Why you won't want to bother landing on Planet 51

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

Going into movies with no expectations can occasionally be a good thing. You get to enjoy that sense of discovery, the feeling that without any encouragement or provocation you "found" something and can now tell other people about it.

Unfortunately, that sometimes also speaks to the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of a film's promotion, and I have to admit that writing this introduction was my first impulse when thinking about Planet 51, even before I saw it, not least because prior to sitting in the theater I saw no previews or trailers for it and had no idea what it was about or whether there was any chance I might like it.

The flip side of having no expectations is that sometimes you discover you were right not to build something up too much—which is definitely the case with this particular movie. A poorly animated, poorly conceived, utterly predictable science fiction adventure without a single shred of originality, Planet 51 is not only one of the year's worst films, but a depressing pastiche that reminds those both with and without expectations that there are countless greater movies one could and should be watching, especially when ones like this try to steal their best and most memorable parts and try to make them their own.

Justin Long (Drag Me to Hell) plays Lem, a green booger with hair made out of underripe bananas who is quite possibly the single least imaginative or open-minded astronomer who ever took up a telescope. After getting a job at a local planetarium and almost maybe thinking about asking out the dream-girl-next-door Neera (Jessica Biel), Lem's life seems to be falling perfectly into place; but when an astronaut named Charles (Dwayne Johnson) lands in his backyard and enlists his help to get back to his ship, Lem's world immediately gets turned upside down. But after Gen. Grawl (Gary Oldman) seizes control of Charles' spaceship and military scientist Professor Kipple (John Cleese) announces his intentions to lobotomize any aliens he finds, Lem is forced to make a choice whether to protect his "perfect" life or save Charles, in the process changing booger-kind forever.

If you have a problem with Dreamworks' penchant for poaching from other movies, then by comparison to Planet 51, their work seems like subtle homage: co-directors Jorge Blanco, Javier Abad and Marcos Martinez (first-timers all) shamelessly steal from E.T., WALL-E, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Back to the Future and The Right Stuff, among many, many others, and uses none of them in a way that respects their influence, much less acknowledges it. The film is set in an alien world that basically resembles America of the 1950s, complete with atomic-age drive-in-style sci-fi movies, but the point of this decision seems to be to highlight just how stupid people were in the '50s.

Whether the "alien scare" is most directly a metaphor for that era's Communist paranoia, contemporary prejudice or the by now completely worn-out vilification of conservative chicken hawks, Blanco, Abad and Martinez don't offer a single interesting or unique idea about the source, meaning or solution to this kind of fear-mongering. Just by making the military the bad guy, the trio reduce even their strongest ideas to little more than storytelling cliché, but they have so little of interest to work with from the start that after Gen. Grawl shows up, you might as well tune out and wait for the conventional payoff that inevitably comes after a series of dumb, obvious chase scenes set to bad covers of '50s pop songs, and the characters learn their equally dumb and obvious life lessons.

Ultimately, I might have expected this kind of tripe a year or two after the release of the first Toy Story, when computer-animated movies were still finding their footing, but released in 2009, Planet 51 is unwatchable, except perhaps to people who thought that movies like Up and Fantastic Mr. Fox lacked enough fart jokes or completely unsympathetic bellyaching from their characters. Thankfully, there are several animated and family movies in release right now that audiences have as alternatives to this, so with any luck this one will die a quiet death; but just in case you still don't harbor any expectations or haven't discovered anything about the film yet, even via this review, let me make myself absolutely clear: Planet 51 sucks.