Monday, March 16, 2009

The Race to Witch Mountain

By Elise Nakhnikian

Crammed full of shock-and-awe music, Glock-toting SWAT teams, Road Warrior-lite car chases, and Darth Vader-looking alien assassins, Race to Witch Mountain is a Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay–style testosterone fest on training wheels. Would someone please tell me who decided it’s okay to have that much violence in a movie for kids?

And while we’re on the subject, what exactly makes this a children’s film? Is it the fact that there’s no sex or swearing? Is it because the closest we come to nudity is the way the sleeves of the Rock’s T shirt keep inching up his arm, nudged aside by those cartoonishly bulging biceps? Or could it be that the violence is all video-game spectacle, with none of the good guys getting the least bit hurt?

Jack Bruno (the always likeable Rock, who’s now using his real name, Dwayne Johnson), is a Las Vegas cab driver who’s already having a bad day when a teenage brother and sister pair, Sarah (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig), materialize in his backseat. The two trigger the first of several games of high-speed bumper cars in what’s basically a movie-long chase scene.

See, the kids are aliens from a planet hundreds of light years away, come to Earth to save their dying world. There’s a vague ecological message and a lot of talk about science, which is mainly invoked as “proof” that UFOs are real.

The kids are, as one character puts it, “humanoid in form” – much like the Rock himself. But the stiffly formal diction and weird powers of this towheaded Aryan twosome (Sarah can read thoughts and move objects with her mind; Seth can pass through any barrier and set up force fields powerful enough to deflect bullets) make them seem a little fishy.

The kids are after some special device that looks a lot like one of those things they give you at busy restaurants to light up when your table is ready. We never get a good look at it, though, or at any of the scary alien assassins or amazing alien hardware – probably because the special effects are surprisingly cheesy.

Jack appoints himself the kids’ father figure, following them into danger even as he warns himself aloud: “Don’t go into the pimped-out frig, Jack.” Newsflash to screenwriters: heroes who crack wise about the clichés in your script are a cliché themselves. Maybe that’s why none of Jack’s “funny” lines got even a giggle at the screening I went to.

It doesn’t help that the dialogue is so wooden (Sarah keeps saying things like: “If you abandon us now, our mission will be in serious jeopardy” and “Maybe you need help too, Jack Bruno”), or that the acting is no better. Johnson’s range of emotion runs from mildly concerned to annoyed, while Robb wears out the look of worried supplication she overused in Because of Winn Dixie, and Ludwig simply looks robotic.

Something about this movie makes even good actors turn bad. Ciarán Hinds is so stilted as the head of the government agency in charge of dealing with a whole new kind of illegal alien that I was convinced he was going to turn out to be an alien double agent. And the usually tough and tender Carla Gugino is stripped of her usual intensity as UFO expert Alex Friedman, a pillow-lipped PhD who winds up playing mommy to Jack’s daddy in this wholesome insta-family. They even adopt a dog – though Junkyard disappears for long stretches, as if the screenwriters had forgotten he was there.

That’s typical of this sloppy script, which doesn’t even bother to follow its own internal logic. The movie was adapted from a book, so maybe the screenwriters just tried to fit in too much and left out crucial connective tissue. But not having read the novel, I was left to wonder why two kids who can deflect bullets or make things explode spend so much time running from guys with guns. And, if Sarah can read minds, why does it take them so long to realize they can trust Jack?

About halfway through Race, Jack drops off his battered cab with a mechanic (Cheech Marin), telling him he has an hour to give it a major overhaul. Race to Witch Mountain feels like it was thrown together in about as much time, using spare parts from a dozen other films.

This deeply cynical movie is not just lifeless; it is anti-life, both a product of and a promotion for the military industrial complex.

But, hey, it must be good, right? It was tops at the box office last week!

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