Monsters vs. AliensDirected by Rob Letterman and Conrad VernonStarring Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen, Rainn Wilson and Stephen ColbertRated PG
Goes well with: Over the Hedge, Madagascar, Shark Tale
There's no doubt that we're in an era of movie special effects that's, well, just awesome. The current wave of films shot in 3-D is providing an entirely new theatrical experience, and when you team it up with the enormity of an IMAX theater, the impact can be totally immersive and overwhelming, in ways your home theater just can't provide. The problem—of course, there's a problem—is that filmmakers are so enamored of their new special-effects superpowers that they have forgotten to use them for good. Now, it's not like they're using them for evil, exactly, but for the most part, storytelling has taken a back seat to style. As a result, the movies are generally forgettable. Beowulf, anyone? Journey to the Center of the Earth? My Bloody Valentine? Feel free to add Monsters vs. Aliens to that list.
Sure, it looks cool, but Monsters vs. Aliens is also seriously formulaic. You've got a bunch of quirky characters that will soon be found on the inside of Happy Meals everywhere, a collection of currently-hot celebrities to do the voices and way too many writers who've come up with some bits that are clever and a lot of jokes that fall flat. Of course, there are some high-end action sequences and the standard heartwarming ending where everyone gets what they deserve. It's worked time and again, and Monsters vs. Aliens is no different.
The one thing that really stands out in Monsters vs. Aliens isn't techy at all. It's Reese Witherspoon, who actually gives a very good performance that, in turn, gives the movie its humanity, especially early on. She voices Susan Murphy, an average gal from Modesto with a romantic sensibility who's engaged to pompous weatherman Derek (Paul Rudd). Sadly, on her wedding day, she's thumped by a glowing meteorite that turns her into a 50-foot-tall super-strong giantess.
Naturally, the military, under the guidance of General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland), carts her off to a super-secret facility, where she's imprisoned and renamed Ginormica. That's also where she meets her new buddies, the other monsters. There's the brilliant Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), the un-frozen fish-man Missing Link (Will Arnett) and the brainless blob B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), each of whom your kids will be clamoring for the next time you drive them through Burger King.
That first act, which has Susan going through the transformation and isolation from her family and her fiancé, is great, and Witherspoon really makes you feel for her. But that's just the first half-hour, and we haven't even met the Aliens yet. We soon do, though, because Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson), a bad guy with tentacles and designs on the Earth, wants what was in the meteor that struck Susan—and is now inside her. Giant robots are dispatched, and the President (Steven Colbert, in a role that should really be much funnier) offers the monsters a chance to fight for their freedom. San Francisco is nicely destroyed (the collapse of the Golden Gate bridge looks sharp), and Susan and her homies eventually end up on the mother ship, where Susan gains some self-esteem, all of them learn to celebrate their outsider status and the only creatures who end up dead are evil. Not to spoil the ending, but it's a happy one.
Monsters vs. Aliens isn't bad; it's just not all that great. It's solid, with a narrative that's seriously unspectacular. Over the next few years, there's going to be a spate of movies that will outdo what it does. If this dropped two years from now, half the voices would be different flavor-of-the-month celebrities, and it would feel generic. Yes, it looks terrific, and the effects are great, and if you're going to see it, get thee to an IMAX, stat, because it won't be as good in standard 2-D. Your kids might enjoy themselves, but Monsters vs. Aliens should serve as a reminder that this new technology is no replacement for a really good story. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.