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Wednesday, March 25, 2009 10:03 pm

A 3-D monster mash, and a disaster flick with soul

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There’s no question that digital 3-D is here to stay. After many fits and starts to perfect the process since its introduction in the 1950s, the nut has finally been cracked where making it seem like fire is landing in your lap is concerned. Dreamworks’ Monsters Vs. Aliens is no exception as the effects are top-notch. It puts paddleballs in our faces and meteorites in our laps with aplomb. With the exception of Coraline from earlier this year, this is the best of the recent spate of 3-D features.

Too bad its story isn’t up to snuff, coming off as a Pixar retread with a striking lack of emotion. Taking a fond look back at the Sci-Fi flicks of the ’50s, the film’s characters are all allusions to creatures that came to life in cinema’s nuclear age. The Missing Link (voice by Will Arnett), Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), B.O.B. (Seth Rogan), Ginormica (Reese Witherspoon) and Insectosaurus are distant cousins of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Fly, the Blob, the 50-Foot Woman and Godzilla and have all been captured and quarantined by the U.S. government. The Feds aren’t quite sure what to do with them, but they do know letting them wander about suburbia is a bad idea. However, when an alien invasion occurs, led by Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson), the monsters are turned loose to stop the threat.

There’s a degree of urgency missing from the story and much of the humor is predictable and unimaginative, with the exception of Rogan’s B.O.B. who steals every scene he’s in. What sets the Pixar animated films (Monsters Inc., Ratatouille, etc.) apart is the human element in each of them. The characters in those films are stand-ins for us as they grapple with problems so many of us face. Their trials become ours and the humanistic qualities they possess make us identify with their quests and invest in their stories. That element simply isn’t here and while Monsters vs. Aliens is fun at times, its lack of heart relegates it to being an in-your-face monster mash and nothing more.

It seems as though Nicolas Cage has become Hollywood’s latest whipping boy, and rightfully so. He’s had a series of critical and commercial misfires over the last five years that have undermined his credibility and his latest, Knowing, will probably continue that trend. That’s too bad, as those who will dismiss it as an overwrought, National Treasure knock-off will be missing the film’s vital point.

Cage is John Koestler, a widower and professor at MIT who’s lost faith in everything since the death of his wife. However, when a time capsule is opened at his son’s school and the young man brings home a paper filled with seemingly random numbers, he’s forced to reevaluate everything he’s come to know and discard. Koestler discovers that the numbers are actually the time, location and death toll of all the major disasters that have occurred in the 20th century. As eerie as this is, even more disturbing is the fact that there are three sets of numbers left and the disasters they speak of will occur over the next two weeks. Koestler must decide to try to stop these occurrences or stay out of harm’s way. Equally troubling is the fact that his son is hearing voices and being visited by a group of mysterious strangers.

As directed by Alex Proyas (I, Robot), the tension steadily builds and the disasters that occur are rendered in a way that will leave you shaken. However, what makes the film unique is its ultimate theme, which asks the viewer, and Koestler, what they truly believe or know in terms of spiritual faith. When all we have put stock in is proven false, what is there left to cling to? Koestler is forced to come to terms with this and his decision is one that some may scoff at, but those who hold close to their faith will understand and appreciate. More than a well-done disaster flick, this is a film with brains and soul that will stay with you long after the final, and I mean final, credits roll.