Filmscene: Monsters vs. Aliens

by |
03/27/2009 11:00 AM |

In Filmscene (catchy, huh?), the L’s Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart suss out the undercurrents in the weekend’s big movie through a wide-ranging email exchange. This week, they talk about monsters, aliens, 3D, IMAX, Foucault’s Panopticon, the imagination of disaster, moral relativity, Hannibal Lecter, coded homosexual and Catholic allegory, President Obama’s Special Olympics gaffe and the scene in Talk to Her where the guy climbs into the ginormous papier-mache vagina. Join in, why don’t you.)

Benjamin Sutton:
Hard to pin much down in Dreamworks’s hyper-kinetic computer-animated action movie about monsters deployed by the U.S. government to fight an alien invader. Like many of its dazzling 3D effects (which, judging from your Coraline review, Henry, I gather you’re also a fan of?), Monsters vs. Aliens went flying over my right shoulder before I had time to figure out its depth, weight and dimensions. That is to say, action seems the higher priority in MvA, and only one of its two ensembles manages to deliver successful comedy (the monsters, rather than the government). That opposition — between society’s unwanted elements and its elected officials — provides a useful blueprint for thinking about the many structures MvA franticly assembles out of movie references and current events before blowing them up moments later in a 3D cloud of pixelated particles.

For instance, in what ends up being one of the 94-minute film’s longest sequences, our heroine Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) wakes up in a secret facility after being struck by an asteroid on her wedding day and growing into the monster from Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. Here she meets fellow “monsters” B.O.B. (Seth Rogen) from The Blob, Dr. Cockroach Ph.D. (Hugh Laurie) from The Fly/Metamorphosis, The Missing Link (Will Arnett) from Swamp Thing/The Host, and Insectosaurus, better known as Mothra. The impossibly huge prison in which they’re kept is Guantanamo Bay re-cast as a mountain bunker. These fantastic prisoners have been incarcerated here for years, the only evidence against them being their supposed monstrosity. Their stark cells — modeled after Michel Foucault’s beloved panopticon — feature glass walls that give onto a central observation tower. In a tactical reversal of the Guantanamo scenario, MvA redeems its secret prison-keeping government. The monsters are offered their freedom in exchange for fighting actual terrorists (the invading alien and his suicide-attacking robot), and though the population still sees them as monsters, the government remains grateful for the services rendered.

Henry Stewart:
Yeah, MvA turns on that old narrative cliché about using bad guys to battle even worse guys. Sometimes, Ben, it takes a thief to catch a thief. That’s what those pre-Hannibal Hannibal Lecter stories are about; also, Ghostbusters. Most of all, though, this film reminded me of The Incredibles — just stripped of all the humor (not even the kids were laughing, just the doofus dad behind me), big ideas, and character development, leaving behind the action set pieces designed to be the levels in the requisite video game — which the Pixar film had in unfortunate abundance, too. Sometimes I feel like I’m playing the movie, a sensation bolstered a bit by the 3D.

I thought Coraline did a medium-changing job of using 3D; MvA, not so much. Seeing it in IMAX didn’t help; that screen is really big! I felt like I had to remain still, bolt upright — otherwise parts of the image would go out of focus. But, worse, I felt the 3D didn’t really add any life to most of the settings: gray supermax prisons looked as cold and dull in three dimensions as they would have in two. It was only in the moments in the "real" world — visits to tree-lined outskirts of the suburbs — that the 3D impressed me, adding an extra level of perspective that made Bambi‘s famously multilayered woodlands look quaint. I guess 3D makes the real look more real, and the fake look more fake, or something.

Benjamin Sutton:
Speaking of quaint and fake, how about MvA‘s treatment of sex and gender politics? I’m still unsure what to think of Susan, who seems to be both a comfortably feminine heroine (expressive, emotional, and eventually empowered) in a film with a predominantly male cast and audience, and also a sad, synthetic reminder that studios don’t know how to make movies with live-action female leads. Though compared to Katie — a sexually aggressive (castrating?) non-monstrous female character voiced by Renée Zellweger, who inexplicably appears for one scene then disappears — Susan seems like something of a cop-out. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem like too great a stretch to suggest that Susan’s monstrosity in MvA isn’t an allegory for terrorism as we discussed earlier, but instead a coded queerness for the film’s post-Prop 8 California setting. After all, we open on a happy 1950s suburban wedding turned cataclysmic disaster when its bride turns out to not be a woman but a strong, intimidating “manster.” Shortly thereafter, Susan’s first test as this monstrous Other is to save San Francisco (the epicenter of America’s gay rights movement) from a robot dispatched by the alien Galaxhar (Rainn Wilson). This alien nemesis, incidentally, rides in a cruciform spaceship and has a Pope hat-shaped cranium. I’m at a loss here, Henry: is Susan a sexualized (though, compared to Katie, non-sexual) super-empowered woman in a retro 50s suburbia that’s not ready for her? Or is “she” actually a monstrous “he” who came out in San Francisco a decade too early and is confined to a rag-tag group of crime-fighting gay creatures?

Henry Stewart:

I was at a loss about Susan, too. She’s not sexualized at all; in fact, her marriage fantasy was curiously asexual, as though no one had told her yet how babies are made. Obviously, her fiancé, Derek (Paul Rudd), was a solipsistic cad, but not because he didn’t want to marry her once she became enormous, er, ginormous; that seemed reasonable to me, to expect a wife to whom you could make love. (Then I thought of people with physical disabilities and felt guilty.) Anyway, I still think Susan was an empowered character — by the end, she has become fully radicalized, renouncing marriage (whoa!) and proudly adopting her nom de guerre, Ginormica — just not sexually. So I think your idea about her representing the vilified homosexual makes a bit of senseout of the whole thing. And maybe because of Galaxhar’s vague suggestions of Catholic pomp, Monsters vs. Aliens is really Gays vs. The Church?

I’m glad you brought up Katie, too, because that scene — which looked great in 3D — in which she pressures her reluctant boyfriend to have sex with her and then must carry him when he sprains his ankle, was striking. (Was the fact that he was a gymnast meant to signify he was a closeted gay? There’s a lot more about homosexuality in this movie than I initially realized!) Such sexual aggression and physical strength are rarely bestowed upon female characters — particularly women not intended to be odious. Though the movie had a bit of schoolyard sexism tossed in — The Missing Link is shamed for being “out-monstered by a girl” — I think it generally passed the Political Correctness Test. As far as gender is concerned, anyway.

Benjamin Sutton
Before leaving gender behind — regarding your claim as to the impossibility of making love to a giant — let me remind you of the scene in Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her during which a minuscule man crawls into a woman’s vagina. Now imagine how amazing that would look in 3D!

Meanwhile, your point about disabilities underlines the fact that nearly every character in MvA is disabled — save, perhaps, Derek and his family, who are insufferably boring as a result. B.O.B. has a learning disability; Dr. Cockroach Ph.D. suffers from some form of autism; The Missing Link spends most of the film incapacitated by anxiety; General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland) — who oversees the film’s military operations — lost the use of his tear ducts at war (which war, interestingly, we never find out); and even the U.S. President Hathaway (an underused and disappointing Stephen Colbert) seems to have a sphincter control problem. There are also recurring injury anxieties: Katie’s wimpy boyfriend’s sprained ankle, as you pointed out; a Vertigo reference when Susan/Ginormica almost falls from a San Francisco townhouse rooftop only to discover that she’s as tall as the building. Maybe MvA‘s use of disabled protagonists reflects the next major American -ism. After all, our real-life, post-race President just made a mighty offensive comment about the Special Olympics on late-night TV. I don’t necessarily buy it, but you could market this movie as a subconscious exorcising of socialized ableism, with its disabled monsters achieving empowerment and acceptance.

Maybe the best way to think of MvA, though, isn’t to look at the parties fighting its supernatural battle. Typically, they’re studio-engineered to be vessels for whatever recuperable anxieties we may not want to admit to outside of a prolonged conversation with friends about a supposedly silly film. Instead, what do we make of the vision of America this movie is going to such lengths to save?

Henry Stewart:
You thought Dr. Cockroach was autistic? I just thought Hugh Laurie was doing an awful C3PO impression. Anyway, it certainly was a violent America. Initially, I appreciated the mild subversiveness of naming the military representative “War Monger,” but it was only his constitution-defying habits of indefinite imprisonment that drew any ire — not his trigger happiness. By the end, his name seemed less a criticism than a celebration of American might. At first, I saw the aliens as terrorists; the young men who open the movie, space-monitoring wage slaves stunned to have spotted an actual UFO, reminded me of FAA monitors; and Galaxhar’s egg-shaped probe that destroys S.F. was like a can of 9/11. (Tapping into the dominant iconography, it tears down buildings, creating trails of corner-turning dust clouds.) But it was even worse than 9/11; it destroyed S.F. like it was New York and New Orleans — so, that oval monster was like all of America’s big Bush-era disasters, man-made and natural, collected in one canister. Naturally, violence defeats violence, begetting more violence: having lost the battle, Galaxhar creates an army of infinite clones that our heroes must then defeat. It was here I got a little uncomfortable: the monsters pick off the vaguely Nazi clones (“Hail Galaxhar”) with indiscriminate glee. (Catholics as Nazis? Catholics as sheep?) Not only were some of them friendly, but many were killed while in retreat! It’s good to teach our children that women can be strong without a wedding band, but not so good to teach them that our “enemies” are all of the same un-nuanced stripe — either with us or against us.