Ben 10: Alien Swarm (DVD)

The alien swarm is upon us.

Ben 10: Alien Swarm is the second live-action movie made based on the awesome Ben 10 cartoon franchise. The first was Ben 10: Race Against Time, which recreated the characters and creatures from the original four-season series. It was notable for not being a remake or an adaptation, but instead fitting into the show’s ongoing continuity. It was fun, but, unfortunately, it couldn’t escape its low-budget made-for-TV movie trappings.

When Ben 10 was rebooted as Ben 10 Alien Force, the show gained an edgier and slightly more serious feel. Will the same be true for its own live-action adventure, Ben 10: Alien Swarm?

Our tale begins with an illegal black market sale of advanced alien technology. It’s interrupted by Ben Tennyson (Ryan Kelley, Still Green), his cousin Gwen (Galadriel Stineman, The Alyson Stoner Project), and his tough-guy pal Kevin (Nathan Keyes, The Nature of Blake), who use their various powers to protect the earth from evil aliens. The sale is also interrupted by Elena (Alyssa Diaz, As the World Turns), an old crush of Ben’s he hasn’t seen in a long time. Elena is investigating her father’s disappearance. As Ben and his friends are attacked by insect-like alien computer chips, they realize the threat of the chips and the mystery of Elena’s father are connected. Ben’s grandfather Max (Barry Corbin, Northern Exposure) doesn’t trust Elena, arguing that the man betrayed him years earlier. Gwen and Kevin believe Elena is leading them all into a trap. Ben trusts her, however, and he Elena head off on their own to confront the mysterious man controlling the chips, with the hopes of uncovering his master plan.

Just as Ben 10 Alien Force was a step up in quality from the original Ben 10, this movie is a definite step up from Race Against Time. Unlike a lot of made-for-TV movies of this kind—especially the usual genre hairballs coughed up by SyFy—this could have easily been a theatrical feature. It’s not exactly The Dark Knight, but the production values are solid.

The movie benefits from a lot of large, spacious sets and filming locations, giving it all a bigger feel than the TV mini-budget would allow. Even Max’s “command center” is a high-ceilinged chamber lined with bright green displays. The movie also displays some terrific vehicular mayhem, with plenty of exciting practical stunts. Cars flip through the air, motorcycles jump through windows, and Kevin’s awesome muscle car is recreated to look almost exactly like its cartoon counterpart. The CGI brings to life Ben’s aliens, as well as the titular swarm. Yes, the computer effects do look a little more video game-y than the best effects we’ve seen, but never to the point where they cause a distraction from the action on screen. It’s a great example of how effects serve the story. These effects are a perfect fit for this type of story.

As far as the script goes, this is a plot-heavy adventure, with the characters rapidly jumping from one set piece to the next with little time for them—or the audience—to catch their breath. It’s great fun to see Ben, Gwen, and Kevin in live-action, but adding this Elena character into the mix creates some awkwardness. Elena doesn’t have much of a personality. Instead she’s a plot device, existing only to kickstart the story, and then to create tension as the other characters disagree about whether to trust her. The villain is also more of a device, not with a lot of backstory or motivation, other than just the whole megalomania thing.

That’s not to say the script is terrible, though. The dialogue is filled with all sorts of nice character bits, especially the mild flirtation between Kevin and Gwen. There aren’t a ton of jokes and one-liners in the movie, but the ones that are here are good ones amusing while still being character-based and not taking you out of the story. The rest of the plot is standard “aliens secretly want to take over the world and our plucky young heroes are the only ones who can stop it” stuff.

The actors inhabit their roles nicely, especially Nathan Keyes as Kevin. This guy must have spent hours studying his animated counterpart, because he has the voice, mannerisms and personality down pat. Galadriel Stineman (Her name’s Galadriel? Really?) gets across Gwen’s seriousness, and Ryan Kelley sells Ben’s earnestness about doing whatever it takes to do the right thing. Ben’s character arc in the movie is similar to his in the Alien Force series, in that he cannot rely on Max anymore, and has strike out on his own.

The Omnitrix goes on the fritz when Ben encounters the swarm of alien chips, so Ben doesn’t transform into his alien personas as often as you’d expect. I won’t spoil who he changes into or how often he changes, but know that the monster-versus-monster fighting is fleeting.

That raises another question—what if you have no idea what an Omnitrix is? Is this a movie for Ben 10 newbies? The creators make some attempts at filling in viewers, such as taking a minute to explain the significance of the plumbers and why alien tech is illegal on Earth, but there is no explaining where the characters get their powers from or even what their relationships are to each other. I’m afraid this one’s for the fans only.

The picture quality on this disc is nice, with a lot of detail and color. The audio is equally good, with a lot of booming explosions and atmospheric effects. In once scene, when a mechanical monster lurks behind our heroes, its clunk-clunk-clunk sound gradually builds from the rear speakers until it sounds like the thing really is right behind you. Very cool. The behind-the-scenes featurette is really more of a commercial, lasting only about a minute and not really showing us anything truly interesting about the making of the movie. There’s also a rockin’ music video featuring one of the songs from the movie.

Oh, and check it out—Ben 10: Alien Swarm was directed by Alex Winter, also known by movie fans as Bill S. Preston, Esq. Excellent!

Ben 10: Alien Swarm delivers exactly what it promises, a live-action Ben 10 adventure. It’s not the best superhero ever made, it’s not even the best Ben 10 adventure ever made, but within the realm of made-for-TV fantasy movies, it’s easily one of the best I’ve ever seen. Check it out.

The Verdict

A swarm of not guilty.

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