“Humans of Earth ... my quest has led me to you planet. Give it to me now!”
Dreamworks pitch a terrific concept here in Monsters vs Aliens - nostalgic nods to the sci-fi creature-features of the 50's enable Earth to defend itself from a bulbous-headed alien despot and his invading army - but the film, which I loved, didn't exactly set the world on fire. Perhaps it is simply because the field of CG animated fantasy is so densely populated that an offering must either be truly exceptional or carry a franchise banner before it. There are just so many of them. But Monsters vs Aliens is actually a really enjoyable escapade that is angled at just the right tangent from the norm to engage on a few different levels. Of course, it does help that I'm a huge and devoted fan of the very genre it pays such loving homage to, as well.
After a planet explodes and spews forth the most powerful element in the universe - Quantonium - in one highly prized meteorite, a big-brained, multi-eyed galactic dictator called Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) steams towards the Earth, where it has landed, with tyrannical ideas of using it to create a clone army and re-populating the world in his own image. Sadly for him, the rock has bowled over bride-to-be, Susan Murphy (Reece Witherspoon), and the Quantonium has flooded her body, causing her to grow to immense proportions and to gain strength accordingly. Immediately captured by a typically top secret government organisation - “an X-file, wrapped in a cover-up and deep-fried in a paranoid conspiracy” - the bewildered Susan soon finds herself incarcerated with a quartet of other so-called “Monsters” whom the military, under the gung-ho guidance of Gen. W. R. Monger (an incredibly gruff-voiced Keiffer Sutherland), have locked-away from civilisation. Towering above the much-cherished B-movie icon of the Black Lagoon's Gill-Man, here called The Missing Link (Will Arnett), and the quintessential mad scientist who made a big mistake in the lab one day and got turned into a bug, Dr. Cockroach (excellently voiced by Hugh Laurie, who almost seems as though he is aping Stewie Griffin from Family Guy), and the amorphous blue blob of extremely talkative ooze, or B.O.B., as he is known (voiced by Seth Rogan who, as it happens, seems to be aping Peter Griffin, the family guy from Family Guy), she discovers that she is just small fry compared to the mighty Insectosaurus, a skyscraper bedecked with fuzz, who is clearly modelled on the atomic-mutated insects that regularly trashed California (Them! or Tarantula) or Japan (Mothra) during the Cold War.
“But ... I'm just a regular girl!”
Renamed Ginormica by the government, Susan is horrified to learn that she is considered a threat to society and under Monger's command will be banged-up for the rest of her (un)natural. Well, that's how it stands until that pesky Mekon-headed aggressor unleashes a massive robot probe to suss out Earth's defences and lay waste to everything in its path to locating the Quantonium. With the President (Stephen Colbert) failing to “connect” with the colossal war-machine with his Casio keyboard rendition of Close Encounters' famous 5-note galactic greeting and, of course, that old interstellar favourite, “Axel-F”, and the US military powerless to halt the behemoth's advance, only Monger's Monstrous strike force seems capable of mounting an effective retaliation. But will saving the Earth and, more immediately, San Francisco, from aliens melt the frosty reactions of the usually terrified public and welcome the Monsters into the hearts of cosy Middle America? Will Susan's now-diminutive groom Derek (Paul Rudd), a self-centred TV weatherman with delusions of grandeur, be able to accept his once-betrothed in her new guise as humanity's oversized protector? And more importantly will Susan be able to find anything to wear that her bum doesn't look big in?
Directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon and overseen by Dreamworks head-honcho, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Monsters vS Aliens is a terrific throw-back yarn that bolts humour with action and never forgets its SF-boom heritage. The obvious references are Attack Of The 50Ft Woman, The Creature From The Black Lagoon, The Blob and The Fly, but with the alien fiend and his somewhat paranoid attitude towards universal domination, some social meanderings - monsters have their gripes too - the story feels contemporary enough to be a little more than just a flamboyant trip down drive-in movie memory lane.
“A genetically altered tomato was combined with a ranch-flavoured dessert topping ... the resulting mass gained consciousess.”
Although I think that Link is possibly short-changed in the screenplay, the heroic team are great characters affectionately written and brilliantly rendered. Laurie's Dr. Cockroach Ph.D is terrific, the Brit darling of American TV drama sends his tonsils scuttling about as much as his on-screen alter-ego. But it is Rogan's B.O.B. who hogs most of the limelight. Chatting-up forlorn jellies and absorbing people by mistake - “He's a hugger ...” - he sends up the paranoid jitters of Middle American movie-goers of the Atomic Age and provides an amorphous charm that Carpenter's The Thing could only dream of.
“Boys, set the Terror Level at Code Brown ... 'cause I need to change my trousers!”
The animation is mesmerising, as is only to be expected. Hyper-adrenalised action sequences get the juices flowing. Susan's big church breakout gets things off to a debris-hurling start, but the central set-piece of the intergalactic grapple on the Golden Gate Bridge plays like the finale in any number of other clash 'n' bash movies, as well as tipping a referential nod to the many landmarks destroyed by big beasties in the black and white days of yore. Some terrific jet-skating through the stratos delivers some swooping kick-assery too, but you just have to love a film that features a hovering blue-meanie being chased down a warren of metal tunnels by the cutest big-girl around. Without being Pixar-sharp and gleaming - Dreamworks don't exactly do spit and polish - the film looks astonishingly cinematic, possessing a semi-realistic sheen rather than an all-glowing retinal jacuzzi. Yet even in 2D this is amazingly intricate stuff that simply demands repeat viewing. Once we get aboard Gallaxhar's ship, the film ironically opens-up with huge chambers, vast legions of alien clones marching off to their armada, labyrinthine corridors and immense all-encompassing walls of fathomless circuitry and gangways. It's predictable stuff, maybe, but the retro sci-fi appeal is just so damn cool.
"First new monster in years. We couldn't get, like, a wolf man or a mummy ... you know, someone I can play cards with?”
There are hints towards The Incredibles in here, too. For a kick-off, the massive probe robot is certainly similar to Syndrome's vast metallic henchmen. Then there is the whole shebang about society shunning the very minority that it will ultimately be forced to turn to for help. And a similar post-modern irony breeds with the genre-reverential winks, as well, coating the proceedings with drip-dry panache. But, for me, personally, the most assertive connection between the two films is in the depiction of Susan, herself. My fascination for heroic animated females is well recorded, with some possibly absurd infatuations for Justice League's Wonder Woman, the Joker's minx-like accomplice, Harley Quinn, Family Guys's Lois (!) and, of course, the inimitable and supremely horny Elasti-girl from The Incredibles, who is still my absolute favourite. But I have to admit that when Susan gets herself abducted by Galaxxhar and wakes up aboard his mother-ship redressed in a spray-on costume of marvellously cosmic design my heart did some very animated flutters of its own. WOW! All I can say is that I fully intend to get my wife one of those figure-hugging costumes from somewhere.
Quips, emotion and spectacle breeze through a strangely uncluttered screenplay from Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky and Rob Letterman. The combination of genre-riffs, SF-slapstick and ludicrous set-pieces combine, not in an irreverent train-wreck, but in a sublime carnival of goofy valour. I love the homage-saturated moment when Link takes a foolhardy dive into a chlorinated swimming-pool and ends up staggering, half blinded with blood-shot eyes and arms outstretched towards a group of understandably frightened revellers, perfectly mimicking the Gill-Man's gasping, Frankenstein-influenced aggression. Dr. Cockroach, the brains of the bunch (“By Hawkings' chair!” he squeals during a big eureka! moment), leaps with total confidence into the mechanical jaws of the probe-droid's whirring machinery in the firm belief that the traits of the species he has been transformed into will allow him to survive anything - and, consequently, gets flung around like a beetle in a blender. B.O.B.'s self-confessed lack of brains - it is all too evident that he physically has none - belies a superbly crafted sense of humour. He jokes at his own gelatine expense, stretching and contorting such self-deprecation to visually terrific extremes. But, perhaps most pleasingly of all, is how the odd bunch work well together and actually gel as buddies. Look at the scene when Susan's new-found chums take a stroll down “Normal Lane, Everyday County, USA” in an ill-advised, though richly deserved home visit and, in mechanically copying their leader in the vain hopes of blending in, seek to trash the place. B.O.B. affects the best ever move when a flung picket fence breaks an off-screen window by simply sucking his offending arms back inside his body and trying to appear totally innocent. Oh, to have had a similar ability when I was a kid, having just hoofed a football straight through the glass into someone's lounge! If I am honest I would love the film to have featured more of these guys. I would like to know of how they each came to light, how their activities were misinterpreted with terror by the general, god-fearing population as unholy rampages, and how they were caught and assimilated into Monger's incarceration/rehabilitation program. But the film moves so fast that, on first viewing, none of this becomes a concern. And, to be fair, none of that really matters in this story, either. The age-old ethic of a mismatched gang learning how to live together and to accept one another's apparent oddities in order to overcome some external threat and, ultimately, find communal harmony is one of those never-ending, heart-enriching paeans that Tinseltown and pop-culture, in general, seem to thrive upon.
“What do people scream when they see you coming? Like, look out ... here comes ...”
“SUUUUSSSSAAAANNN! Ooh, I just scared myself. That is scary!”
Henry Jackman's score is thick and atmospheric, but I think the loss of the Theremin may have been a slight oversight. There is nothing in the orchestra that whispers aliens more emphatically than the Theremin. Stick with the end credits though, because as well as a little extra scene spliced in there and some exceptionally cool action highlights from the movie presented stylishly in pseudo-negative, you get to hear the perfectly attuned Sheb Wooley classic “The Purple People-Eater”, which, ahem, sure sounds good to me. Elsewhere, the SF party-vibe continues with the B-52's "Planet Claire" and "When You See (Those Flying Saucers)" from The Buchanan Brothers.
About the only fly-in-the-ointment is the President who, to me, seems pretty much superfluous (then again, that's realism for you, folks) to the main event. Once he's given us his little synth-concert - an admittedly self-indulgent moment - he becomes the symbol of the breathe-easy and talk-amongst-yourselves moments of the movie. Barring some interplay with a couple of BIG RED BUTTONS that Father Ted's Dougal Maguire would certainly have had some fun with, the Prez has very little to offer the momentum of the comical narrative. On the other hand, Sutherland's Gen. Monger is great fun. Never going anywhere without a parachute strapped to his back, he is introduced in a totally gung-ho fashion, stereotypically army-barmy and something of a villain. Yet this is not how he carries on. Monger, despite his name and predilection for enemy engagement, actually seems to care about his weird and wonderful charges and, come the finale, it is hard to think of the team without him as their irascible spearhead.
“It feels warmer than I remember. Did the Earth get warmer? It would be great to know that ... that would be a very convenient truth.”
The Missing Link gets tropically topical about the Greenhouse Effect.
Naturally there is something of a moral about simply being yourself, and accepting the hand that fate deals you, that surfaces somewhere down the line, but MvA delivers what is possibly the least sanctimonious of fantasy-messages. In fact, what makes the film so refreshing is its absolute refusal to make everything “all right again” at the end. The message, if it is about anything worthwhile at all, is that it is perfectly okay to change, even if it means finding out some unpleasant truths about someone you once trusted. That, as far as I am concerned, is much more valuable than learning to accept another's fallibilities for some superficial and token happiness. Susan may not be the most memorable of female role models, but the fairer sex could definitely do a lot worse than to follow her example of supersized empowerment.
Folks, I am virtually the only person I know who actually saw this film at the flicks when it came around and, believe me, I had a hard time convincing anybody that it was extremely good entertainment. Now that it is on Blu-ray, I would urge all animation and SF fans to seek it out. The visuals push the envelope as far as animated 3D goes, and although you won't get to see such lush dimensionality with this particular release, the experience is still highly stimulating and a dazzling example of all-round creative fun. With the lacklustre Ice Age 3 melting away, and the boringly inept Igor and the quite forgettable Bolt now out of sight, this brings the excitement and the intelligence back to CG fantasy with very appealing wit and charm to spare.
Monsters vs Aliens comes highly recommended.
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