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Monsters vs. Aliens Review – A Theme Park Ride and a Technological Exhibition

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Despite its proliferation in recent months, 3D has yet to become a tool of serious storytelling. Pixar — the gold standard in animated features — may very well change that fact with Up, their first movie to use the technology. But in the meantime we have Dreamworks’ Monsters vs. Aliens, a cheerful, glib scifi comedy that finds occasional nuggets of invention and inspiration in some well-worn terrain. It’s a diverting, enjoyable affair, but as with most 3D efforts to date, it is primarily a theme park ride and technological exhibition; a dazzling little ditty that would rather elicit a momentary “wow” than leave a lasting impression. It is, in other words, precisely the sort of goofball spectacle that its title suggests.

Monsters vs. Aliens presents a nefarious government agency — “an X-File wrapped in a cover-up, deep-fried in a paranoid conspiracy” — that collects the superhuman anomalies resulting from nuclear accidents, sick genetic experiments, what have you. Run by General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland), the organization keeps these “monsters” imprisoned, saving them for a rainy day. An invasion by a malevolent four-eyed alien, who first sends a big-ass metal robot to conquer Earth and then comes down to take care of business himself, is exactly the sort of day General Monger had in mind.

The movie is conceived as a raucous parody, which conveniently allows it to not only steal from classic science fiction, but to do it with a knowing wink. The monster heroes are explicit allusions to the scifi and horror pantheon: “Susan” (Reese Witherspoon) is the 50 Foot Woman; “Dr. Cockroach Ph.D” (Hugh Laurie) is Jeff Goldblum in the Blob ; “Insectosaurus” is obviously Mothra. At one point, two alien-themed Steven Spielberg movies are name-checked in the span of 60 seconds. There’s a funny scene that mimics the “teenagers at Make-Out Point” monster movie cliché, but with the gender roles reversed.

This is all amusing enough, but Monsters vs. Aliens is so aggressively snarky that it struggles to build any real momentum. There’s no real story to speak of (the movie almost seems too hip for one), and the attempt to manufacture a personal crisis for Susan — she had planned to wed an obnoxious weatherman who has decided that marrying a behemoth won’t help him attain his dream of becoming a big-city news anchor — feels like a half-hearted bow to kiddie flick convention. The non-stop 3D spectacle is impressive, but it’s not in service of everything — there’s no sense of adventure to accompany it.

Still, Monsters vs. Aliens is kind of fun as an irreverent lampoon. As often happens, the best parts are the smallest — throwaway moments shine (I particularly enjoyed the self-doubting self-destruct mechanism on the alien ship) while the big set pieces are quickly forgotten. In fact, this holds even for the visuals: The gleaming CGI is most impressive when depicting mundane locations (a church, downtown San Francisco) in stunningly lifelike, slightly stylized beauty. If you can get mere scenery to look that realistic, you’ve proven that computer animation is no longer just visual fireworks, but a versatile medium that could empower storytellers.

3D isn’t there yet, but 2009 might be the year: Pixar and James Cameron will both take a stab at making the format transcend gimmickry, and I suspect at least one of the two will succeed. For now you’ll have to be content with giggling as stuff seems to, oh my God, fly right at your face!

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