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Monsters vs. Aliens

B-Movie Bouillabaisse

Rating : 3.5 out of 5 Stars

When DreamWorks Animation chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg hit the road recently to show off the groundbreaking 3-D technology used to make Monsters vs. Aliens, he advocated nothing less than a revolution – a full-scale reinvention of the moviegoing experience intended to lure people back to theaters with the promise of a visually unprecedented communal experience. His company’s first foray into 3-D delivers just that in the form of a sly homage to ’50s B-movies like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and The Blob.

Not long ago, the idea that the future of American cinema could be linked to 3-D – the much-hyped novelty most often resurrected by floundering franchises (Jaws, A Nightmare on Elm Street) in need of a fix – would have been good for a chuckle. No longer. As Monsters vs. Aliens demonstrates, the technology is finally coming into its own, used to create a dazzlingly lifelike spectacle that seems to jump off the screen and into the theater beside you.

While Dreamworks has traditionally played second fiddle in the storytelling department to Pixar, Monsters vs. Aliens complements its visual brilliance with an engaging fantasy that owes as much to technology as it does to the era of simpler, 2-D entertainments.

After a close encounter of the second kind transforms her into a giant of super-human strength, Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) is whisked away to a government facility reserved for all manner of benevolent monsters. Her cellmates include an amorphous blob, infused with giddy, childlike exuberance by Seth Rogen, and a mad scientist turned cockroach, inspired by 1958’s The Fly and voiced by “House” star Hugh Laurie.

Even in an age of near-constant terror alerts, monsters in America rarely see the light of day, except when megalomaniacal aliens from a galaxy far, far away set their sights on conquering earth. Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) and his army of Borg-like clones are more than happy to oblige, giving Susan a perfect excuse to flex her newfound muscles, with her band of merry mutants in tow. That they destroy the Golden Gate Bridge in the process of saving the world is perhaps the only downside to their haphazard plan.

Too little attention is paid to the actors who lend their vocal cords to movies like Monsters vs. Aliens, but in this case, recognition is due. Rogen and Wilson, who seem to be winking at the audience as their comically inept alter egos dominate the screen, are particularly effective. And Kiefer Sutherland, doing his best R. Lee Ermey impression, seems perfectly cast as a tough-talking but surprisingly genial army general.

Monsters vs. Aliens is bound to be remembered more for its daring effects than the strength of its story, which is a charming pastiche of characters and subplots lovingly borrowed from the kind of sci-fi adventures that inspired Mystery Science Theater 3000. Here, they seem fresh again – a testament not only to Katzenberg’s vision, but also to the small army of screenwriters and talented voice actors who make his first 3-D experiment such a satisfying success.