A quick primer on the "Ben 10" universe: the Cartoon Network animated series "Ben 10" featured ten-year-old Ben Tennyson and his Omnitrix, an alien wristwatch thingy that can transform him into his choice of ten alien monsters, a power he uses to fight evil and save the world. That series led to the made-for-TV movie "Ben 10: Race Against Time," a live-action sequel of sorts that continued the adventure. Then came "Ben 10: Alien Force," a new cartoon series (set to wrap up its final season this month) that jumped the characters ahead five years, with a new batch of monsters for Ben to become. And now we get "Ben 10: Alien Swarm," a live-action feature that spins off of that series. (A third series, "Ben 10: Evolution," is set to premiere next year.)
Because of the time jump, "Alien Swarm" completely recasts its heroes with new actors, mostly newcomers - but makes the valuable move of keeping Alex Winter in the director's chair. Winter, the former actor known for the "Bill & Ted" series and the cult favorite "Freaked," displayed a terrific knack for crafting comic book adventure in "Race Against Time," and his helming is even more assured here. As with the "Alien Force" series, "Alien Swarm" takes a darker, more serious tone than its predecessor, and Winter handles the switch with ease. The action, while still kid-friendly, is more "grown-up," with several key sequences as exciting as anything you'd see in big screen comic book movies. (I can't wait for Winter to tackle a bigger budget project. His youthful flair and vision makes him perfect for the genre.)
The script, from James Krieg and John Turman, jumps right into the thick of things, not bothering much with bringing newcomers up to speed. (It smartly prefers instead to dole out exposition as the story rolls on, expecting the viewer to be bright enough to keep up. It's a method that works.) Ben (Ryan Kelly), his sister Gwen (Galadriel Stineman), and her boyfriend/reformed villain Kevin (Nathan Keyes) have set up a sting operation, ready to bust some black market baddies trafficking stolen alien technology. But there's a hitch: in with the baddies is Elena (Alyssa Diaz), Ben's former friend - and, more importantly, a former crush. Is she working for the villains now? Why is Ben's grandfather Max (a perfectly grumpy Barry Corbin) so untrusting of her? And what is it about Elena's father that Max hasn't told Ben and Gwen?
There's not much time to figure it all out, since the black market deal led to the release of thousands of teeny alien robot bugs. These nanobots are dangerous, indeed, able to morph together into giant flying weapons or, worse, worm under your skin and control your brain. A large handful of locals have already been infected, and if Ben and company don't act fast, the nanobots will take over the brains of everyone on the planet.
In other words: it's Ben 10 vs. zombies, and it's every bit as awesome as it sounds.
At a mere seventy minutes, the movie wastes no time getting to the good stuff, and often. There's a mid-movie chase set piece that effortlessly proves the film's worth as a whiz-bang actioner - complete with effects work that's a big jump ahead of the previous movie. Winter seems to be having a blast with the zombie bits, adding a deliciously creepy element to the proceedings (while not being too creepy for younger fans). And the script's mystery elements never suffer from the faster pacing; instead, the quick rhythms give the investigative side of the story a crackle that keeps you excited throughout.
Video & Audio
As with the previous film, "Alien Swarm" looks far better than expected from a made-for-basic cable flick. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is rich with detail, with deep blacks and a dazzling cartoon color scheme.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack also shines, with a marvelous balance of dialogue and effects - it sounds like a big budget project. Optional English SDH subtitles are included.
Despite the title, "Behind the Scenes" (2:02; 1.78:1 flat letterbox) is actually a clip-heavy promo, with a few on-set interviews with the cast teasing the story.
A music video for "A Little Faster" (3:05) features kid-friendly rockers There for Tomorrow performing a song I honestly don't remember actually being in the movie. Huh.
Previews for other Cartoon Network releases play as the disc loads.
A terrific adventure that'll satisfy fans while also pleasing newbies, "Ben 10: Alien Swarm" is a slick, thrilling superhero story built to rival big screen fare. Recommended.