– Summary –
Director : Andy Fickman
Year Of Release : 2009
Principal Cast : Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, AnnaSophia Robb, Alexander Ludwig, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Everett Scott, Chris Marquette
Approx Running Time : 98 Minutes
Synopsis: After discovering two aliens in the back of his cab, driver Jack Bruno must help them stop an impending invasion of Earth – by driving them to Witch Mountain, and avoiding the US Government.
What we think : Much like eating fairy floss, Race To Witch Mountain has the depth and emotional weight of a puddle of water. Mixing metaphors aside, this film is genuinely entertaining on only the most superficial level, like a carnival ride or low-rent computer game. It will keep the kids occupied for a while, but at no stage do you ever think to yourself: “man, I need to watch this again!” and that, my friends, is where this film sits with me.
I’m sitting here at my keyboard, the film fresh in my mind, and all I can keep thinking is that I really, really should be incredibly disappointed with it. Disappointment seems such an understatement, however, when one considers the waste of time Race To Witch Mountain actually is. Coming off a series of kiddie-friendly films, Dwayne (formerly The Rock) Johnson suits up for yet another – The Tooth Fairy, The Game Plan, Get Smart and even the anemic Gridiron Gang all sullied the hard-edged reputation he’d gained since appearing in a string of action films, and Witch Mountain merely adds another nail into that coffin. I’m pleased to say that Dwayne has returned to his action roots in recent times, appearing in Faster and Fast & Furious 5, but impending family fare like Journey 2 will no doubt undo all his good work. The Rock does it best when he’s smashing heads. Really smashing heads, not just the playacting you get in this film. Race To Witch Mountain is a remake of 70’s Disney flick Escape To Witch Mountain, although this time around the cast are ably assisted by a degree of quality increase in the visual effects. Trouble is, the script is so flimsy, and the characters so horribly developed, there’s no sense of urgency to the proceedings – the heroes move a step ahead of the antagonists, but only because they have to to keep the story moving, with a limited amount of organic storytelling taking place here. It’s a rollercoaster of green-screen, explosions and shockingly unexciting filmmaking, with director Andy Fickman proving that his ability to generate excitement behind the camera was a fluke in She’s The Man.
Jack Bruno, and ex-con turned Las Vegas cabbie, is stunned to find two alien beings sitting in his back seat, throwing cash at him and demanding he drive them to a remote location. Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig) are on a mission to locate a device which will prevent their race from invading and colonizing Earth, hounded by a decidedly nasty US Government agency headed by Henry Burke (Ciarán Hinds). Jack drives them around the Las Vegas landscape on their mission, also trying to outrun an indestructible alien assassin sent to Earth to prevent the twins from achieving their mission. Along the way they scoop up resident alien expert Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino), who helps them try to escape.
Watching this film is akin to having an hour and a half of your life evaporate right before your eyes. I mean, you can literally see your life just disappearing as you watch this. Witch Mountain isn’t a great film; heck it’s not even a fun film by any stretch, even though the entire cast are going out of their way to try like hell to raise a laugh or something. Dwayne Johnson has had a personality transplant in this beast, his lifeless, stone faced performance so completely bereft of the classy cheeze-factor we know he’s capable of. How a man with so much natural screen charm can come off as so alienated from the viewer (that’s a pun, and it wasn’t intended, but I’ll take it anyway) is beyond me. The script doesn’t do him any favors, but director Finkman’s inept direction of the entire cast leaves the mind boggling the longer things progress. Carla Gugino’s character, supposedly somebody with plenty of knowledge about aliens and things, hardly registers a blip on the scale of quality characters here, which is staggering considering just how fine an actress she is. Ciarán Hinds, whose role in Mrs Pettigrew Lives For A Day was superb to say the least, is badly let down by a stock character he’s forced to play. It’s not that he’s bad at acting the part, it’s just that the character as written hardly breaks a sweat through the entire film. There’s a level of impact a bad guy needs to achieve in order to get the audience to a place emotionally where they’re invested in his failure – watching this, I didn’t really care about his fate, to be honest.
Twin kid leads, AnnaSophia Robb (who I really enjoyed watching in Bridge To Terabithia) and Alexander Ludwig (who audiences may remember from the blink-and-you-missed-it fantasy flick The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising) do well with their characters, as much as they can when they’re supposed to be alien teenagers who know nothing about our planet. Robb in particular gives a performance far better than this script deserves, and her rapport with Johnson is actually pretty sweet. Ludwig can barely raise a smile throughout the entire film, and while I have no doubt he’s going to be a quality actor in years to come, it won’t be this role that he highlights on his CV. And what the hell Tom Everett Scott was thinking in accepting this film is beyond me: he’s reduced to a second-tier henchman status, and gets only the barest of screen time throughout. What a waste.
The film doesn’t waste any time in setup – the opening credits get us right into the UFO action, as a quick playlist of recorded alien encounters throughout history, before the central alien visitors of this film arrive in the desert outside Las Vegas. Why Vegas? Not sure, but it makes for a pretty picture, right? If there’s a positive to this film at all, I guess it’s the fact that it doesn’t dwell on stuff an audience might care about, like character development and genuine depth of narrative. We learn that Jack is a former crim and a wheel man for a local crime kingpin when he’s accosted by a couple of thugs working to get him back into “the business”, but the scene (occurring during the films’ opening five minutes) stops the film dead. Why do we need to know this, and what’s the purpose of this information? I’ll let you in on a secret – at no stage does Jack display any of his “legendary skill” behind the wheel of his banged up cab, not even in the heat of battle, and anybody expecting some Fast & The Furious or Ronin-esque driving here are going to be badly let down. The Bad Guys, who look more like Men In Black rejects than anything else, are so obviously the Bad Guys its ridiculous, even when they traipse into a small-town diner looking for our heroes. Seriously, there’s no such thing as subtle in the Finkman/Witch Mountain playbook.
With a plot and dialogue so badly written, and by bad I mean shockingly turd-like, Witch Mountain doesn’t stop for logic at any stage, hoping against hope you’ll ignore the narrative flaws and just go with it. To be honest, I did think about going along with the stupidity of it all for a while, until it just got into nerd bashing for an extended sequence at a UFO Convention in a Vegas casino. That’s when it lost me, and from there, I just felt ripped off the whole time, wishing I’d not spent my 2 bucks as the video store in renting this crapfest. Younger viewers will probably like to lynch me for saying this, but it’s not even worth the price of the BluRay disc pressing – younger viewers may find something to appreciate here that I missed, but I doubt it. The crappy green-screen stuntwork and in-car stuff reeks of we-don’t-give-a-shit film-making, and that got up my nose too. There’s a lot to despise in a film like this, and I hate to say it, but my cynical “film critic” hat came out and sat firmly in place on my head.
Where do you lay the blame for this miasma? I mean, you’re spending millions of dollars of Disney money (and I know, they can afford it, but still….) to make a film people will want to enjoy and eat more popcorn, maybe buy a toy or lunchbox as part of the merchandise drive, and you turn out a film less exciting than watching your grandparents have sex? I lay the blame for this directly at the feet of director Andy Finkman. Finkman has the directorial prowess of a Honeywell Safe. His leaden direction of the films’ major action set pieces and inability to generate any excitement in them is virtually unforgivable, especially when this film should be less like a drive with your mother and more like a rollercoaster. There’s a car-chase sequence between Jack and the agents working for Burke, which you’d hope might be, oh, tense and really cool to watch. Instead, it looks like it was shot by Ray Stevens and edited by Stephen Hawking. I mean, there’s no impetus to it, no sense of urgency (flying in the face of whatever the characters are saying), and you can almost feel the plot twists coming a mile off. Every cliche in the sci-fi/adventure film handbook come into play here, and Finkman delivers them with the panache of an epileptic leper. There’s a sense of direction-by-committee here, a banality to Finkman’s style that borders on Film School Novice. Race To Witch Mountain lacks zip, lacks the energy it needs to keep the wafer thin narrative from collapsing under its own limited weight, and ultimately, can’t keep up with itself.
If there’s one thing you can count on each year, it’s that Hollywood will deliver its fair share of big-budget turkeys. Race To Witch Mountain has only the slimmest of things working in its favor – it looks good, and the thunderous 5.1 mix ensures you can at least hear what’s going on – but the film is let down in several key areas; namely, character development and direction. It’s a gameshow-styled film, filled with cliched scene transitions and a bunch of lights with screaming adults leaping around when things get hairy. There’s nothing to this film to reward a single viewing, let alone a repeat screening, and only the most non-discerning children will find this film at all appealing.