— by JOEL CRARY —
Compared to “Wall-E,” the Pixar animated film about a robot who journeys into outer space and finds out more about humanity’s place in the grand scheme of things, “Planet 51” is pretty inert. It’s a film about first contact that succeeds pretty well only when it directly lifts from its predecessor. When Captain Charles T. Baker lands on an alien planet and figures out that the life forms can speak perfect English, he asks for a cappuccino. That’s our best of the best right there.
I understand what screenwriter Joe Stillman was going for with Baker. He’s a cocky, shallow, chiseled hero type who has no business flying a spacecraft. He would be voiced perfectly by Patrick Warburton. Instead, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has stepped in, marking his latest effort to boost his kid-friendly appeal. I even get that choice, to a certain extent. He’s a big guy, a hero type, the kind of guy NASA might send to plant Old Glory on foreign galactic turf. But Johnson plays his character like an overgrown kid who’s eaten too many Twix bars.
Baker tells us that “Planet 51” is 20 billion miles from Earth. Fine. It kind of looks like Saturn with a terrestrial composition instead of a gaseous one. Trees and intelligent life flourish. The atmosphere is apparently exactly like ours, because Baker can breathe freely. The aliens are green, sport antennae and have four fingers on each hand. Yes, there is a “Gimme four!” joke. Other than that, they look remarkably human. They wear clothing and have haircuts and run comic books shops.
Baker lands in the town of Glipforg, which looks like Hill Valley from the 1955 segments of “Back to the Future.” The vehicles look like the vehicles from the 2015 segments of “Back to the Future Part II.” Even though the cars hover, the alien race hasn’t seemed to have mastered air travel, and certainly not space travel. Teenager Lem (Justin Long) lands a job at the local planetarium. He thinks the universe is 500 miles wide and that the stars number about a thousand, and no one corrects him. He has a crush on girl next door Neera (Jessica Biel) and his best friend Skiff (Seann William Scott) is a little too attached to robots.
“Planet 51” contains a lot of homages to past works of science fiction like “E.T.,” “Jurassic Park” and “Terminator 2,” some kind of funny, but none really all that imaginative. The film also has an affection for pulp comics and old sci-fi films from the 50’s of the “It Came from Outer Space” variety. Black and white news reports are cheapened by commercials for toothpaste (probably a wise idea not to go with cigarettes). Green versions of Marilyn Monroe grace the pages of entertainment magazines. Young hippies protest for the sake of protesting and get around in space age Volkswagens.
Most interestingly, there is an undercurrent of Cold War paranoia running through the entire picture. A character named General Grawl (Gary Oldman) wants his army to exterminate Baker and spreads propaganda that he is a master of mind control and brainwashing. The kids are taught the duck-and-cover maneuver by their schoolteacher. All the while, Grawl has his opposable olive digit on the red button that will blow everything to hell, or whatever the creatures believe in.
The filmmakers seem very much in tune with darker visions of suburban America, but routinely hold back on expressing them lest things get too dour. The film borrows heavily from “WALL-E,” down to a spunky and mute robot character (who is admittedly the most fun to watch). The success of “WALL-E” and “Up” has shown that today’s kids can accept and be entertained by heavier thematic material if it’s delivered in the right way. “Planet 51” is like a history book with all of the blood and guts blacked out. The teenage melodrama is routine, and there are a couple of dreadfully bizarre and borderline homophobic jokes about anal probing that should have been dropped altogether. The wonder of space travel is turned into a generic fantasy by Blake, who is a complete joke, but kind of a flat one.
“Planet 51” is Ilion Animation Studios’ first feature. Based out of Madrid, their animation team shows talent. Considering that it’s a film about exploration of the most universal order, I found myself wishing for more depth. Yes, it should keep kids busy for 85 minutes. Satisfying their curiosities about the night sky is another matter.
Follow Joel Crary on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joelcrary.