Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
December 2009

Humanoid invasion

'Planet 51' blandly twists 1950s-era extraterrestrial hysteria

Planet 51
Tri-Star Pictures
Director: Jorge Blanco, Javier Abad and Marcos Martinez
Screenplay: Joe Stillman
Starring: The voices of Dwayne Johnson, Justin Long, Jessica Biel, Gary Oldman, Seann William Scott and John Cleese
Rated PG / 1 hour, 31 minutes
Opened November 20, 2009
(out of four)

1950s Americana gets completely inverted in Planet 51, a forgettable animated comedy with a mildly clever premise but lacking the goods to follow through on it. The film is the first release from Ilion Animation Studios, which is so new that it has just a two-sentence entry on Wikipedia. (Dare I add a sentence or two more myself?)

That mildly clever premise I mentioned is to make a film about an extraterrestrial landing on the home planet - only with a human in the role of alien and Little Green Men as the innocent bystanders watching in terror as a spaceship touches down on one of their front lawns. Also, their world looks a lot like our '50s - the "perfect family" image, people having cookouts in the yard with their neighbors, etc. You get the feeling there's probably a sock hop on tap for this weekend.

And, of course, the masses are entertained by cheesy sci-fi movies about aliens - or "humaniacs" - who want only to take over Planet 51 and control the minds of its inhabitants.

So it's no surprise, then, that when Captain Charles T. Baker (Dwayne Johnson) innocently arrives on Planet 51 without any mind-control ambitions whatsoever, the local folks don't exactly take kindly to him. The domineering army general (Gary Oldman) wants to have him experimented on - largely on the advice of self-proclaimed "humaniac" expert, Professor Kipple (John Cleese). A burgeoning group of local hippies wants the alien just to be left alone, insisting that he's come in peace.

And then there's our main character, Lem (Justin Long), who quite accidentally becomes responsible for the astronaut's safety. He has the unenviable task of protecting Planet 51's unwitting public enemy, convincing the townspeople he means them no harm and getting Charles back to his spaceship before it takes off and heads back to Earth without him.

All of this plays out with enough sophistication to divert our attention for 90 minutes or so, but that's about as lofty a compliment as it's going to get. The characters that litter this alien planet, while intended to be deliberate prototypes, seem to have not gotten beyond the initial planning stages.

You'd like to think Joe Stillman - one of the writers of the first two Shrek movies - would have injected something worthwhile in the proceedings, but instead everything just sits there flat on the screen.

The film has its share of amusing details - for instance, the hopscotch courts that resemble crop circles, the "Base 9" that is basically just an "alien" version of Area 51, even the truth about Captain Taylor, which he dejectedly confesses in the second half of the film. But those aspects are few and far between.

Planet 51 comes across as yet another animated project whose collective creative juices were stunted by a studio's insistence on pandering to the kiddie set. Maybe I'm wrong, but if Ilion Animation wants to make any kind of dent in the industry, it'll have to do a whole lot better than this.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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