- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

In April 2008, the Atlantic’s Ross Douthat penned an article about the state of contemporary filmmaking titled “The Return of the Paranoid Style.” In it, he argued that Hollywood’s reaction to the Iraq War was far stronger than its reaction to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and that the prevailing mood in the industry during the last half decade has been one of distrust, even outright loathing, of the government.

As a result, movies reverted back to the mind-set prevalent in ‘70s thrillers: The government is deceitful, no one is to be trusted, power corrupts, etc.

That brings us to “Race to Witch Mountain,” Disney’s remake/re-imagining/sequel (Does it really matter?) to the 1970s children’s movies “Escape to Witch Mountain” and “Return From Witch Mountain.” The movie opens with an interminable montage of newspaper clips highlighting government cover-ups of alien life and fuzzy photographs that suggest the existence of UFOs. It ends with government agents mounting up on a fleet of black helicopters to check out the most recent crash.

The cadre of government spooks, led by Henry Burke (Ciaran Hinds) and provided comic relief by Matheson (Tom Everett Scott) and Pope (Chris Marquette), is after a pair of teenage aliens named Sara and Seth (AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig) with special powers. The children also are being pursued by a Siphon, an alien assassin sent by the alien military (of course) to cut their mission short.

To escort them around Las Vegas, where the story is set, they turn to tough-guy taxi driver Jack Bruno (Dwayne Johnson, aka the Rock), who in turn turns to Dr. Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino) to help explain what’s going on.

“Race to Witch Mountain” is pretty standard kiddie fare: Cute, precocious children are protected by a world-weary, wisecracking father figure; one-liners abound; the good guys triumph in the end. Mr. Johnson is well-suited for this type of role, although he seems to be regressing as an actor — his line readings in this film are far more stilted than those in “The Rundown” and “Southland Tales.”

Mr. Hinds’ appearance is also a welcome treat. This is probably the most screen time the talented Irish actor has had since the first season of HBO’s “Rome.” It’s too bad the script underuses him so badly; his character has no complexity or verve. He’s simply the evil government guy, reporting to “Washington” every so often to brief his Department of Defense overlords. “Washington” here is an amorphous entity that is the source of all that is wrong in the world.

It’s not clear how Hollywood can keep such an anti-government style going, considering its love affair with the new president. With any luck, the age of Obama will bring the second age of paranoia to an end.

★★

TITLE: “Race to Witch Mountain”

RATING: PG (Sequences of action and violence, frightening and dangerous situations, and some thematic elements)

CREDITS: Directed by Andy Fickman

RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes

WEB SITE: http://disney.go.com/disneypictures/racetowitchmountain/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS