Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, has infamously crusaded for the cause of 3D as the future of moviegoing and, with the release of Monsters vs. Aliens, has declared DreamWorks an exclusively 3D animation studio. In one regard, one can empathize with this superpower’s seemingly insatiable desire to place a finger on the button. After all, Pixar has similarly vowed to arm itself with an endless slate of 3D films, and, in this rather unequal war between DreamWorks and Pixar, the first nukes have already hit their target, that is, the moviegoer’s wallet. The promise of 3D is that the film comes with something extra, and this “something” is, allegedly, so significant to justify a higher price tag. Whatever this added 3D ingredient brings to the cinematic table costs adds about 15% to a film’s budget, but, somehow, the outrageous price of 3D tickets would have us believe otherwise. Now, Monsters vs. Aliens demonstrates that, as least as far as DreamWorks is concerned, 3D films shall be high concept but will be achieved with minimal execution, for this entire film consists of swiftly-moving action between shameless displays of 3D gimmickry.
The first 3D film from DreamWorks Animation sticks with the studio’s standard practice of foregoing an original story in favor of a constant stream of self-referential pop culture references. This was, of course, the chosen method of mediocrity for Shark Tale, Madagascar, and all those damn Shrek movies. Admittedly, Kung Fu Panda was a welcome departure from that worn-out formula, but, with Monsters vs. Aliens, the lazy route to storytelling has returned. Bizarrely, this film’s almost nonexistent story, credited to writer-directors Conrad Vernon (Shrek 2) and Rob Letterman (Shark Tale), required a total of five writers to complete the screenplay. Aside from the film’s action, which is inseparable from its 3D, any gaps along the way are filled by
ripping gathering inspiration from 50s and 60s sci-fi films, including Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, The Fly, The Blob, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, and Mothra. Further references are also made to several other films, such as Destroy All Monsters!, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Dr. Strangelove. Beyond that, there’s just no room left over for character development or much of a plot. So, the audience gets that extra 3D visual impact but doesn’t receive a proper script. The final product is, arguably, on par with any other average theater experience. Sure, the kids in the audience will have a good time, and so will you. The major problem, of course, is that 3D tickets for a crappy film still cost several more dollars for what is, arguably, about the same experience as a good 2D film. In the case of IMAX, an audience pretty much gets ass-raped for the privilege of attendance. To make matters worse, those annoying glasses don’t do much to suspend disbelief.
Monsters vs. Aliens, such as it is, takes place in California. A blushing bride named Susan (Reese Witherspoon) is about to marry a self-aggrandizing and preening weatherman, Derek (Paul Rudd, playing the cad for once). Immediately before the scheduled ceremony, Susan is struck by a meteorite and, as a result, ends up growing so tall that she busts through the roof of the church. She also suddenly sprouts platinum hair because, presumably, blondes kick more ass, but Susan’s groom is, most decidedly, not impressed with the new hair color and cowers in the shadow of his bride while the wedding guests flee the premises. In short order, the U.S. government arrives, captures Susan, and hauls her off for an indefinite vacation at the scenic and luxurious Area 51. Once there, the newly christened “Ginormica” meets her fellow inmates, a group of intimidating but harmless outcasts, who have been inspired by the aforementioned sci-fi films of the past: the brilliant and slightly diabolical Dr. Cockroach, PhD (the deliciously malicious Hugh Laurie); the joyously amorphous B.O.B. (a go-with-the-flow Seth Rogen); and a creature made of equal parts fish, ape, and frat boy referred to as The Missing Link (the ever-redeemable Will Arnett). As one would expect, Susan receives the film’s spotlight, and the other characters of Monsters vs. Aliens, while all rendered exquisitely in 3D detail, are, as far as character traits are concerned, very badly drawn boys.
So, for a film that’s supposed to be about monsters, we receive very little of them. However interesting these creatures may appear, the screenwriters have left them to their own devices as bundles of eccentricities until Earth comes under attack by the evil alien overlord, Galaxhar (a lackluster Rainn Wilson). At that point, the monsters’ warden, Gen. W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland), recognizes that only the monsters can defeat these seemingly unstoppable aliens, so he persuades The President (Stephen Colbert) to offer freedom to the monsters in exchange for saving Earth. Throughout the film’s several climactic battle scenes that all but destroy San Francisco, Ginormica delivers most of the smackdowns, and the monsters serve no immediate purpose except to back up Ginormica and to freak out the general populace. All credit here goes to the script, for despite the monsters’ 3D appearance, these remain 2D characters that aren’t all that notable but for the solid voice work behind them. To that end, the voices are solid, aside from disappointing turns from Rainn Wilson and a surprisingly underwhelming Stephen Colbert. Here, Colbert shows none of his usual satiric wit; perhaps he forgot that the audience would never be able to see his facial expressions, which usually function as at least half of his performance on Comedy Central. Unfortunately, Colbert doesn’t even properly portray The President as an idiot, which is the generic role given to all of the human males in the film. Fortunately, kids in the audience probably won’t notice anything but the “awesome” 3D factor of this film. Still, while the concept of an ass-kicking female is a welcome one, this so-called empowerment really shouldn’t come at the expense of the other gender.
With any luck, audiences will eventually tire of this latest 3D resurgence. Obviously, ducking random objects remains somewhat entertaining and amusing, but what is now “awesome” will become routine and the novelty will wear off. With the exception of Coraline , which made light use of 3D, things aren’t looking so peachy. There’s no end yet on the horizon though, for Monsters vs. Aliens leaves itself wide-open to a sequel, which is rather presumptuous considering there isn’t much of a story to keep working with. Not that a pesky problem like this ever this stopped DreamWorks in the first place.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and can be found at agentbedhead.com.