*Monsters vs. Aliens (PG)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Creature features, alien invasions, 3-D gimmickry from start to finish, Monsters vs. Aliens celebrates some of the staples of the 1950s "B-movie." And in a way that's perfectly fitting, because maybe it's time to start giving the unapologetic genre picture some credit again.
It's true that Monsters vs. Aliens couldn't be considered a B-movie in the classic sense. The "Bs" of 50 years ago were made on the cheap strictly to fill out a double-feature, exactly the opposite of what you get with a DreamWorks Animation big-budget release. But it's also true that the gold standard of Pixar has sometimes been used as a club by well-meaning critics (myself included) to beat down the computer-animated Johnny-come-latelies. Family-friendly adventures with a bit less ambition can succeed on their own terms.
Like any decent B-flick, this one begins with a glowing meteorite striking the Earth. Susan (Reese Witherspoon), takes a direct hit from the rock on her wedding day, and winds up growing to 50 feet tall at the altar. In minutes, she's captured by the government and transferred to a super-secret holding facility, where all the weird beings that could inspire public panic are kept: the half-man/half-insect Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie); the unfrozen Missing Link (Will Arnett); jovial gelatinous mass Bob (Seth Rogen); and the olossal hamster-bug called Insectosaurus. They're outcasts, but who ya gonna call when the megalomaniacal extraterrestrial Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) threatens the planet?
Co-directors Rob Letterman (Shark Tale) and Conrad Vernon (Shrek 2) lock in on two goals: make 'em laugh, and keep it fast. The former is a function of some savvy casting as much as anything else. Rogen provides the brainless appeal of the oozing Bob, while the cocky-but-thick President of the United States is rendered in the inimitable tones of Stephen Colbert. And it was a stroke of genius giving the villain role to Rainn Wilson, who has perfected the art of misplaced arrogance as Dwight on The Office.
Considering this is a science-fiction adventure, it's pretty important that the action sequences click, too. The showcase segment involves a battle between the monsters and Gallaxhar's giant robot from San Francisco to the Golden Gate Bridge, taking advantage of the unique geography for some thrilling chases. The climactic battle on Gallaxhar's ship proves equally lively. Whenever it seeks strictly to entertain, Monsters doesn't miss a beat.
The only thing wrong with the film, in fact, is that it doesn't entirely commit to its straightforward guns; it feels obliged to include a "be true to yourself" character arc, as Susan struggles to reconcile her new stature with her desire for a simple life with her simple fianc (Paul Rudd). It might've worked better had the filmmakers made a story that was actually set in the 1950s, instead of in the present. Building a narrative on a modern woman tasting liberation feels more than slightly retro and not in a good way.
What works about Monsters vs. Aliens is when it is retro in a good way. It doesn't try too hard to nudge adult viewers with knowing references, or to pander to young viewers with bodily functions. There's a place for the movies that touch our souls and there's a place for the ones where it's OK just to let them "B."