Thursday, November 18, 2010

Talk About Your Disappointments: Planet 51 Is An Entirely Banal Science Fiction Comedy!

The Good: Opens strong
The Bad: Continues weak and descends into an overall terrible film, Light on DVD bonus features.
The Basics: A ridiculous animated science fiction parody, Planet 51 becomes too formulaic and is not worth wasting time on.

I am a big fan of science fiction films and I have a love of science fiction comedy when it is done right. I was thrilled to meet the director of the retro science fiction comedy Alien Trespass when I managed to get to a screening of it last year and I had a real appreciation for much of what was done in the film. Similarly, when it comes to science fiction comedies I applaud both the execution and concept of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (click here for that review!). So, when I encounter a science fiction parody that does not live up, I definitely have the judgment to distinguish between the quality and the less-than quality. Sadly for writer Joe Stillman and the directors of Planet 51, Planet 51 is not a worthwhile film on any level.

My wife and I took in the DVD presentation of Planet 51 late last week when she had the opportunity to pick up a stack of movies from our local library. I did not object to her picking the movie out because I had missed Planet 51 when it was in theaters and the DVD represented the opportunity for my wife and I to spend time together. Sadly, neither of us enjoyed the movie despite it starting exceptionally well. But for those looking for an entertaining, funny or even clever animated film or science fiction parody, Planet 51 ultimately falls so far short as to be not worth recommending at all.

On a distant planet, Lem is an alien who has moved up to a management (albeit minor) position at the local observatory and he is keen to share his good fortune with Neera, a girl he is interested in. While Lem's best friend shouts about conspiracy theories involving extraterrestrials and works at a comic book store, Lem tries to impress Neera and falls somewhat short because of his chronic shyness. Unfortunately for Lem, his belief system is rocked when a NASA astronaut from Earth, Captain Charles Baker, arrives on his planet and stumbles into his front yard.

As Captain Baker blunders his way around the planet, causing the military's General Grawl to descend upon Lem's house and buy into the brain-crazed Professor Kipple's doctrines about the evils of extraterrestrial, Lem tries to save Baker. Learning from Baker how to be suave with the ladies, Lem and his best friend (who has befriended Baker's remote drone) try to win the heart of Neera and get Baker back to his ship before it launches and strands him there for good.

Planet 51 opens as a surprisingly smart parody of serialized science fiction films with a 1950s flavor to the camp quality. The feature is animated, so the effects do not attempt to mimic 1950s special effects, but the idea that extraterrestrial are arriving and turning the citizens of the planet into mindless zombies has 50s kitsch quality written all over it. And Planet 51 is a pretty formulaic science fiction piece up to and including the love interest for Lem and the multiple plotlines, like the rover getting into trouble while searching for rocks and the mad scientist Professor Kipple. There are chases and reversals and the artificial timetable, in this case the automatic return that Baker's ship is on to return back to the mothership.

The result could have been smart and fun. Unfortunately, after the first fifteen minutes, my partner and I stopped laughing and we didn't restart. The movie degenerates into ridiculous slapstick painted in bright colors which is no doubt entertaining to the children, but lacks the substance for adults and serious science fiction fans. After all, the initial cleverness of an alien (from Alien) appearing as a housepet on this distant world is quickly undermined by how it is used to make simple urination jokes. The twist will go over children's heads and anyone smart enough to love Alien is likely to be disappointed by the simplicity of the twist in this comedy.

Ultimately, Planet 51 becomes a silly animated romantic comedy that is short on the laughs. Captain Baker is ridiculous and while Lem is initially likable, it is hard to stick with him and care about his fate because so much of the movie is formulaic and droll. Neera doesn't have particularly much character as she drops Lem and his attentions for the ridiculous hippie that interjects himself without actually having much in common with her. As well, General Grawl and Professor Kipple are more archetypes than actual characters.

What Planet 51 does have is fairly decent voice actors. Justin Long does quite well as Lem, even if he does not have a wealth of great lines to deliver. Long is expressive and overcomes some of the simplicities of the emotional range he has been given in other projects. Similarly, Jessica Biel seems to be having fun providing the vocals for Neera. But Dwayne Johnson fails to voice Baker in a way that truly sparkles. The result is a character who talks the lady-killer lines, but does not make them sound like they truly fit him.

On DVD, there are featurettes on the making of the movie, deleted scenes and a commentary track, but we were so disappointed by the source material that we could not sit through the supplemental stuff.

Ultimately, Planet 51's laughs come in the first fifteen minutes and everything after that is a sad filler which wastes the viewer's time and attention.

For other animated films, please check out my reviews of:
Toy Story 3
Despicable Me


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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