Wednesday 16 September 2009

Race To Witch Mountain (2009)

Wednesday 16 September 2009
The latest adaptation of Alexander Keys' 1968 novel (made popular by a trio of Disney films released between '75 and '82), Race To Witch Mountain is another dreaded "re-imagining", this one from the desolate imagination of the producer/director behind Anaconda and Who's Your Daddy?..

With a filmography that ignoble, Race To Witch Mountain is automatically Andy Fickman's best movie, but that's damning with faint praise. The premise is broadly that of Escape To Witch Mountain, hobbled by a plethora of unnecessary changes and flourishes that turn the whole affair into nonsensical, implausible boredom.

Jack Bruno (Dwayne Johnson) is a reformed convict turned Las Vegas cabbie, who unwittingly picks up two alien siblings, Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig), who pay him $15,000 to take them to an abandoned house in the middle of the desert. The alien adolescents are being chased by sinister government agent Henry Burke (Ciarán Hinds) and a Power Rangers knock-off known as "The Siphon", although it's never adequately explained why any of this is so. If an explanation was given for why the government would risk intergalactic retaliation by experimenting on aliens whose downed flying saucer they've captured, I either missed it or my brain chose to ignore whatever excuse screenwriters Mark Bomback and Matt Lopez came up with.

It's ultimately an excuse for Johnson to act like a protective "dad" (later joined by Carla Gugino as protective scientist "mom"), in a series of desert-set chases that fail to get the adrenaline pumping. It starts reasonable well, I guess -- with a highway chase that unwisely climaxes by stealing a "human bollard" visual from Day Watch and Fantastic Four, but even those moments are hobbled by obvious bluescreen beyond vehicle windows. It's downhill from that point anyway, with a tepid race through dark deserts and a small town, leading to the titular mountain (which strangely receives no name-check!), where the kid's crashed UFO is being kept.

As a childhood fan of the original Disney flicks, it's quite depressing that this update ignores its most compelling ideas. Crucially, whereas the original's leads were regular kids discovering they were extra-terrestrials with super-powers (thanks to freaky, repressed memories of a childhood sea tragedy), the kids in the update know they're aliens and their abilities are so advanced that there's precious little jeopardy during any situation they find themselves in. The original also involved a road trip that felt like you were on a real journey of discovery with the characters as the mystery of their lineage was revealed, but this remake is stuck circling the Nevada desert and a clichéd UFO convention full of cameoing studio execs and sci-fi authors.

The actor do what they can in their Mouse House straight-jackets. The casting of AnnaSophia Robb sounds perfect on the page (she was terrific in Bridge To Terabithia), but her character's a dull cipher here; her screen brother Alexander Ludwig melts from your memory during scenes he's in (now that's a super-power!); Carla Gugino desperately needs to start finding quality projects to work on; and former-wrestler Dwayne Johnson continues his disappointing acting career. For someone with oodles of charisma and screen presence, are Disney remakes the only scripts he's being sent? The artist formerly known as The Rock seriously needs to find an iconic role to call his own before it's too late. He has a similar problem to Vin Diesel (both championed as "the new Arnold Schwarzenegger" when they appeared on the scene), but at least Diesel made a few memorable early films he can always return to when times get tough -- what's Johnson going to fall back on? The Game Plan II?

directed by: Andy Fickman written by: Mark Bomback & Matt Lopez starring: Dwayne Johnson (Jack Bruno), AnnaSophia Robb (Sara), Alexander Ludwig (Seth), Ciarán Hinds (Henry Burke), Carla Gugino (Dr. Alex Friedman), Tom Woodruff, Jr. (The Siphon), Garry Marshall (Scientist), Cheech Marin (Eddie Cortez) & Chris Marquette (Pope) / Walt Disney Pictures / 98 mins. / $50 million (budget) /