Mark Reviews Movies

PLANET 51

1 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jorge Blanco

Cast: The voices of Dwayne Johnson, Justin Long, Jessica Biel, Gary Oldman, Seann William Scott, John Cleese

MPAA Rating: PG (for mild sci-fi action and some suggestive humor)

Running Time: 1:31

Release Date: 11/20/09


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Review by Mark Dujsik

There's a whole new world to explore in Planet 51, and the best principal gag the movie can come up with in the whole realm of possibilities available to a strange, undiscovered planet is that the native beings of the planet think of a human being as an alien. That's the joke that drives the movie.

Before the dashing astronaut invader arrives on the unnamed planet full of unspecified creatures, the planet also looks a lot like the United States in the 1950s, except that everything's a bit spherical and the cars hover. The cars hover (as do, on a side note, the burgers on a grill), but the native inhabitants think the universe is 500 miles long and contains a thousand stars. I don't know how that disconnect of technology happens, but more importantly, I don't know how this apparent ignorance of the scope of the cosmos fits into the thematic purpose of the movie, even though it makes kind of a big deal about it when the Sea-Monkey-like, pantless but anatomically barren hero comes to his major turning point.

Honestly, I don't know what screenwriter Joe Stillman (writing off an "'original' idea" (the secondary quotations are added for emphasis) by a whole list of people, including director Jorge Blanco) is trying to do by setting the world in a kinda-Earth environment with a kinda-period feeling with a kinda-but-not-really vibe of paranoid fear about the mass indoctrination or destruction by an unknown threat. We know why science fiction films of the era did what they did and how they did it in light of the Cold War, but the purpose of loading all this into an unimaginative animated comedy about another planet visited by a human being is just kinda useless.

The point, I assume, is that by showing how similar the aliens are to humans that we share their fear of those who are different from them. I gather this from the heartfelt confrontation between the hero and the gung-ho army general—right before the heroes attempt to kill him by blowing up the secret government base around them. Once again, I'm dumbfounded.

The human is Captain Charles T. Baker (voice of Dwayne Johnson, who, in animated form, is a skinny, blonde, blue-eyed white guy—take that decision as you will), who lands in the backyard of our alien hero Lem (voice of Justin Long), a typical teenager who just got a promotion at the local planetarium and has a crush on Neera (voice of Jessica Biel), the girl next door.

The town of Glipforg and the world freaks out, after being told by a popular series of movies that alien invaders will try to conquer the planet with death rays and hypnotic zombification. Lem doesn't think the guy is an evil destroyer of worlds and tries to help him return to his spaceship.

There's a villainous general (voice of Gary Oldman), who will stop at nothing to capture the astronaut, bring him to the secret Base 9 (Is that a math joke?), and hand him over to crazy scientist (voice of John Cleese), who wants to study his brain outside of its container. Lem has some semi-goofy friends like Skiff (voice of Seann William Scott), who runs a comic book store, and Eckle (voice of Freddie Benedict), who's a kid. Their zany traits are that one runs a comic store and the other's a kid.

The movie has little ambition to the creation of its world and even less when it comes to the humor. Filled with movie allusions, pop culture references, and Baker's slang usage going over the aliens' heads, there's nothing to set this apart. In never establishing the world or characters, the jokes seem stale and obvious.

Baker's lander arrives on the planet to "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" as Baker hums along, and it's soon followed by another overly done joke of E.T.'s iconic moon image. Baker's rover companion is zoomorphed as a dog, complete with a wagging antenna and named Rover. Another alien creature-as-dog has acid urine and looks a lot like the alien from the Alien series. It's also named Ripley.

These are familiar jokes, and while it's appropriate for a movie where everything that should be otherworldly seems familiar, that doesn't make them any less bland and humorless. Instead, the movie concentrates on these and a lot of sluggish physical comedy, including an awkward moment where Skiff tells Lem to put a cork somewhere down-there to protect from alien probing (although considering their lack of anything offensive down-there, I'm not sure where he expects him to stick it). It seems in the movie's many attempts to be ironic and clever, it just forgets to be ironic and clever.

You can hear Johnson trying his best to infuse energy into his performance, but these character models are so inexpressive it never translates visually.

Nothing really connects in Planet 51. It never gels as a whole and instead comes off as cobbled together from old, tired pieces.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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