Big screen blasts from the past

The new 3D animation film Monsters vs Aliens takes its characters from Fifties sci-fi B-movies – and makes them cuddly. Expect more of these retro-cultural mash-ups in a cinema near you, says Kaleem Aftab

At the heart of the new 3D animated film Monsters vs Aliens is the idea of taking creatures from various 1950 B-movies and pitting them against each other in a battle to save Earth from Armageddon.

The 1953 film The House of Wax was the first film to trial 3D (three-dimensional) effects as a way of prising spectators away from their TV sets by creating an image and experience they couldn't get at home. So it seems fitting that, at a time when box-office analysis is showing that 3D movies are 30 per cent more successful than their D counterparts, a 3D film should pay homage to the 1950s. However, it's not the 3D effects that make Monsters vs Aliens stand out (the film is also on release for conventional screens), it's the decision to reprise the most delectable characters from the iconic 1950s sci-fi B-movies.

The cartoon starts with a faraway planet exploding and a robot pod being sent to Earth. When it crashes in America – which, the film amusingly explains, is "the only place that UFOs ever seem to land" – the fallout from the explosive landing in California sees Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), the wife of a selfish TV weatherman, transformed into a giant woman known as Ginormica. Yep! This was the very same plot of 1958's Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

Captured by the US army, Ginormica is taken to a military compound where monsters are kept hidden away from humans. Residing in the facility is a brainless one-eyed blue creature called B.O.B. (Seth Rogen) based on the jelly-shaped creature in the 1958 Steve McQueen starrer The Blob. Also there is a mad scientist, Dr Cockroach, PhD (Hugh Laurie), who has managed to morph into a half-human, half-pest creature during a failed experiment straight out of The Fly (1958).

Now, here is the cartoon's modern twist – it transpires that these monsters are cuddly and cute heroes rather than the terrors they were made out to be in the 1950s. They are misunderstood former humans who are struggling to deal with the changes in their physical state caused by external transformative factors.

In contrast, an evil cone-headed creature called Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) is the leader of the aliens. While this creature looks like something out of 1957's Invasion of the Saucer Men, the storyline is lifted from the much-derided Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).

What's clever about the premise of Monsters vs Aliens is that it's a pastiche of an increasingly prevalent phenomenon of movies being made using the simple concept of taking characters from various film franchises and putting them together. It's a calculated attempt to get audiences to part with their cash for franchises that have long since passed their sell-by date.

So, when the Friday the 13th series started to suffer from the law of diminishing returns after nine sequels, it was decided that, rather than put killer Jason Voorhees into a celluloid coffin, he should be reincarnated with another slasher villain, Freddy Krueger of the Nightmare on Elm Street films. The result was the smash hit Freddy vs Jason. It's a marketing concept straight out of the school playground. Remember those juvenile debates about who would win a fight between Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan? Well, now they're being realised on the big screen.

The box-office returns made a mockery of the poor reviews for Freddy vs Jason. Whereas Jason X (aka Friday the 13th Part 10) took a paltry $13m at the US box office and Wes Craven's New Nightmare (Nightmare on Elm Street 7) a slim $18m, Freddy vs Jason took a till-busting $83m – more than any of the movies in either franchise managed. Such was its success that both the Freddy and Jason franchises have recently been revived.

It was a similar story with AVP: Alien vs Predator. On paper, this seemed a rather unfair match-up. Predator was a low-grade franchise that originated as a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1987 and had only one sequel, which didn't even feature him. Alien was an A-list franchise starring Sigourney Weaver that had lost some of its lustre. Even without Weaver, AVP was a huge hit. It even spawned its own sequel, AVPR: Alien vs Predator Requiem. Sequels can do better than the originals, but not this time; AVPR suggested that this match-up was a one-shot deal.

The next step in this evolution saw the arrival of a new breed of comic-book movie in which every film turns out to be a rather imaginative trailer for a big-budget ensemble bonanza. Comics have often seen characters teaming up to battle some super-foe, and Marvel Comics have been the leaders in this field. So when Marvel recently decided to take a more active interest in how their characters were being translated to the big screen, they came up with the plan to promote a forthcoming ensemble bonanza entitled The Avengers at every opportunity.

At the end of the recent Iron Man movie, an hitherto unseen Nick Fury, played by Samuel L Jackson, popped up to ask Iron Man to join The Avengers – and Jackson is scheduled to repeat the trick during Kenneth Branagh's forthcoming Thor. The number of cameos planned for Jackson explains how the actor was recently able to sign a nine-picture deal with Marvel Entertainment. At the end of last year's Incredible Hulk, Iron Man was seen enlisting the Hulk for The Avengers, a film that is scheduled to hit our screens in 2012, at the earliest.

However, it remains a shame that studio executives remain so short-sighted that they currently plan only to make these team-up and "versus" movies with characters that have superhuman powers. There is a whole plethora of delights that they could be making instead. I would be first in line were there ever to be a movie featuring a dance-off between the lead characters from Saturday Night Fever (John Travolta in the original), Dirty Dancing (Patrick Swayze), Footloose (Kevin Bacon) and High School Musical (Zac Efron).

The box-office success of mix-up and match-up movies means that we're going to see many more of them at our cinemas in the future. This would be a far more enticing prospect if only a bit more imagination was being put into the characters we see being teamed up.

'Monsters vs Aliens' is in cinemas now