Monsters Versus Aliens isn't just the most important movie of our time — it's also the future of movie-making. Dreamworks' Jeffrey Katzenberg showed us about 20 minutes of MVA, and talked 3-D breakthroughs. Spoiler panic!
After seeing a large chunk of the movie's first third, I'm still pretty excited. The voice performances, by talents like Reese Witherspoon and Kiefer Sutherland, are just as fun as you'd expect. The movie is jam-packed with silly in-jokes and ridiculous sight-gags, at least half of which are genuinely super funny. I'd say it's not quite as great or memorable as The Incredibles, but several heads better than 99 percent of other animated films.
Here's my rundown of the scenes we got to see:
A 350-foot tall alien robot has landed in Modesto, CA, as a reporter explains. The president (Stephen Colbert) tries to confront the giant robot, which has a single swiveling blue eye. The president leaves his guards behind and ascends a giant staircase that leads up to the alien's eye. At the top he plays a big synthesizer. (First he plays the musical message from Close Encounters, then "Axel F" from Beverly Hills Cop. All the soldiers and government spooks dance, stiffy.)
The Prez seems to be getting through! The alien puts out a little protruding item, like a communcations device. Colbert tries to shake hands with it — but it smashes his synthesizer. The robot sprouts massive legs and starts to walk.
The president barely manages to get away, and tells an army captain, "Do something violent." The army complies, but to no avail, and everyone has to withdraw. On his way out, the president pulls out a big gun and shouts, "Eat lead!" (No good. As the president says, "Turns out it eats lead.") Then the president lets himself be carried off, insisting that he's a brave president.
The missiles launched against the alien robot include one that says "E.T. Go Home" in giant letters.
Then we see a guy running to get into the secret bunker where the president is meeting with all his top advisors, and he has to get his eyes, hands, feet, and butt scanned to get in.
The president has two giant red buttons: one of which launches every nuclear weapon in the country, the other of which makes a latte. (Who designed that ridiculous system? he demands. And then it turns out it was him. In which case, of course it makes sense.) The president keeps almost pressing the wrong giant button, either by accident or because he's panicking. ("Damn good cup of joe," the president says.)
Just when all seems lost, General W.R. Monger (Sutherland) shows up and suggests a solution. (The bit you've seen in the trailer where he says "We need a hail mary pass, we need raw power, we need... monsters.")
He runs through a round-up of all the monsters and their origins. (The killer blob B.O.B. (Seth Rogen) is the result of an experiment in a fast-food factory involving ranch dressing and candy. Insectosaurus was irradiated and became giant, attempting to destroy Japan.) When each monster is shown, one woman in the room screams in a theatrical B-movie fashion.
Finally, she's dragged out of the room, but we still hear a scream when Ginormica's origin is revealed — it's the president.) One nerdy guy asks if we really want to have a monster problem added to our alien problem, and General Monger gives him a horrendous wedgie. The president gives the go ahead for the monster plan.
Susan Murphy (Witherspoon), the gigantic woman known as Ginormica, is asleep in her cell, when an alarm begins to sound. She thinks it's her honeymoon and asks her new husband to press the snooze button — then she wakes up and realizes she's actually giant, and her wedding never finished. (She suddenly turned giant on her wedding day after being hit with a meteor, as you probably saw in the film's trailer.)
Then the cell suddenly turns into an elevator and starts shooting down. She finds herself in a huge hangar in Area 52, where mysterious voices speculate on whether she's just a giant pair of legs or something more. A pile of gloop drops onto a table, and a shape scuttles out and hides behind it. The insect-man genius Dr. Cockroach, PhD (Hugh Laurie) pops out and introduces himself, and Susan tries to squish him in a very Bugs Bunny-esque sequence. "My brain will be in the Smithsonian some day, let's not ruin it, shall we?" he implores. Gradually, she meets the other monsters: the gelatinous B.O.B., the half-fish Missing Link (Will Arnett), the gigantic Insectosaurus, whose roar only makes sense to the Missing Link.
B.O.B. thinks Susan is a boy, and says "Look at his boobies! B.O.B. has no brain and says it's overrated. Then he forgets how to breathe, and Dr. Cockroach has to explain it to him.
They all get their food — nasty fish for the Missing Link, garbage for Dr. Cockroach and a giant ham bone which dissolves inside B.O.B.'s see-through flesh.
Susan tells the monsters her name, but they want to know her monster name. She says, "Susan." And they're all like, no, what do people scream when they see you coming, "Oh my god, it's —" And she's still like, "Susan." "Oooh, Sooosan," says B.O.B. And then he decides it is a scary name after all. "I just scared myself."
General W.R. Monger turns up in a flying jetpack harness, and tells all the other monsters to go back to their cells. Insectosaurus gets led around via a giant lamp that he stares at. Susan is thrilled to meet another real human — until she worries that the general is really one of those half-machine, half-human things. "A cyborg," the general says helpfully. "Aaaaa you're a cyborg!" she screams.
The monsters go to confront the giant robot probe in San Francisco. Ginormica gets chased down the street, and runs across the rooftops. She falls down one slanted rooftop, and hangs by her fingernails — and then she only falls! But she only falls a few feet because, duh, she's giant. And B.O.B. gets stuck to the underside of the robot's foot, and grabs a hot dog cart off the street for a snack.
Meanwhile, Dr. Cockroach, PhD has fitted a cable car with rockets, and is zooming down the street with the Missing Link. He tells the Link he'll pull up alongside the robot, and the Missing Link can get up inside it and access the control center. But just as they reach the robot, B.O.B. comes flying into the cable car, knocking the other two over. They go whizzing down the street until they land in the water.
Susan, meanwhile, has turned a couple of cars into improvised roller skates, and she's running away. She reaches a group of people trying to escape the city in their cars, so she has to dodge and weave around them while going a zillion miles per hour. And then the robot shows up when she reaches the Golden Gate Bridge, and starts smashing everything. She's trying to fight the robot and help the people get to safety. The other monsters (except Insectosaurus) show up and tell her she's doing great. "I'm doing everything!" she shouts.
Dr. Cockroach, PhD, runs up inside the machine's crushing mechanism, because nothing can crush a cockroach. He manages to reach a control mechanism. He puts two wires together — and only succeeds in generating a beam that hypnotizes Insectosaurus, who's shown up to fight it. The Missing Link is knocked out, so Susan tries to get B.O.B. to help. "Oh, sorry, I was just looking at that bird," B.O.B. says. She tells him to get the people out of there, so B.O.B. tries to pick up the cars and throw them off the bridge. "No!" she says. "Move the dividers!" B.O.B. starts eating the dividers on the bridge, so people can drive into the opposite lane and drive away.
Overpowered by the robot, Susan almost gives up, but then she gives herself a pep talk and rallies. She manages to knock the robot over so that part of the bridge comes down and slices it in half.
Most of Katzenberg's presentation had to do with the development of the InTru 3-D system. Proper 3-D film (as opposed to the clunky 1950s version) is the third great advance in film-making, after sound and color. From now on, every Dreamworks animation movie will be conceived, from the earliest storyboards, in 3-D.
I asked Katzenberg about the comic book Rex Havoc And The Ass-Kickers Of The Fantastic, which was rumored to be where some of the ideas in Monsters Versus Aliens came from. Said Katzenberg:
Rex Havoc is something that we did option, some many years ago. And that does have a monster hunter, I think, at its core. But the filmmakers, Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon... actually ended up creaing [MVA] from scratch. And so I think the similarities between those are fairly distant.
During the Q&A after Katzenberg's presentation, people asked why CG animation in these sorts of movies is not more photorealistic. Katzenberg replied that at $150 million a movie, CG animated films are much more expensive than just pointing a digital camera at actors. So in animation, it's better to go for "heightened realism."
Katzenberg also said he's seen a few minutes of James Cameron's 3-D epic Avatar, and it was amazing. And he admitted that the financial crisis has slowed down the financing of 3-D-enabled movie theaters, meaning there are a lot fewer screens available than everyone had predicted this time last year. So even though Katzenberg insisted every movie would soon be in 3-D, it might take a little longer than he'd hoped.