Monsters vs. Aliens has been out a few weeks, so forgive me if you’ve already lost the argument with your spawn and have seen it. I held out while I could. It sure looked like a corporate golem from DreamWorks, the house of Shrek, a shiny disco ball of pop culture references substituting for humor and hollow, rubbery characters tiptoeing across the digital Astroturf with Barbie-doll-stiffness.
And underneath the 3D gloss, if you’re seeing it in 3D (and otherwise, what’s the point), that’s exactly what it is. Briefly to give the traditional elements of the film their due, the story is that pretty Susan is rescued, on her wedding day, from marrying a selfish jerk, by being struck by a meteorite. She grows and fills the church, Alice-like, then bursts the ceiling – though miraculously, not her bodice – eventually giving the 50-Foot Woman a run for her money. There’s a cute reference to those atomic-age movies when a tank puts her down with a giant hypo in a shapely thigh.
Susan is now the property of General Monger, a ringer for George C. Scott’s General Ripper, War Room and all. General Monger re-names her “Ginormica,” and throws her in the can with four other misfit “monsters”. It’s better that you use your imagination to describe the monsters; you’ll come up with something more interesting. Aliens invade the earth, the monsters are released to combat them, and mayhem ensues.
That’s enough of those musty elements: plot, character, and mise-en-scene. This ain’t your father’s film; we’re talking 3D. Let’s begin again.
In Monsters vs. Aliens, stuff seems to pop right out of the screen and fly at your head! Gee whiz! This begins with the corporate logo for RealD, the brand upon which DreamWorks’ honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg has staked his company’s future. Then the film kicks off by attacking you with a flying paddleball. Whee!
Depth of field, the strong suit of 3D, has been employed expertly. There are a lot of wide-open spaces with little detail, to better the sense of scale. When a robot attacks a skyscraper in the background, you feel its ginormity; and when Susan enters the foreground, try not to say, “Sit down, lady, you make a great wall.”
And wait until you see the action movie tropes — swooshing down hallways on hover shoes, zipping around in an aerial dogfight, or the “ooh” and “aaah” of the mother ship exploding into brilliant spirals of flaming debris.
But Is this really what we want to be talking about when we come out of a movie? In Aldous Huxley’s book Brave New World, patrons exiting the “feelies” – a kind of movie with a tactile element – could only praise the vibrant colors of the helicopter explosion, or the tickle of each hair of the bearskin rug as the hero and his conquest had sex.
The nightmare scenario is that our tools will take us over, like CG did to the last decade of dumb movies. Of course 3D is merely a tool, and though the geeks and suits have it now, artists will get interested eventually, and demand it. Seeing through the screen, into the diorama, is as big a change as sound or color. But what bugs me about this change are the tradeoffs: putting something on your face, the inability to focus on details, and more. Not to mention that admission is 20% higher (you, without a spouse, and two kids are as much as a Blu-ray disc – without the popcorn).
A parting thought. Monsters vs. Aliens is catnip for kids, and Babe: Pig in the City, Return to Oz, Coraline, and the forthcoming Where the Wild Things Are are downright irresponsible nightmare-makers. Right? RIGHT? Well, my seven-year-old, whose favorite film recently is the five-hour cut of the subtitled German film Das Boot, said, “Yeah, it was pretty good. Too bad it was in 3D. I wanted to see a real movie, not have stuff flying at my face.” That’s my boy.