Ben 10: Alien Swarm (US - BD)
Gabe visits a much older Ben 10 in another live action STV movie...
Ben (Ryan Kelley), Gwen (Galadriel Stineman), and Kevin (Nathan Keyes) are back, fighting the good fight against alien menaces in style. This time their journey leads them to the world of black market alien tech trading. It seems some equally disturbed youths have come into possession of some kind of nano-tech, and are looking to pawn it off on someone. But before anyone can react to the fact that one of the sellers is a childhood friend of Ben’s named Elena (Alyssa Diaz), a mysterious, trench coated man takes control of the nono-machines, and threatens to enslave the world with their mind controlling powers.
Ben 10 was a kid’s show, so the corresponding live action movie was also aimed at kids. I reviewed Ben 10: Race Against Time with a light touch a few years ago, because I was expecting even less out of the live action iteration than I was the animated series. I now realize this should’ve been a ridiculous expectation on my part, but years of similar productions have trained me. It’s strange that fans can assume a bigger budgeted, live-action version of an animated series will be dumbed down to simpler narrative levels than subject matter already aimed at children. The most likely explanation points to the relatively low cost of television animation, which likely leads to less interest from executives, and more freedom for writers. Perhaps these standalone features are micromanaged into mediocrity.
This new film, Ben 10: Alien Swarm is based on the original series follow-up, Ben 10: Alien Force, which is aimed more towards tweens and teens, with more action for the boys, and more romance for the girls. I haven’t kept up on the series, but what I’ve seen has been pretty good. It appears that the bulk of the writing and directing staff on the show is made up of Justice League alumni, and though the stories aren’t as complex, the animation is clearly similar. It again comes as no surprise that this live action iteration has been simplified, even in comparison to the action heavy source series. The plotting and character development is the clear problem, and decent action isn’t enough to compensate. There’s practically no plot to even complain about, and anyone that hasn’t seen the series is going to be entirely lost concerning the already well fleshed back story. Alien Swarm is also swarmed with slightly annoying angst. The characters are largely humourless drama queens, and there aren’t many compelling developments to make the angst particularly palatable.
I have to say I’m pretty impressed with Alex Winter’s action direction this time around. There’s nothing in his directing career to say he could create sizable action on a miniscule budget, but here we are. There’s a pretty killer car chase at the heart of the film, and there’s an overall thrust of urgency, but the set pieces are inorganically infused into the plot. The ‘alien swarm’ in question is very ‘Borgish’, which is to say it’s kind of a ‘my first zombie movie’ with a hint of Aliens. Like the last Ben 10 movie, which was also directed by Winter, the urgency of the team’s situation loses it’s grasp by the last act, and the narrative brevity creates thin characters that are very hard to care about in their hour of need. At least parents can hope that their young ones will develop a taste for the stuff Alien Swarm riffs on.
Alien Swarm is much more stylized and modern than the first live action Ben 10 movie. Winter opts for a largely desaturated, high contrast look, which works better with the more teen-friendly subject matter, but I kind of miss the cartoony colouring of the first film. Skin tones are very pale, and most of the more neutral warm hues are cleared out in favour of deep blacks, and lots of cool blues. There are some highlights like Gwen’s orange hair and Elena’s red coat, but the key hue to the whole print is green – green computer display, green ambient lighting, and green dust. Digital grading is clearly part of this plan. The night shot city scenes are certainly grainier than the set based scenes, which are usually laced with more controlled darkness. Grain is defiantly pushed throughout the print, but it’s very fine, and clearly purposeful (grain = grit, etc.). Overall the print is as clean as the filmmakers intend it to be. Some of the special effects are perhaps grainier than some viewers would prefer, but this is likely a way of covering up limitations.
Alien Swarm comes fit with a better than expected Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track. Those surprisingly well put together action scenes feature some aggressive sound design. The big balls versus car scene is brimming with revving muscle car engines, the hiss of passing pylons, and big clanging metal spike balls. The balls also make the ‘nanobot’ squeaking sound, which really tears up the stereo and surround speakers in the following sequence where Ben fights them in the guise of a rock monster. The track’s chief problem, and it’s a minor one, is the overall volume of the center channel, which is a little low.
The extras start with a brief, made for TV EPK (2:00, HD, looks like SD though), that really equals an elongated trailer. This is followed by a There For Tomorrow music video (3:00, HD, that again looks like SD), and the worthwhile extra, a full-length, two-part season three animated episode (43:49, HD). The episode isn’t the best story-wise, but is well animated, and very action packed. It’s written and directed by ex- Justice League contributors Dwayne McDuffie, Dan Riba and Butch Luckic, and the JLU influence is pretty thick. Makes me wish they were still doing DC Animated series, rather than disappointing STV movies. The HD video quality is gorgeous (though interlaced), and the Dolby Surround sound is solid.
Ben 10: Alien Swarm is both a surprise and a disappointment. The production values are higher than anticipated, the digital effects are pretty good, and Alex Winter’s action direction is shockingly effective (especially during the central car chase). On the other hand, the plotting and characterizations are flat and predictable, which is extra disappointing based on the animated show’s relatively sophisticated storytelling. The Blu-ray disc looks and sounds very nice, but the big plus is getting the third season’s first episode in full 1080i HD video as an extra.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 1st December 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Subtitles: English SDH
Extras: Behind the Scenes, Music Video, Ben 10: Alien Force Episode
Easter Egg: No
Director: Alex Winter
Cast: Ryan Kelley, Nathan Keyes, Alyssa Diaz, and Galadriel Stineman
Genre: Action and Adventure
Length: 90 minutes