Poor Susan! Her (Reese Witherspoon) wedding day just isn’t going as planned. First, Derek (Paul Rudd), the man of her dreams (or more accurately, the man of his own dreams, as he is wholly egocentric), tells her he’s scrapping their honeymoon plans in Paris for a job interview. Then, just as she agrees to trade Paris for Fresno and heads into the church, she is hit by a meteorite, causing her to glow green at the altar before suddenly sprouting to 50 feet tall. The still beautiful if gargantuan Susan literally bursts out of the church and snatches Derek up in her giant hand as she flees the swarming military response. Like King Kong, she is caught—lassoed, sedated and carted off to cold storage to await her eventual exploitation by her captors.
Now that she’s been assigned to one side of the titular contest in Monsters vs. Aliens, Susan wakes inside a cavernous pentagon-shaped military bunker along with others like her, all captured in the 1950s by General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland): B.O.B. (Seth Rogan), a brainless blue blob of consciousness, mad scientist Dr. Cockroach PhD (Hugh Laurie), and the half-fish, half-ape Missing Link (Will Arnett). They all finally get their chance at freedom when Earth is on the brink of destruction at the hands of the alien megalomaniac Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson). When the military fails to stop him, General Monger calls on the monsters for help.
As it happens, Susan fits in easily with her new friends, who haven’t been outside since their capture. Far from being a “liberated modern woman,” Susan has always willingly deferred to Derek, much like a stereotypical “‘50s housewife.” Worse, she accepts his patronizing and belittling assessment of her as truth. Needless to say, our heroine cannot remain in this state. Like the monsters, she must assimilate to the contemporary world. Of course, this begs the question: if Susan becomes a better woman as a monster, are we to read her previous, “old-fashioned” version of woman as monstrous?
The fight against Gallaxhar is the least interesting aspect of Monsters vs. Aliens, which is both a spoof and celebration of mid-century creature features. This battle is merely a pretext for what we are really meant to care about, which is Susan’s struggle with herself as she comes into her own, embracing all her monsterness and realizing both her physical and inner strengths. But it makes sense that it all comes down to a showdown between Susan and Gallaxhar, because he is in effect an extreme version of Derek, self-obsessed and dismissive of her. In a nice, if predictable, turn of events, Susan gets to relive that meteorite moment from the beginning, but this time, she can make the choice on whether or not to take the hit and the subsequent changes.
The subtleties of Monsters vs. Aliens won’t be caught by its target audience. It perfectly matches celebrity voices to characters (who could be sweeter than Reese for Susan, or a better slacker-blob than Seth Rogen?) and offers quippy pop cultural references. Your average five-year-old isn’t going to catch the warning call for impending alien invasion, “Code Nimoy!” or the General’s proposed solution to the alien problem (“Let’s give them all green cards and make them proud to be Americans!”). Neither will most kids get it when the Missing Link, finally walking freely in the world again, remarks, “It feels warmer. Is the Earth getting warmer? That would be a really convenient truth to know.”
Despite a few envelope-pushing stereotype inversions that give it a PG rating (like the barely disguised scene with a teenage girl pressuring a reluctant virgin guy for sex), Monsters vs. Aliens promotes several positive, if well-worn, “messages for the kids”: don’t judge a book by its cover; don’t sell yourself short; it’s okay to be different. And while we are glad that Susan taps into her inner girl power, her metamorphosis remains somewhat unsatisfying. Yes, Susan learns she can have her own dreams and doesn’t have to define herself in relation to a husband. But as she finally rides off into the sunset en route to Paris, it’s with a group of monster-guys, with her now playing an obviously maternal role. While her new family may not be traditional, her position in it is just that.