Monsters vs Aliens (2009)

2014 #21
Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon | 84 mins* | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Monsters vs AliensThere seems to be a certain brand of animated film that I think looks dreadful so avoid, then I hear good things about, so I try it and find that, actually, they are really good. There was How to Train Your Dragon, then Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and now — yes, you guessed it — there’s Monsters vs Aliens.

On her wedding day, Susan is struck by meteorite whose contents causes her to grow to 50 feet tall. Seized by the government and renamed Ginormica, she’s taken to a special facility that houses an array of other creatures: B.O.B., an indestructible blob; Dr. Cockroach, a part-insect mad scientist; the Missing Link, a prehistoric fish-ape hybrid; and Insectosaurus, a skyscraper-sized grub. But when evil alien Gallaxhar arrives seeking the energy that gave Ginormica her powers, it’s realised the only way to combat his giant robots is by unleashing the monsters. Yes, it’s The Avengers with ’50s B-movie monsters.

If that doesn’t sound like a fun concept, you’re probably already on a hiding to nothing. It has a love and understanding of B-movies that should keep many a genre fan happy, suggesting it was created for them almost as much as its true audience, namely the same kids as… well, every other US animation. I suppose in that regard it’s a bit like The Incredibles, still one of the best superhero movies in any form.
Monster Squad
That’s a big comparison to make, but one I think Monsters vs Aliens can withstand more often than not. The climax is a little samey — why do all action-y kids CGI movies seem to have the same final act? — but before then it has a nice line in satirical humour, bold and broad characters, and even some quality action sequences. This is not a film where someone had an idea and coasted on it, but where they poured in a lot of love and elements you might not expect — see: satire, in an American kids’ movie! Not to mention the emotion you’ll get from a giant moth. I mean seriously…

Computer-animated kids movies are two-a-penny these days, meaning if it doesn’t have “Pixar” above its logo or a number at the end of its title, there’s a good chance it’ll be brushed off as “oh, another one”. (Of course, to get the aforementioned number on a title you need a successful unnumbered one first — like the other two films I mentioned in my introduction, for example.) There’s probably a lot of dross that’s being rightfully ignored, but some gems seem to have passed by with less fanfare than their enjoyment-value merits. Megamind is one that comes to mind; Monsters vs Aliens is another.

4 out of 5

* Full running time is 94 minutes. A saving of 10 is what you get for watching it in a PAL version (i.e. sped-up 4%) created for broadcast TV (i.e. hardly any credits). ^

Dark Floors (2008)

2009 #26
Pete Riski | 82 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Dark FloorsYou may remember Lordi, the surprise winners of the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest. If that doesn’t help, they were the Finnish rockers all dressed up in monster suits. Here in the UK we gave them our highest number of points.

You’d be easily forgiven if you had forgotten them, but clearly someone hasn’t as they not only made this film, someone thought they were big enough to use in its promotion — it’s subtitled “The Lordi Movie” on posters, DVD covers and what have you. Maybe they’re still well-known in Europe. Or Finland. Yet despite the country of origin, Dark Floors is in English, with a predominantly British cast, and it appears to be set in America. On top of which, it has a surprising level of glossiness (albeit glossy gloominess) that, if you didn’t know better, would suggest a moderately budgeted US horror flick. Apart from the monster costumes.

In fact, expectations are gratifyingly knocked down at every turn. Riski’s direction and the cinematography are very slick, though some of the action/horror sequences lack much tension — the film effectively builds tension for these sequences, but rarely, if ever, delivers genuine scares on the back of it. While this isn’t always a bad thing, one begins to learn the tension being built isn’t likely to lead anywhere, robbing it of much impact. Effects, music and sound design also lend the project a higher budget feel than initial impressions suggest. As mentioned, Lordi’s costumes are the weakest bit, neutered either by familiarity — there’s no chance of genuine shock value if you recognise them from brightly-lit TV performances — or quite simply not having been designed for this kind of scrutiny or story. Riski does his best, hiding them with lighting, angles and special effects, but it’s not perfect.

Monsters aside, performances are pretty good. No one is outstanding but equally there’s nothing glaringly awful, always a plus for B-movie-level horror. At times the characters seem to accept the bizarre events that are occurring with too little reaction, though in fairness this is partly the fault of the script. What the latter occasionally lacks in believability (within a fantasy/horror context, obviously) it makes up for in efficiency. Admittedly this also means the whole cast are stereotypes, but it’s the world they find themselves in that’s of more interest.

Indeed, Dark Floors features more intriguing mysteries than it can keep a handle on, merrily setting them in motion but ultimately failing to pay many off. It’s packed with interesting imagery and good ideas, many of which aren’t hammered home, but equally many are never explained — key among these being… well, The Whole Thing. The final scenes seem to suggest there is some meaning, but it never comes close to a clear revelation. Having read around, it’s clear that it can be interpreted multiple ways (one of my favourites references an old Finnish children’s song), and so perhaps the makers are after a Cube vibe. Despite some surface similarities to that film’s awful first sequel, the overall effect thankfully sways closer to the original.

Some have called Dark Floors boring, but I think this is again a case of misaligned expectations — I found it never less than well-made and thought-provoking. There are undoubtedly weak spots, yet you’ll find weaker in plenty of major movies. That doesn’t excuse the flaws, but it shouldn’t be written off as a meritless B-movie because of them. One can’t help but think the project would have been better received if it hadn’t been conceived by and starred a slightly camp Finnish rock band who are never seen out of their monster costumes. It is, I feel, one of many cases where if you changed the credits to name certain other directors it might be beloved and endlessly debated by a certain sector of film fans rather than dismissed as “a glam rock band trying to be deep”.

It may even provide greater rewards on repeat viewings, especially if one wants to decipher the ending, because of its circular storytelling. Some elements of this are clear immediately (when Ben shoots up the stairwell, for example), others half-clear (it treats the audience with an above-average degree of intelligence in this respect), while other bits may only make sense (if they do, that is) with another viewing and/or some interpretation. Tobias and Sarah spend a lot of time repeating things or saying things out of context, for one — might these find a greater meaning second time through?

In a similar vein, I can’t help but wonder if in trying to be quite clever Dark Floors ultimately alienates the core horror audience who might pick it up; the people who’ll miss their straightforward scares and gratuitous gore and nudity. By so obviously billing it as “The Lordi Movie” and slapping on quite a lurid cover, the marketers have done nothing to suggest the film might actually benefit from the application of some brain power. True, this same problem can be alleged of the film itself — it’s only a horror film after all, and with somewhat ludicrous monster costumes at that — but I can’t help but wonder what might lurk within if people chose to look past these unfortunate style choices.

Naturally the counter argument goes that there’s not actually anything there, it’s just pretending there is instead of having a proper plot. I’m not certain which to believe.

Ultimately, an appreciation of Dark Floors comes down to its ending. The whole film is stylishly made — surprisingly so in fact — but there are no concrete explanations for what happened during it. If you like ambiguous endings there may be enjoyment in that very fact — and there are certainly plenty of theories floating around the ‘net for the interested to explore — but if you require your entertainment neatly wrapped up, I’m prepared to guarantee you’ll hate it. If, on another hand, you don’t care about the plot of your horror film as long as it’s scary… well, that all depends on your horror threshold, but if you’re a hardened horror fanatic I don’t imagine there are many chills to be had here.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of Dark Floors in the end, but err on the side of generosity because it’s well-made and has left me thinking — something I certainly never expected.

4 out of 5