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Non-Review Review: Monsters vs. Aliens

I do quite like Monsters vs. Aliens, even if it feels like it’s trying to do too many vastly different things are once. It’s too goofy and silly to be a genuinely emotional morality tale about appreciating those different than us, while also being too sentimental to work as a sort of a goofy hokey monster mash nostalgia trip. One gets the sense that it could have been a much better film had it opted for one approach rather than the other, instead of trying to straddle the middle ground between them. It’s a shame, because it has some genuinely impressive sequences and warm sense of respect and good humour for all those classic creature features, but it just ends up feeling too much like a standard cookie-cutter modern animated film.

It's a Monster Mash!

It’s a great premise, full of cheeky old-fashioned glee. It’s the kind of movie you could see Tim Burton sort of throwing out during a pitching session, complete with all manner of homages, deliberately cheesy special effects and a B-movie zest for life. The movie manages to give us a taste off all these elements, but it feels too restrained – as if somebody looked at the idea and said, “It’s good… but modern kids will never go for all that kooky sci-fi junk!”

So we get some impressive moments. I especially love the flashbacks to the origin stories of the particular monsters, as narrated by a superb Keifer Sutherland. The old black-and-white newsreel footage consciously evokes – in glorious CGI – the sort of special effects failures that these original B-movies were famous for. Insectasaurus, for example, attacks a Tokyo that looks to be constructed from cardboard boxes, in reference to those classic Godzilla films. Bob, the stand-in for the Blob, oozes out of the factory like jell-o being pushed through a miniaturised set. The Missing Link emerges in the midst of a sixties beach party, with bikinis. I adored these little introductions, as they paid reference to the classic movies, but without taking them too seriously – I mean, emulating cheesy special effects with CGI is a wonderfully counter-intuitive decision. And I love it.

A bridge too far!

I wonder how much fun it might have been to set the film in the fifties or sixties, the era that the movie consciously evokes. Instead, the movie is set during the modern day, which makes for a bit of stylish whiplash when the monsters fight in the middle of a very modern San Francisco, before retiring to a very fifties house party in a consciously retro backyard. While there are numerous classic film references, they are broken up by awkward attempts to inject that modern sarcastic style of humour that animated films seemingly must have, even if it doesn’t fit. On learning, for example, that the movie’s macguffin as landed on Earth, in the Omega Sector, the alien overlord remarks, “The Omega Sector? Lame!” That sounds like the kind of thing a nine-year-old would write.

It’s the sort of irreverent humour that worked really well in Shrek, which was a deconstruction of fairytales that inserted two genre-savvy protagonists into a conventional narrative. It doesn’t work so well here because this is a much more affectionate take on a genre that hasn’t been done to death in recent years. I don’t need characters to sound like sarcastic and cynical wise guys all the time in order to take an animated film seriously. Monsters vs. Aliens is never earnest, but it does seem like a labour of love from fans of those old films, so it’s odd that it spends so much time trying to convince the audience that it possesses the same sort of maturity and self-awareness of the best modern animated films.

Forget a boy and his dog, it's a girl and her monsters...

Because you don’t get maturity and self-awareness by sticking to formula. There’s no magical plot structure or combination of dramatic scenes that you can insert into any film to make it immediately seem more mature or considered. The movie dwells quite a bit on underlying morals one might expect from a film like this. First our hero has to learn that being different doesn’t make her a “monster” – and instead allows her to be a hero. Then she learns that (even with her super-powers gone) her strength comes from within rather than without. They are nice notes for the movie to hit, and kids could come out of the cinema thinking far worse, but the movie labours them, giving us copious amounts of discussion and exposition about them. They might have been more effective if played a bit quieter, or certainly not stressed so hard in an attempt to demonstrate the movie “has heart.”  The irony being that, again, heart isn’t something you demonstrate by strict adherence to formula.

It’s a shame, because the movie is actually at its strongest when it isn’t trying to reinforce those key and important themes, when it’s just having a fair amount of light-hearted fun. I adored, for instance, the allusions to Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (albeit in a white wedding dress rather than a bikini… because, you know, there are kids watching). There’s a nice reference to The Amazing Colossal Man when a soldier is impaled on giant syringe (albeit through the foot rather than anywhere more serious… because, you know, there are kids watching). The movie even features a General W.R. Monger (who is a reference to either Captain Kilgore from Apocalypse Now and General Ripper from Dr. Strangelove), and even has a war room designed to evoke Kubrick’s Cold War comedy.

Galaxar hasn't got a leg to stand on...

More than that, it’s nice to see the movie play on the famous communication scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and even taking the time to toy with the old “make out point” fifties horror movie cliché. These are fun, and produced with genuine affection for these old movies. Some of the action sequences are genuinely superb, and some of the ways that the movie toys with the conventions like the villain’s backstory (the orphan of a dead world, and a very sad – but often interrupted – origin tale) are very clever. Plus, you know, any movie that inserts a reference to Mothra can’t be all bad.

The cast is awesome, and demonstrates the same sort of wry sense of humour. Whether it’s casting notoriously petite Reese Witherspoon as the fifty-foot (forty-nine-a-bit) woman, or Paul Rudd as an egotistical member of the newsteam (he’s kinda a big deal), it’s great fun. Especially enjoyable are Keifer Sutherland in the role of the team’s tough (but affectionate) manager and Stephen Colbert as a President (while his character/persona was campaigning in real life). Hell, it’s also just nice to hear Hugh Laurie speak with his British accent.

Sci-fi style...

In fact, the movie’s hokeyness seems remarkably at odds with the important life messages that it seems to want to instill. Take, for example, the message that monsters aren’t necessarily evil or to be feared. On one hand, they are really nice people with good intentions. On the other hand, the mostly sympathetic General Monger keeps them locked up inside, and it’s implied they rarely (if ever) get out. He doesn’t even use a euphemism when he commands, “Monsters, get back in your cells.” It isn’t even that Monger comes to the realisation that they’re people or anything – he doesn’t become especially nicer as the movie goes on, it was implied he was nice all along.

So it’s almost surreal that the General will organise a trip home for Susan (and even advising the local police force not to shoot at her) while insisting, “Don’t think of this as a prison. Just think of it as a hotel you never leave, because it’s locked from the outside.” It fits with the hokey old monster movie vibe, but not so much with the “we’re people too!” subtext. I don’t have a problem with it, but it’s an example of how over-playing your “serious subtext” can undermine some of the old-fashioned homages.

Monsters vs. Aliens is a good film, it’s an enjoyable one. However, one gets the sense that it could have been a great one, if it had only embraced its funnier and hokier aspects.

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