In fulfillment of the prophecy that Disney will eventually remake every single one of its live-action movies, here is “Race to Witch Mountain.” It bears a passing resemblance to 1975’s “Escape to Witch Mountain,” but it’s more reminiscent of a tiresome carnival ride whose operator abandoned it and left it to run for 90 minutes. Whatever fun there is in it quickly gives way to tedium.
Appropriately, it’s set in loud, gaudy Las Vegas, where Jack Bruno (Dwayne Johnson) works as a cab driver. In the past he has freelanced his services for one Mr. Wolf, a shady underworld figure whose goons regularly visit Jack trying to re-enlist him. Maybe I shouldn’t bother mentioning that, though, because it ultimately has nothing to do with the story. For that reason, I’m also not going to mention Jack’s lifelong desire to own a particular Ford Mustang, since that detail was clearly added only after someone read a screenwriting book and paused at the chapter that talked about giving your characters hopes and dreams. It’s extraneous.
But back to the actual story. Jack encounters two strange preteens, a brother and sister named Seth (Alexander Ludwig) and Sara (AnnaSophia Robb). They are extraterrestrials whose spaceship crashed in the desert when they came to Earth in search of a MacGuffin, and now they must get the item and return to the ship — which is problematic, because the U.S. government, led by heartless Henry Burke (Ciaran Hinds), has recovered the craft and hidden it away somewhere. There’s also an alien assassin pursuing the kids, though that’s another thing that’s ultimately not particularly relevant.
Are you getting the impression that the film consists entirely of random, pointless details? Then I am doing my job. I haven’t even mentioned the dog befriended by the kids, which disappears for the entire film until the end, when Sara asks Jack to be sure to take care of it and the audience is alarmed to discover that the dog is, in fact, still in the movie. Nor have I told you about the sci-fi geek convention taking place in Las Vegas, where a crackpot played by Garry Marshall promotes conspiracy theories. Why would you go out of your way to put Garry Marshall in your movie? If your movie doesn’t need him, why not leave well enough alone?
That convention also brings us to Carla Gugino, who plays a quasi-legitimate astrophysicist named Dr. Alex Friedman. Having previously met her in his cab, Jack is sure she can help the alien kids in their quest. After all, she studies the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and the kids actually ARE extraterrestrial life. In one of the film’s few quiet moments, Alex marvels at how everything has come together: a UFO crashes in the desert on the same weekend as the sci-fi convention; she and the kids happen to get into Jack’s taxi — surely this is all more than just coincidence, she says. Yes, I thought. These are the workings of a lazy screenwriter. Alex arrives at a different conclusion — something about fate, or the universe, or whatever — but I’m sticking with mine.
The film has been chaotically directed by Andy Fickman, who worked with Johnson on “The Game Plan” and Amanda Bynes on “She’s the Man.” Broad, unfunny comedy is clearly his forte, and while he gets to indulge in some of that here, “Witch Mountain” is more focused on boisterous, uninspired action sequences. (Trevor Rabin’s relentlessly urgent musical score was obviously composed while Rabin was watching a different, more exciting movie.) It’s a departure for Fickman, and it’s interesting to watch a filmmaker find new things to be terrible at.
Johnson has emerged as an astonishingly charismatic performer in recent years, so it’s a shame to see him so tamped-down and grumpy here, in the sarcastic, world-weary, “I’m gettin’ too old for this” role. The kids are your typical charmless alien types — stiff language, no emotions, etc. The screenplay — credited to Matt Lopez (“Bedtime Stories”) and Mark Bomback (“Live Free or Die Hard”) but reeking of studio interference and last-minute changes — is witless and formulaic, packed with generic action-flick dialogue on the order of “I’ve got a bad feeling about this!” and “We’ve got company!” The whole thing’s loud and flat, like a radio tuned to static and turned up all the way.
D+ (1 hr., 38 min.; )