.

Nathan Keys is handsome enough in a bad-boy way as Kevin E.Levin, he’s the kind of guy the girlies love, and he’s got most of the best lines, but he comes across rather stiff. Fifteen-year-old Elena is played by Twenty-Four-year-old Alyssa Diaz, who’s just kind of there, but as I doubt we’ll ever see or hear of the character again, I’m not going to go on about it.

I will say that introducing a hugely important character that everyone knows, but whom we’ve never heard of before was clunky, manipulative, and tedious. You just can’t do a “Black Bart is Back in Town” story if no one’s ever heard of Black Bart in the first place.

Jumping back to Continuity - I’m sorry - there’s a number of odd omissions. There’s bo mention of Ben’s girlfriend Julie, even when Ben is clearly crushing on Elena. This bothered one of my kids, but not so much as did the idea they’d have to *Drive* to Missouri, despite the fact that Ben has a fully functional (and housebroken) space ship that he can, and does, use on a moment’s notice. It’s also weird that neither of Kevin’s cars are armed. And of course it goes without saying that Ben doesn’t have the new car in season 3 of Alien Force, nor has it ever been mentioned, nor does Ben do the driving.

Production values are acceptably cheap. It looks better than “Race Against Time” did, the lighting and cinematography are better, and it managed to avoid the “Power Rangers” feel that some TV movies have - like say, the recent “Battlestar Galactica: The Plan”, but it’s obviously a low budget production. Wikipedia is at present making the utter nonsense claim that this thing cost 15 million dollars. I’ve seen student films that have done stuff every bit as good as this for less than $150,000 bucks, so I’m assuming the Wiki numbers in this case are the result of a typo or perhaps some magic mushrooms and wishful thinking.

Direction is….well, it’s an Alex Winter production, just like the first one. I’m certainly not going to say he’s inept or incompetent because he’s not, but there’s an odd kind of measured chunkiness about his films that’s instantly recognizable. In classic terms, he’s not exactly a William One-Shot Beaudine, but he’s definitely on the scale of Low-B or High-C features. As a result, there’s a deliberateness and a staid quality that don’t really help the production. I suspect most of the cast are probably better actors than they appear here, but the clunky editing sucks the energy out of some of the dialog. There’s also some “Lets ride motorcycles” scenes that go on for way too long.

And that’s about it. My kids enjoyed it, though one scene frightened one of ‘em, and the recurring “Bugs under the skin” thing made them cringe. It’s perfectly adequate entertainment aimed at young tweens, and if you’ve got any, they’ll like it. But unlike the Ben 10 shows themselves, there’s little or nothing here to do anything but annoy the parents watching along. I will say that I don’t understand why they insist on making a live-action series of movies about a kid who can turn in to aliens, and then they never let him turn in to aliens. Seriously, if we got ten minutes of “Herotime” in this 90 minute flick, I’d be surprised.

We’ve got three episodes left until the end of “Alien Force” and then next year “Evolution” begins. I have to say I’m looking forward to those with a lot more anticipation than I was at this.

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