MOVIE REVIEW: “Planet 51” (2009)

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I’ve got a bit of a reputation for giving unexpectedly positive reviews for movies that most everyone expected to be crap. This will not be one of those. Most everyone expected this movie to be crap, and crap it is. There are some redeeming qualities, but I’ll get to them in a bit:

PLAY BY PLAY

There’s this planet of green aliens who live, act, and think more-or-less exactly like they’re 1950s Americans. An astronaut from the US lands on said unnamed planet, and is immediately taken for an alien invasion. There’s a lot of running and screaming and shouting, all pretty much out of the Spielberg/Zemeckis playbook; he’s captured by the alien military, he’s freed, and he only manages to make it back to earth thanks to the help of some local kids who - of course - “Learn An Important Lesson About Life” along the way.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

There *is* a pretty clever hook here: We’re the aliens. It’s obvious, but seldom done, and as far as I know, never in a movie. The film is intended as a parody/reversal of all those 1950s ‘aliens from space’ movies, through the filter of the guarded 1980s tolerance for things that are strange, but may be wonderful, and while that’s a write-your-own-gag situation that should fall bass-backwards into brilliance, it doesn’t. It never even comes close.

Part of the problem is, as I said, that this is a very ‘80s movie. I mean very, very much so, it fits right in stylistically with E.T. (Which it deliberately makes a nod to), The Goonies, Gremlins, Explorers, Back to the Future, and a whole bunch of other mid-Reagan Era “Anything Steve touches will turn to gold” crap. Of course most of those movies *were* crap, Back to the Future and E.T. excepted, obviously. And in some ways, Back to the Future is almost a parody of Spielberg’s style. “Future” is the movie this most closely apes, right down to the Michael J. Fox-esque protagonist.

The real problem is the terrible script, however. This is allegedly an adventure comedy. There’s no adventure, and it really isn’t all that funny, either. The script touches on a couple themes - the whole ’don’t be afraid of the unknown’ thing being the most obvious - but it fails to do anything noteworthy with any of ’em, and when the big emotion-filled climax comes, it falls completely flat because there really was no emotional arc leading up to it. A bunch of stuff happens, most of which seems hopelessly padded out, and then stuff stops happening, and people hug in teary-eyed fashion, and then roll credits. The hugging mostly seemed to come out of nowhere.

The concept - inasmuch as there is a concept to be had here - is that all planets develop along roughly the same lines as Earth did, and this planet is up to their mid-50s level. The version of the 1950s here rings untrue. I realize it’s a parody, and it’s on an alien world so it doesn’t need to be exact, but even then it rings false. There’s no real characterization of the society itself. I realize that’s probably intentional because it’s trendy to assume there *was* no culture in th3 ‘50s, but it’s like a parody written by someone who has no knowledge of the thing they’re parodying.

There’s also the anachronism of having much of the plot revolve around a smelly, irritating hippie a decade early. (It really should have been a beatnik, both because that makes more sense, and because beatniks were cool) On the other hand, the third act revolves around a smelly hippie getting savagely beaten, and it’s hard for me not to like that.

Voice acting is uniformly weak: a lot of big stars - many of them very good actors - with a lot of marquee value, but little voice-acting talent. I’m going to single out Dwane “The Rock” Johnson out here as particularly disappointing. I like the guy, he’s got a lot of charm, he’s instantly likeable, but he utterly fails to convey that through his voice in this film.

Thus, at the end of the day, the only thing this film really has going for it is the visual design of the alien town, which is completely and totally brilliant. Beautiful, even. Remember the Baggins house from Lord of the Rings? Imagine that above ground, mildly asymmetrical, and imbued with mid-century Midwestern charm, and there you have it. It’s retro-futurism at its best. It’s clever and alien-yet-instantly homey, and frankly I wouldn’t mind living there myself.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS MOVIE?

I think Conservatives won’t care one way or another. Assuming they did, yeah, guardedly. It’s not that there’s anything offensive to our sensibilities in the film - and it does feature a hippie-beating, and make the hippie look like a self-important dirtbag up to that time - there’s just a degree of ‘why bother’ about it. My kids liked it, and it’s safe for the tots - we saw it on the big screen today - but really this is a movie to watch *only* for the production design.

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