Smartly positioned for maximum potential as a breakout spring hit with cross-generational appeal, “Race to Witch Mountain” is the sort of full-throttle crowd-pleaser capable of grabbing even teen and twentysomething ticketbuyers who normally avoid anything that smacks of “family entertainment.” There’s something for almost every demo here — including baby-boomers with fond memories of the original Disney-produced “Witch Mountain” pics of the 1970s — and the entire package is impressively propelled by the star-powered, likably comic-macho perf by Dwayne Johnson (formerly known as the Rock). Expect strong B.O. numbers, even stronger homevid sales and very early talk of a possible sequel.
Hyped as a “modern-day re-imagining” of the novel by Alexander Key — which previously inspired “Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) and its sequel “Return from Witch Mountain” (1978) — “Race” justifies its title by coming off as much more of a high-velocity action-adventure than its predecessors.
Helmer Andy Fickman (who previously teamed with Johnson on 2007’s “The Game Plan”) puts the pedal to the metal in the opening moments, as U.S. military and intelligence types rush to secure the Nevada desert site where a UFO has apparently crash-landed. Right from the start, it’s established that Burke (Ciaran Hinds), a Homeland Security agent, isn’t there to roll out the welcome mat for “illegal aliens.”
Meanwhile, off in nearby Las Vegas, ex-con cabbie Jack Bruno (Johnson) is trying to drive the straight and narrow path, despite efforts by mob goons to re-recruit him as a getaway driver. Fortuitously, Bruno picks up an attractive passenger, Dr. Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino), an astrophysicist who just happens to be in town to lecture at a UFO conference (which is amusingly attended by role-playing, wardrobe-wearing sci-fi geeks). Bruno gruffly dismisses the “nutjobs” who believe in visitations by otherworldly beings. This, of course, sets him up for some ironic enlightenment.
The next day, Bruno picks up two other passengers who scour him free of skepticism. During a series of high-speed chases and hairbreadth escapes, Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig) gradually reveal themselves as extraterrestrial visitors who fell to earth aboard the UFO, which was seized by Burke’s team and moved to a super-secret U.S. government installation hidden inside Witch Mountain.
The two human-looking teens are equipped with all manner of shape-shifting, mind-reading and telekinetic abilities, but they need Bruno’s help to avoid capture by Burke and his heavily armed SWAT team — and to avoid assassination by a Terminator-style hunter from their home planet.
“Race to Witch Mountain” strikes a deft balance of chase-movie suspense and wisecracking humor, with a few slam-bang action setpieces that would shame the makers of more allegedly grown-up genre fare. Fickman generously sprinkles witty wink-wink, nudge-nudge touches throughout, and the inevitable cameos by stars of the original “Witch Mountain” adventures, Kim Richards and Iake Eissinmann, are handled with sufficient finesse.
Script by Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback is unabashedly contrived, but the writers are clever enough to kid that contrivance. It may look and sound like a relationship-building throwaway bit, but the scene in which Bruno and Dr. Friedman discuss the ever-so-convenient coincidences that brought them together is self-referentially hilarious.
Johnson continues to flex his muscles as a charismatic screen presence, and here once again demonstrates his ego-free willingness to make himself the butt of jokes even as he does his derring-do.
Robb and Ludwig credibly suggest otherworldly temperaments without being too stiff about it, and Gugino is appealing as a standard-issue brainy beauty. Garry Marshall is the standout among the supporting players as a bestselling, surprisingly well-connected extraterrestrial expert who’s greeted at the UFO convention as some kind of superstar (not unlike real-life author Whitley Strieber, who’s fleetingly glimpsed among the conventioneers).
Special effects and other production values are first-class across the board, enabling auds to enjoy the pic as a serious sci-fi actioner as well as seriocomic family fare.