Race to Witch Mountain (2009)



In 1975, Disney had a big hit with
Escape to Witch Mountain. If I ever saw it, it did not leave an impression. It was about a pair of orphans, played by Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards, who had paranormal powers and were on the lam from Donald Pleasance. In the sequel, Return from Witch Mountain, Bette Davis and Christopher Lee were after them. In the "re-imagined" Race to Witch Mountain, director Andy Fickman cuts to the chase. And then does it again, and again, and again... True to its name, sort of, Race to Witch Mountain features a lot of car chases and a numerous car crashes. It also wastes no time in explaining the extraterrestrial origins of Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig). They are the kind of alien kids who cannot use contractions when they speak, and who also always refer to people by their first and last names, although they introduce themselves by their first names only. Maybe they don't have last names on their planet. What really gets the attention of cabbie Jack Bruno (or JackBruno, as the kids like to call him), however, is that the cute, weird, ├╝ber-blond space tweens have a big wad of cash, and ask to be dropped off at a remote shack in the middle of the desert somewhere near Las Vegas.

Jack (Dwayne Johnson), needless to say, gets more than he bargained for (despite a big tip), especially after men in black, led by E.T.-hater Henry Burke (Ciaran Hinds, who on his worst day is not as scary as Bette Davis) come after the illegal aliens. Jack thinks the bad guys are after him, since he's a cabbie of the hard luck and heart of gold variety who regularly finds it necessary to beat up menacing thugs. He's also a former race car driver, which is fortunate because high speed chases, car crashes, and explosions ensue. And then there's more where that came from, all of which causes Jack's trusty yellow cab to do much off-road driving and take a considerable beating. Truly, the Crown Vic is a durable and surprisingly all-terrain vehicle.

Somewhere along the way, a discredited astrophysicist, Dr. Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino, gamely playing along), joins the entourage as they race to Witch Mountain, where there is a super secret government facility performing super secret government experiments on UFOs and other stuff you're not supposed to know about. And also, the kids' flying saucer is there, which they need to escape
from Witch Mountain and save Earth.

Did I mention the Siphon? That's the deadly alien assassin sent to Earth to exterminate Sara and Seth, lest their mission to spread peace and environmental responsibility throughout the galaxy succeed, or something like that. Anyway, he's bad news, and the cause of still more explosive action and a whole lot of shooting.

Race to Witch Mountain is a serviceable, competent film, and a very excitable one in which something new and generally predictable is happening all the time. The dialogue is primarily expository rather than conversational -- Seth and Sara have a whole lot of 'splainin to do. The movie's message is pro-environment and anti-Patriot Act. The government is mean and menacing, and using CCTV to spy on everyone everywhere. And people who go to science fiction conventions get a lot of good natured ribbing, because they're all geeks and nerds who like to dress up as Storm Troopers, see. Hey, that's why what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, baby.

The cast is appealing. Johnson, an actor of considerable charisma (and improving acting) plays a variation on his usual character, a peevish (in a funny way) tough guy who's really nicer than he looks. Jack is not terribly unlike Beck, the character he played in
The Rundown (2003, back when Johnson was still known as The Rock). The Rundown, come to think of it, was kind of like an adult version of Race to Witch Mountain, although with considerably fewer explosions and more insanity. Anyway, Robb's Sara is the livelier of the two ETs, maybe because her character is the fun one. She can read minds and talk to animals, while Ludwig's Seth can merely manipulate the molecules of his body to unlock doors and stop cars and such, none of which looks as exciting as it sounds. Ike Einsenmann and Kim Richards, all grown up now, have small parts in the movie.

Race to Witch Mountain is a junior sci-fi adventure movie, which is different from adult sci-fi adventure movies mostly in that there is no blood or gore, no probing, and all apparent deaths occur discreetly offscreen. Also, everyone always wears their seatbelts, so catastrophic car crashes never result in injury. Pro-environment and pro-seatbelt? We have much to learn from those cute alien invaders.

16Mar2009