– Summary –
Director : Jorge Blanco, Javier Abad, Marcos Martinez
Cast : Voices of: Dwayne Johnson, Justin Long, Jessica Biel, Seann William Scott, Gary Oldman, John Cleese, James Corden, Mathew Horne, Freddie Benedict.
Year of Release : 2009
Length : 90 Minutes
Synopsis: When human astronaut Chuck Baker lands in the town of Glipforg on planet 51, he discovers what it’s like to be considered the “alien”. Now, he must race to return to his space craft before it leaves orbit for Earth, although he is hindered by the local military presence sent to hunt him down.
Review : Charming, innocuous kiddie-fare, chock full of morals and ethics, and with a unique whimsy that children will thoroughly enjoy. While not a patch on even the stuff Pixar refuse to touch, Planet 51 is nowhere near the worst film I’ve seen in a long time. The animation is above reproach, and the voice cast do their utmost with the somewhat clichéd script. But a horribly predictable storyline (and characters) make this a film punching so far under its weight it’s bordering on the ridiculous..
You know, when you see that a film has three directors listed in the credits, this often doesn’t bode well. Unfortunately, the duo directing success rate hasn’t been so good in recent times, and adding a third into the mix is sometimes going to spell creative “troubles” that a frightened studio might use to correct problems. When I first heard about Planet 51, and saw the trailer, I thought the idea was such a cool one that I couldn’t wait to see it at home on the plasma. I’d heard other critics have a shot at the film for being mediocre, and so went into watching it with middle-of-the-road expectations. I am pleased to say that I wasn’t let down; by the same token, I wasn’t incredibly impressed.
Planet 51 tells the story of Human astronaut Chuck Baker (voice of The Rock, a la Dwayne Robinson) landing on a distant world, sent by humans to claim it as our own. The problem is, the planet is inhabited by an intelligent race of aliens, in a time period approximating the mid-50’s America. Indeed, Chuck lands his craft in the backyard of Lem (voice of Justin Long), a young alien who’s just landed his first job at the local planetarium museum, and who is having issues “getting the girl”, so to speak. The arrival of Chuck to the small town of Glipford (where, apparently, it rains rocks!) brings along with it the requisite military attention, led by square-chested General Crawl (Gary Oldman) and his chief scientist, the kooky (and often mistaken) Professor Kripple, who has only one thing in mind for the “alien” interloper: decapitation and removal of the brain. Lem, essentially going against his race here, decides to help Chuck get back to his craft and leave the planet, helped by his best friend Skiff (Stifler himself, Seann William Scott) and a device captured by the military (and sent from Earth) in Rover, a multi-wheeled probe device with capabilities far in advance of anything currently achievable by NASA.
Planet 51 is filled with obvious in-jokes relating to alien invasion and sci-fi classics, including nods to Alien, Star Wars and other pop-culture icons. The film itself has even been branded as “ET in reverse”, which is partially true considering it’s “alien” is in fact, a human, and the “humans” are actually the aliens this time round. There’s a fair degree of The Day The Earth Stood Still here, too, with Chuck being hidden by the Lem and Skiff in much the same way that Klaatu was hidden by Helen and Bobby in that classic cinema outing. In fact, the 50’s icons abound in Planet 51, in no small part thanks to setting the aliens world up as an alternative to that era. Which is a little baffling considering the market this film is so obviously aimed at: kids. How many kids alive today would recall the sweetness of having service station attendants who would come out and actually put fuel into your car for you, while washing the windscreen and checking the tyres? None. There are numerous references and winks to an older audience along the way, but where the film undermines its own cleverness is the fact that the story just isn’t strong enough to support it. Jessica Biel voices Neera, Lems romantic interest, and to be honest, her character sparkles with the wit and intelligence of a half sucked orange. Biel isn’t at fault here, because I think she gives the best performance possible under the circumstances, but the scripting is so clichéd and hackneyed in parts that you can kinda tell what’s going to happen well before it actually does. Which means the scribes on this film (read, the directors plus a few others!) are to be held accountable. The narrative, once you strip back the shiny pictures and self-referential pop-culture references, has been done before, and better than this. Lem is an uninspired character, lacking genuine motivation apart from what the screenwriters say he should be inspired by. Justin Long’s vocal work is frustratingly inadequate for this role, and much the same can be said for Dwayne Johnson as Chuck too. Anaemic vocal performances also further undermine the work elsewhere on this film.
The story starts off really well, and sets up the film to come with genuine wit and charm. In fact, audiences should brace for a fair few laughs in the opening fifteen-to-twenty minutes. After that, however, generic storytelling kicks in, jokes start to wear thin, and the life is sucked out of the film until the very end. Not even great vocal work from cinema stalwart Cleese can save this film from all but dying midway through, as various plot points threaten to conspire to underwhelm the main narrative thrust. The films tried to remain engaging, but the belaboured story and characters (which range from amusing to boring) struggle to keep the pace up and the audience interested. At least, the adult audience, that is. Kids will probably lap this up, although they may miss a fair amount of the humour, since it’s derived from scenarios that have no hope of recognising. I think adults will get more out of this film than kids will, although those same adults will find much to endure here, rather than enjoy.
If the film has one defining positive, it’s the animation. Spectacular, breathtaking, this is almost on par with Pixar level animation. The detail and nuances within the 2.35 frame (only a few animated films ever use the widescreen scope ratio, and Planet 51 makes the most of this!) are superbly realised, from dust and effects and a level of creativity that boggles the mind. The use of colour, shadow and framing are first rate from a directorial point of view, and the creative team are to be applauded for one of the best looking films I’ve seen in ages. But, as I have often said, looks aren’t everything. And a films looks aren’t what’s supposed to be the best thing about it. If you get this film on BluRay or DVD, you’ll be impressed with the visuals: which only serves to highlight what a spectacularly average story Planet 51 has instead. Another positive I should mention is the really cool score by composer James Seymour Brett. Brett, whose work as co-composer and creative member on films as diverse as Event Horizon, Band Of Brothers, X-Men and even Transformers, puts him in good stead to bring a stylish, genuinely excellent score for this film. Heroic, thrilling, emotional, Brett’s score works a treat for what little emotional beats are dug from the limp characterisation on offer here. If the characters had been stronger, Bretts brilliant score would have been better served.
Planet 51 had a great concept, if one that was a little “been there, done that”. It had the potential to be a slick, entertaining and intelligent film with much to say about… well, what to do if aliens do land on Earth. Unfortunately, the execution in story and some daft characters (as well as some inadequate vocal performances) leave a lot to be desired in this film. I know I’ve pretty much kicked it while it’s down, but I’ll admit to having a silly smile on my face while watching it. It’s not a bad film, per se, but neither is it a great one. While lamenting what could have been, I felt Planet 51 was a little bit too clever for it’s own good. For an easy kids flick for a rainy weekend, it’s a keeper. For a more discerning adult viewer, you’ll find yourself wishing they’d been a bit smarter at the scripting stage.