Ben 10 has turned out to be one of Cartoon Network’s most successful franchises, with seven seasons spread over 2 series and two TV movies (one animated, one live-action), with a third series on the way. Now, fans of Ben and his intergalactic adventures are getting two new Ben 10 products to sink their teeth into: the fifth volume of Ben 10: Alien Force on DVD and the new live-action Ben 10: Alien Swarm TV movie.
In both incarnations, our hero is the teenaged Ben Tennyson, wielder of the Omnitrix: a device that resembles a wristwatch and allows him to transform into a number of alien creatures. He is aided by his cousin Gwen, whose alien heritage gives her the power to cast energy bolts like magic, and his former enemy Kevin, who can transform his body into any substance he touches. The trio are Plumbers, members of an interstellar police force tasked with protecting the Earth. The major difference between the two series is that Ben and Gwen’s Grandpa Max, a former Plumber who was their mentor for intergalactic policing, is still missing in Alien Force, while he is an active supporting cast member in Alien Swarm.
While the individual episodes of Ben 10: Alien Force volume 5 are perfectly good superheroic science fiction, they feel a lot more like setup for the rest of the season rather than satisfying stories in their own right. “Pet Project” features the return of the puppy-like alien technomorph Ship, and follows the standard playbook of how to win back a mind-controlled friend. It mostly feels like a way to establish Ship as a force to be reckoned with for use in the Big Finish of the season. “Grounded” tackles many of the secret identity clichés in superhero stories when Ben’s parents find out what he does in his spare time. It’s fun to see the subversion of this hoary old superhero chestnut, but it really seems like Ben takes far too long to come to the obvious conclusion, and the ending is surprisingly tidy. “Voided” sends Ben on a journey to the Null Void prison dimension in response to a call for help, giving the show a chance to bring back a few cast members from the original series. The revelations of this episode really only have meaning if you’ve been following along for an extended length of time, which is both the blessing and the curse of long-running serial fiction. The most satisfying episode on the disc is “Inside Man,” where Ben, Kevin, and Gwen must help an amnesiac named Tyler who is convinced that the sinister alien Highbreed are out to get him, especially after he steals a key part of their hyperspace gateway. The plot twists of this episode are both surprising and eminently logical, but even so, this episode feels less satisfying as a stand-alone tale and more like a piece of a larger puzzle.
Like the previous DVD volumes, Ben 10: Alien Force Volume 5 presents the episodes in anamorphic widescreen with a stereo soundtrack. It’s a bit disappointing to have only four episodes on the disc, especially when there are no extras other than a sneak peek at Ben 10: Alien Swarm, the live-action movie which premieres on Cartoon Network tonight. In this series, Ben (played by Ryan Kelley) is sought out by an old friend and potential love interest named Elena (Alyssa Diaz) to help find her ex-Plumber father who has gone missing. Ben agrees to assist her, against the orders of Grandpa Max (an alarmingly decrepit looking Barry Corbin), and without even the help of the suspicious Kevin (Nathan Keyes) and Gwen (Galadriel Stineman). Meanwhile, Kevin, Gwen, and Grandpa Max investigate mysterious alien chips that are multiplying at a frightening rate, transforming into lethal insect-like swarms and turning people into puppets controlled by an unseen puppetmaster.
Ben 10: Alien Swarm is watchable but thoroughly unsurprising, and doesn’t do anything that hasn’t been done better by any number of superhero movies or TV shows. The good news is that the actors all closely resemble their animated counterparts, even if the movie saddles them with wooden dialogue and a predictable plot. It isn’t hard to guess the connection between the two story threads just from the plot synopsis, so it’s a little frustrating that nobody is able to figure out what’s going on a lot sooner. The battles between our heroes and the many alien-controlled mobs don’t have much logic or sense, relying less on the heroes’ innate abilities and more on the glacially slow movements of the controlled people. There are also times when the movie feels less like Ben 10 superhero action and more like a knockoff of The Fast and the Furious, especially in the way it feels like Kevin’s car gets more and better action scenes than any of the human actors.
Finally, even though the CGI effects are decent in themselves, the movie doesn’t seem to have the budget to allow for enough effects shots, or for the ones we get to meld convincingly with the live-action actors. Ben doesn’t get many transformation sequences at all, and although the aliens do look pretty good when he does, characters like Big Chill or Humogousaur don’t ever seem to inhabit the same world as the flesh-and-blood Kevin or Gwen. When he can use it at all, Kevin’s absorbing power never extends past his forearm, and it’s almost funny how many tricks the movie comes up with to hide his forearm or turn off the effect as quickly as possible. Gwen’s powers seem to have been re-created most effectively, but unfortunately the actor and her stunt doubles just seem too weighted down by gravity, whether attempting a handspring in the opening scene or trying to replicate Gwen’s “running up magical stairs” trick. In the end, it seems like they should have either found more money for more and better effects, or just done the whole thing as a cartoon.
Ben 10: Alien Force Vol. 5 is available now on DVD. Ben 10: Alien Swarm premieres on Cartoon Network tonight, November 25, 2009, at 7:00 PM (Eastern/Pacific).