x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Empty Space

3-D animation and engaging moments can't save Monsters vs Aliens from 2-D characters.

The Earth's fate depends on five monsters in Monsters vs Aliens
The Earth's fate depends on five monsters in Monsters vs Aliens

:Monsters vs Aliens
Directors: Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Hugh Laurie, Seth Rogen, Will Arnett, Rainn Wilson, Paul Rudd
Monsters vs Aliens, the latest release from DreamWorks Animation, is the first computer animated film to be produced entirely in 3-D. It is set in the present day, but owes its inspiration to the B-movies of the 1950s, when Hollywood first gave 3-D a spin in an attempt to fend off competition from TV.

These days, DreamWorks is betting that stereoscopic pictures will keep the theatrical experience alive at a time when home viewing and digital downloads are major threats. So far, it looks like a good bet. Box-office analysis suggests 3-D movies get 30 per cent more attendance. In Monsters vs Aliens, however, 3-D seems to have been an afterthought. The film plunges into a self-consciously silly sci-fi yarn (and overly earnest allegory) about a meek bride-to-be, Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), who has a close encounter with a radioactive meteor, grows to 49 feet tall and is stood up at the altar.

Bundled off to a secret military installation, Susan - renamed Ginormica by her government handlers - only wants to get her old stature and egotistical fiancé, Derek (Paul Rudd), back and live a quiet life in the suburbs. Her new roommates don't improve her spirits, though they're a lot more fun than anyone back home in Modesto. There's the mad scientist Dr Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), who morphed with one of his experiments (a nod to The Fly); the gelatinous blue blob, BOB (Seth Rogen), who is a brain cell short of an IQ (a comic riff on The Blob); the mouthy Missing Link (Will Arnett), based on The Creature From the Black Lagoon; and Insectosaurus, a giant, mute bug, apparently a nod to the Japanese monster icon Mothra.

The pop cultural references don't stop there, though they eventually graduate from the 1950s. Kiefer Sutherland voices a gung-ho military general, WR Monger, inspired by George C Scott's role in Dr Strangelove. And when an alien robot crash-lands in the middle of nowhere, the president (voiced by the late-night satirist Stephen Colbert) serenades it with a few bars from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

This is all in good fun, but once the introductions are over, the moviemakers find surprisingly little to do with their featured creatures. Of course Ginormica casts a giant shadow, but don't hold out hopes for Swiftian satire. It's hardly a surprise when conventional weapons bounce off the alien invader and his four-eyed, tentacled puppet master, Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson), and the earth's fate is turned over to the monsters, more in hope than expectation.

Their first confrontation, in downtown San Francisco is easily the film's most impressive scene, a demolition derby in which Ginormica careens through the streets with automobiles for roller skates. Everything after that feels anti-climactic.

Visually, it's disappointingly unadventurous once you see past the 3-D gimmickry. The characters lack the subtle shading of Wall-E or Kung Fu Panda, and the 3-D effects only make the 2-D caricatures seem that much bigger and broader.

Undeniably engaging in patches, Monsters vs Aliens is, in the end, over-produced and underwritten, further confirmation of the quality gap in the DreamWorks and Pixar face off.