by David Cornelius
There’s a scientific idea floating around that suggests an infinite universe must play host to an infinite number of highly unlikely things - like, say, exact duplicates of our own planet Earth. The odds of another you and another me running around on a distant Other Earth are astronomical, but the universe is bigger still, therefore they must exist.Such an argument helps explain the story of “Planet 51,” an animated comedy in which an American astronaut lands on a planet that’s just like the U.S. of A. of the Eisenhower years, complete with the English language, movie theaters, “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” and ads for Kellogg’s cereal; the key difference is that instead of humans, we get green, antennae-ed, pantsless folks who drive hovercars and walk their H.R. Geiger-inspired dogs that pee acid.
"Crumminess Vs. Aliens."
According to some experts, a planet like this, however highly unlikely, is bound to exist. Me, I’d like to think that this scientific notion is completely wrong, because that would also mean that somewhere out there, across the stars, someone else has also made a movie as terrible as “Planet 51.” And I just have too much faith in the cosmos for something that awful to happen.
Curiously, I have in three paragraphs taken more effort than the filmmakers themselves ever did in explaining how a planet like the one in the movie can exist. The movie takes about thirty seconds for the astronaut and his new alien friend to be baffled by the amazing coincidence, and then it immediately forgets about it. (The script also forgets to explain why the movie is called “Planet 51.” There’s no reference to such a name or phrase.) The problem is not in the nonchalance - a kid-friendly comedy like this doesn’t have the time to get bogged down in complex analysis of physics and probability - but in its failure of wonder. Here we get a tale of first contact for two unique-yet-alike civilizations, and nobody ever pauses to say “wow.”
Except, it tries. Sorta of. Barely. The closest we get is Lem (voiced by Justin Long), our alien teenage hero, who loves astronomy despite his species’ lack of knowledge. (A running gag involves how his people think the universe is only 500 miles long.) When his world is turned upside-down by the arrival of American astronaut Chuck Baker (Dwayne Johnson - is it wonderfully colorblind or regrettably colorless that the Rock is playing a white guy?), who informs him of the universe’s true size as we humans understand it, he gets a little sad for a scene or two, just enough for the screenplay to pretend it’s allowing its characters to grow.
Previously, while giving a speech to school kids at the planetarium where he works, he briefly gets all excited about space and science and stuff, again just enough for the movie to pretend it’s building a character. But Lem’s reaction to the astronaut who crashes in his backyard isn’t one of awe. He doesn’t have time to be fascinated by a being from another world, not with all the slapstick and kooky misunderstandings (the crash takes place on the eve of the premiere of a monster movie, one that casts “humaniacs” as the monsters) and “gee, I hope I don’t get caught for hiding an alien in my bedroom” shenanigans.
As for Chuck Baker himself, the movie has no idea what to do with him. He begins as a bumbling idiot, a clueless American blowhard who panics whenever he’s not posturing. Later, he’s a friendly chap, Lem’s best friend. Later still he’s a noble hero. Sometimes he’s able to outwit his doltish captors; other times he’s the outwitted dolt. In one scene, he monologues about how he has no talent as an astronaut and landed the job of national hero through charm alone, yet this moment is quickly ignored as the story rolls on, remembered only at the finale, when Chuck must suddenly prove his worth as an spaceship-piloting astronaut, a dirt-cheap way of infusing “boy, I hope he makes it” crisis and “atta boy” cheers to a lifeless conclusion.
The rest of the cast includes Jessica Biel, Gary Oldman, Seann William Scott, and John Cleese. Only Cleese, with his distinctive voice, is recognizable; the rest could’ve been any ol’ voice actors, meaning the movie is throwing away payroll on stars it doesn’t need. And thanks to a screenplay by “Shrek” co-writer Joe Stillman, all those unnecessary co-stars are required to recite dopey puns and walk us through limp, obligatory subplots (Lem’s in love! his friend’s a goofball! the science expert’s a phony!) without breathing any real life into the proceedings. The movie’s idea of big laughs is an extended anal probe joke, involving a used cork. Later, “Macarena” appears on the soundtrack. Somewhere in between, we get jokes about hippies (yes, hippies in the 50s, because that’s how much the movie fails) being clueless and annoying, which I think is meant to pass for some sort of social commentary.Stillman brings to the movie only two ideas, both of them reruns of movies released earlier this year: it’s a world inspired by 1950s sci-fi monster flicks (the disappointing “Monsters and Aliens” is the last in a long line of tributes to the beloved genre), and it’s a world where humans are the aliens (the underrated “Battle for Terra” took the familiar theme to more inventive heights). From those two thoughts, an entire screenplay was hastily assembled; the rest is pure filler, except for the inexplicable product placements for Twix and Volkswagen. “Planet 51” is not funny, not exciting, not imaginative, not any darn good. And I’m pretty sure my other-Earth duplicate feels the same way.
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originally posted: 11/25/09 18:26:47