No winners in ‘Monsters vs. Aliens’

Posted March 29, 2009, at 10:51 p.m.

Note: After 13 years, this is my final Monday column in these pages so I can expand what I do for the Bangor Daily News in a new online venture that will offer more opportunities for varied content. Week in Rewind on Friday and the weekend DVD Corner columns will continue in print and online. Coming soon to the Bangor Daily News Web site is my new movie-related blog, which I’ll update daily with exclusive new content: reviews; commentary on the latest movie news; a weekly rundown of what’s new in theaters; all of the latest movie trailers; interactive reader polls gauging your views on movies; a feature called Netflix It, in which I’ll review recommended older movies you might have missed; DVD giveaways — and more. It will go live soon. We’ll let you know when. This is far from an ending. It’s actually the start of an exciting beginning.

In theaters

MONSTERS VS. ALIENS. Directed by Bob Letterman and Conrad Vernon, written by Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky, Letterman, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, 94 minutes, rated PG

All the great animation and swell 3-D effects in the world can’t save a movie if it’s sandbagged by an uninspired story line that nods broadly at a wealth of better-known films. That’s the case with Bob Letterman and Conrad Vernon’s “Monsters vs. Aliens,” and the results are mixed.

In spite of all the tense promise nestled within its inspired title, the movie is so benign, it might as well be called “Puppies vs. Kittens.”

From its opening moments, it’s easy to be wowed by the advances in 3-D technology — it’s amazing to behold, more seamless now than ever. But like any movie focused purely on fueling such a gimmick, the technology becomes just window-dressing if there isn’t anything to bolster it up.

That’s the case here. Five writers wrote the script, which suggests that “Monsters vs. Aliens” has been test-marketed by those writers so many times, they succeeded in stripping any trace of originality out of it.

Throughout, the cinematic echoes are obvious — “Men in Black,” “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman,” “Cloverfield,” “Dr. Strangelove” and especially “Monsters, Inc.,” among others. Glued and pieced together with a host of new characters, the film leaves audiences with a good-looking movie comprising parts that are so familiar, they court the benign.

The film’s focus is Susan (voice of Reese Witherspoon), who is struck by a meteorite on her wedding day and takes to the church with the sort of glow that goes beyond mere happiness. Susan is glowing green and soon she literally is growing large, bursting through the church roof and terrorizing plenty even though she wants to harm no one.

Within moments, the government is involved (cue the “Men in Black” references!), and they take Susan to a test facility where other monsters are held. Thing is, like Susan, none of these oddities are harmful (cue the “Monsters, Inc.” references!). They’re just misunderstood creatures in a movie that eventually employs them in an effort to save the world when aliens attack the planet.

Who do you think wins that battle? If you don’t know, you’re likely 5, can’t read yet, and so this movie might appeal to you. But with the exception of a few clever scenes and Seth Rogen as a likeable blob named Bob, “Monsters vs. Aliens” doesn’t leave the mark its title promises.

Grade: C

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On Blu-ray disc

FINAL DESTINATION. Directed by James Wong, written by Glen Morgan, Wong and Jeffrey Reddick, 110 minutes, rated R.

The opening of James Wong’s “Final Destination” is about as subtle as an amplified death rattle — only not quite as fun to listen to.

It begins with Alex (Devan Sawa) and his classmates preparing for a doomed trip to France. We know this trip is doomed not only because Alex is clairvoyant and sees it happen right before it does happen, but because Wong tells us it’s doomed with foreshadowing that’s so blatant, it’s surprising he didn’t underscore the first 20 minutes with flashing arrows and the following text running along the bottom of the screen:

“See this rusty hinge, kids? This broken door? That careless flight attendant? And these other pieces of faulty airplane equipment? I’m showcasing them because I want you to PAY ATTENTION — something really bad is going to happen!”

When handled well, this sort of spoon-feeding can build tension; Hitchcock was a master at it. He gave audiences just enough to draw them in while never revealing more than necessary. It’s called restraint. The best horror films and best directors have it.

Wong doesn’t. Wong doesn’t exactly have the same finesse. Wong’s idea of restraint is to sever a woman’s throat with an exploding computer, have her stumble around her house while she drowns in her own blood, electrocute her, and then, as if that weren’t enough, have a set of butcher knives fall on top of her and pin her to the floor.

Still not enough? As with each calamity that occurs in “Final Destination,” all of this happens while John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” warbles in the background. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think this is the sort of legacy Denver had in mind when he himself died in a plane crash.

Grade: D-

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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