Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Monsters vs Aliens - Observations

I love a tightly constructed plot and Monsters vs Aliens does a good job of this. Here are some observations about the plot and other points. Stop reading if you don't want to see any spoilers.

The movie is mainly about Susan/Ginormica's transformation from shallow bride to world defender. At the opening all she can think about is that she is about to go to Paris. The marriage and her future husband are incidentals.

Early on Susan is repulsed by her future mother-in-law's deformed thumb and the prediction that kids that she has with Derek will have the same trait. Shortly after that she is transformed into a monster and learns to appreciate he fellow monsters.

We never see what happens to the meteor but it apparently is actually a ball of energy which Susan absorbs entirely (twice). We do see the energy as it is sucked from her body by Gallaxhar.

Susan maintains that she isn't really a monster, she's just large. In fact, her actions in the outside world show that there is no place for her there. She is just too big. She has a much harder time fitting in than the other monsters (since she doesn't actually fit into anything).

What sort of fabric was that wedding dress made out of that it could stretch (in all directions)? Too bad her garter wasn't made of the same stuff.

No one even comments on Susan's hair changing color.

Susan wakes up in a uniform provided by the military. It has the number "005" on the breast. She is the fifth monster added to the collection (not counting the late Invisible Man).

Susan has a stroke of luck. The other monsters have been imprisoned for years or decades. She is only locked up for three weeks before the military needs them to fight a giant robot.

The robot has been sent to retrieve the energy that Susan absorbed. If the government had realized this they would probably have simply handed Susan over, end of movie. Instead she and the other monsters got to save the world from a menace directly related to Susan. No wonder they are locking up people with abilities on Heroes.

Susan thinks of herself as an ordinary person who happens to be large. When confronted with a robot that dwarfs her, she acts like an ordinary person and runs. It isn't until she is on the Golden Gate Bridge that she sees people in danger and starts acting like a hero.

General Monger's briefing on Ginormica mentioned that the energy she absorbed gave her size and incredible power. This set up her fight with the robot when she discovered that she is disproportionately strong (she is even stronger than you would expect from someone her size).

Science factoid - strength goes up according to the square of the cross-section but mass goes up according to the cube of the volume. This means that really big people have trouble supporting their own weight. A fifty foot woman could not stand up. Ginormica has extra strength which compensates for this.

Watch Gallaxhar's eyes. The middle ones behave normally. The outer ones seem to have a mind of their own.

Apparently Ginormica has to concentrait to use all of her strength. When Gallaxhar tells her that it is too bad that she doesn't know how to harness the power she replies that she knows how to use it. She then breaks a force field and tears through several steel blast doors.

It is almost a cliche that a monstrous hero will be given a chance at a normal life and have to give it up to save the world. Susan never even thinks about the choice. By the time she is returned to normal she has accepted her life as Ginormica. She seems more concerned about losing her powers than her chance at resuming her life.

The clones don't seem to be very smart. This is probably on purpose. An army of exact replicas of Gallaxhar would probably kill each other arguing about who should be in charge.

Stealing a uniform as a disguise is another cliche. Loony Toons characters did it all the time. They also did it in the Wizard of Oz. Indianna Jones and the Rocketeer both did it. I could go on. The results are usually as unlikely as the monsters.

The suit that Gallaxhar put in Susan was handy since her government issue outfit would not have shrunk. Either he was concerned about her modesty or repelled by human physiology. Either way, it was convenient.

Someone changed Susan's clothing twice while she was unconscious. Will there pictures of a naked, sleeping Ginormica appearing on the Internet in future movies?

Will Arnet (Missing Link) and Jeffery Tambor (Susan's father) were regulars on Arrested Development. Arnet's wife, Amy Poehler (computer voice), was also in a few episodes of Arrested Development.

Most Americans know Hugh Laurie from House. He is actually a British actor and the Dr. Cockroach character is much closer to the rest of his career than Dr. House.

An in-joke was that Susan was only 49 feet, 11 inches. This must have been in a press packet since several reviewers mentioned it but no one gave her height in the movie. She may have grown after one of Dr. Cockroach's experiments.

The Missing Link was inspired by The Creature from the Back Lagoon. B.O.B. was the Blob. Dr. Cockroach was from the Fly.

Insectasurus was obviously a take-off of Mothra. Mothra went from giant caterpillar to moth.

The idea of using earth monsters to fight aliens/alien robots was a staple of Japanese monster movies in the 1960s.

Saving San Francisco wasn't enough to give the monsters acceptance. They had to save all of humanity instead.

General Monger first used his parachute in the war room.

Only by becoming Ginormica did Susan finally get to go to Paris.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Monsters vs Aliens vs Incredibles

I've seen various reviewers compare Pixar and Dreamworks as Disney and Warner Brothers. This comparison sells Dreamworks short. Their movies usually have more laughs than Pixar's but there is more substance than Warner Brothers cartoons (since Warner Brothers only did shorts, they never had enough screen time for anything more).

Dreamworks Monsters vs Aliens just came out. The Incredibles is the closest thing to it that Pixar has produced (and still one of their best) so I'm going to compare the two.

Warning - I'm not going to go into the plots in detail but this will contain minor spoilers.

The basic set-up of both movies has similar elements. In one, the government has outlawed costumed heroes and placed them in safe, boring everyday jobs. In the other, the government decided to keep the existence of monsters secret and has rounded them up and is holding them in a secret facility.

The Incredibles focuses mainly on Bob, Mr. Incredible, as he goes from superhero and newlywed to insurance adjuster in a soul-crushing job and his return as a superhero. Along the way he learns to depend on others instead of acting solo.

Monsters vs Aliens
is about Susan, Ginormica, as she goes from her wedding day to being locked up for being 50 feet tall (give or take an inch) and her transformation into hero. Along the way she learns self-reliance and that geeks may embarrass you but they will not desert you.

There are a few scenes in common between the two movies. They both have five heroes facing off against a giant robot to save a city. In both movies, the main characters finally receive acceptance through conspicious acts of heroism.

What about the Warner Brothers comaprison?

The Incredibles is pretty much deadpan. There are a few scenes put in for comic relief - a neighborhood child who keeps watching Bob to see what will happen next, Frozone asking for his super suit. Monsters plays the main plot straight but a lot of humor comes from Susan's fellow monsters, especially BOB the Blob who is a natural clown. The scenes with the President are all for comic relief, similar to Scrat's appearances in the Ice Age movies. Monsters ends up having a lot more humor than Incredibles but compartmentalizes it. Except for some pratfalls caused by her size, Susan is never a humorous character. She is also more sympathetic than Mr. Incredible who borders on being a jerk at times.

Susan's character is handled deftly. At the beginning she is rather shallow, obsessed with going to Paris on her honeymoon. She is also repelled by minor physical deformities. The movie's focus is almost exclusively on her rather than being split between the four members of the Incredibles family so there is more screen time for her to grow as a character (no pun intended). By the end of the movie she has accepted her role as monster/defender of humanity and has the audience rooting for her.

Now that I've said all of that, I will admit that the way the monsters disguise themselves in the alien ship is right out of Warner Brothers. There are a lot of in-jokes about other monster movies. The President and his advisors are outright silly (with perfect casting of Stephen Colbert as the President).

Monsters has a lot more laughs but it still makes an emotional connection - a difficult combination.

Pixar's Up comes out later this year. It will be interesting to see which movie takes the best animation for 2009. Dreamworks has a real shot at beating Pixar.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Car Clocks

Last weekend began Daylight Savings Time. My car has a an analog clock with a simple mechanism for resetting the clock. You put a pen into a small button on the dashboard and the clock runs fast. You release the button at the right time. My wife's digital clock is a bit harder. Either way, we can set the clock and trust it to keep correct time until Daylight Savings Time ends in November. It didn't used to be like that.

When they first started putting clocks in cars they used a simple electric motor. These ran at a consistent rate depending of the voltage applied. The problem is that cars have different voltages. When the motor is turned off the battery puts out 12 volts. When it is running, it is recharging the battery and the voltage is more like 14.5 volts. This can drop if you are running power-hungry things like the rear window defroster. Combine that with headlights, radio, windshield wipers, and the fan and the voltage drops nearly back to 12 volts.

Every time the voltage changes, the old car clocks ran at a different speed. Engineers tried to estimate how much driving the average person would do and adjust the clock so that it would average out. This never seemed to work in real life. Car clocks could gain or lose as much as five or ten minutes in a week. You either constantly adjusted your clock or you gave up and never looked at it.

Sometime in the 1980s they started using quartz movements in car clocks. A quartz crystal vibrates if you apply current to it and it is fairly forgiving about variations in voltage. Problem solved.

Monday, March 02, 2009

The PT Cruiser

A change of subject, instead of talking about media, I'm going to talk about cars - at least one model, the PT Cruiser.

In the mid-1990s, Volkswagen introduced the New Beetle. This was basically a Jetta with a new body made to resemble the iconic Beetle from the 1960s. A few years later Chrysler announced their own retro car - the PT Cruiser. The Cruiser looked like a cross between a Beetle and a classic hot-rod. The Beetle had a lot of trade-offs for its look. It is only a two-door with a small trunk and a difficult-to-service engine. The Cruiser solved most of those problems. It was four-door and had a huge amount of usable space for its size. It was also fairly inexpensive, starting below $20,000.

During its first few years the Cruiser was a halo car for Chrysler. People stopped just to look at it. Merely having it in their lineup made Chrysler seem cool. It was at least two years before production caught up to demand. Prior to that you had to get on a long waiting line or pay a premium to get a Cruiser.

Other companies tried to produce a retro car. Ford launched its revived T-Bird which started off hot but cooled quickly. GM came out with their SSR and HHR. The SSR, a cross between a pickup and a hot-rod was heavy, slow, and overpriced. The HHR was a better try but when you parked it next to a full-sized pick-up it looked like a scale model of a larger car. That never happened with the Cruiser.

Sales eventually dropped. Chrysler made a half-hearted attempt at freshening its looks but mainly managed to dilute them. The original Cruiser had a triangular grill that went past the bumper. This was responsible for a lot of its distinctive look. The new Cruiser lopped off the grill at the bumper, making it look more like a Pacifica. This was probably deliberate. According to one of the Cruiser's designers, Chrysler's German owners never liked or understood the Cruiser.

I owned two of them. I loved the first one but it was totalled in a wreck. I replaced it with a slightly newer one that had more options. When that wore out I considered getting a new one but the new design just didn't excite me the way that the original did.