Somewhere between Gremlins, The Goonies and the knockabout world of PlayStation game-craft sits the kids' action-adventure Aliens in the Attic. The unambitious science-fiction story - which skews towards either the incredibly young or the incredibly stupid - suffers from a confusion of tone. Final-reel morality lessons, bargain-basement special effects and blank line readings from the cast are nothing compared to the atmosphere of zany and irreverent mayhem that is not nearly zany nor irreverent enough.
The film begins well enough with a jaunty score from John Debney (Spy Kids) and an intergalactic space travel scene that recalls the director Tim Burton and the composer Danny Elfman's work in Mars Attacks! This time, however, we cut not to Las Vegas but to a suburban Michigan home where the all-American Pearson family is in crisis: the computer-geek son, Tom (Carter Jenkins), has been caught digitally augmenting his school grades; his sister, Bethany (Ashley Tisdale), is being pursued by a much older boy, and the dad, Stuart (Kevin Nealon), is disillusioned and depressed at the gradual dissolution of family life.
Naturally (and strangely aping the plot structure of the best horror films), a trip to the deserted family home in rural Creek Landing is ordered, complete with the extended family brood, including the bullying cousin Jake (Austin Robert Butler) and the dotty old Grandma Rose (Doris Roberts). Before the first day is over, Tom discovers four tiny, aggressive aliens in the - you guessed it - attic, who turn out to be an advance guard to a fleet of fellow creatures that have singled out the Earth for destruction.
With the premise firmly established, the movie executes many diversions, tonal shifts and narrative curlicues before it's wham-bam finale. First, Bethany's predatory boyfriend, Ricky (Robert Hoffman), appears, providing the director John Schultz with a cheap-shot opportunity to film Tisdale in a seemingly unseasonal bikini by the house's empty swimming pool. The autumnal weather makes these shots leering and gratuitous. In fact, in the light of the movie's PG rating, the entire subplot seems wholly out of place.
The knee-high aliens never become more than perfectly formed, archetypal sitcom personalities. Razor (Kari Wahlgren) is the tough girl who believes she's as good as any man, and Sparks (Josh Peck) is the small, loveable guy who is good with technology and just wants an easy life. The aliens also possess a telekinetically powered dart gun that allows them to control adults through a PlayStation-style handset - and this is where the film abandons any semblance of integrity. For the entire last hour of Aliens in the Attic, the Pearson kids manipulate their adult surrogates into various unfunny confrontations. Ricky and Grandma Rose, for instance, are cruelly launched into an epic, Matrix-style battle on the family stairwell. (The scene is as tedious as it is broad - when will filmmakers realise that a Matrix parody isn't reason enough to shoot an entire scene?)
The film culminates in yet another remote controlled battle, this time between two giant humanoid fighters who are once again at the mercy of the fast-fingered Tom. In these scenes, the film's blind validation of games as a legitimate step towards self-actualisation is disturbing (past kids' films have advocated artistic creativity, such as Wil Wheaton's storytelling skills in Stand By Me). Play enough computer games, says Aliens in the Attic, and you, too, could solve all your family's complications while handling the outside world with bravery and calm.
The Pearsons, naturally, make amends by the end of the movie, with Tom duly reconciled with his father. But the trip to get them there isn't smart enough to compensate for slapdash effects and ill-conceived action. Nor is it so offensive that it might send concerned parents fleeing for the exit. The great problem with Aliens in the Attic is that it is wholly, startlingly and fundamentally average.
A review of Akira Kurosawa's Drunken Angel kicks off The National Online's new feature, The Classics. Read the critique, give your opinion and enter to win classic DVDs from around the world. Just go to www.thenational.ae/theclassics.