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High Concept, Low No Execution

By Agent Bedhead | Film Reviews | November 23, 2009 | Comments ()


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While pondering this latest pile of cinematic misery starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Planet 51, I struggled to find a fresh take on reviewing what feels like the hundredth recent "human meets alien" kiddie flick. Then, I remembered some wisdom from Swingers, in which there's a notorious scene featuring the characters playing poker and discussing the opening credit sequence of Reservoir Dogs. Essentially, Mikey tosses out the obligatory remark, "Tarantino completely bites everything from Scorsese," before the voice of reason, Rob, eventually dismisses the issue with, "Everybody steals from everybody. That's movies." Then, the swingers leave for a party while performing their own intentionally "derivative" slo-mo walk. It's a beautiful Favreau-written moment that will make you weep even more at the awfulness of Couples Retreat. Yet, I digress from the subject at hand, Planet 51, which carries the practice of homage to an extreme. In typical Hollywood fashion, this film pays loving, incestuous tribute to those that came before--The Day the Earth Stood Still, Dr. Strangelove, Star Wars, E.T., and the like -- a feat that Monsters vs. Aliens, despite all of its other faults, managed to pull off without making the audience wish they were watching all of those older films. As an exercise in excess, Planet 51 forgets that "homage" just isn't enough when it comes to a feature film. Sure, everything (is at least slightly) derivative, but a unique take on the subject matter is essential to an audience's enjoyment of a movie. At a certain point, this movie becomes so entrenched within an endless stream of tributes that it cannot exist as anything else; it would be better suited as a cutesy YouTube mashup put together by some guy living in his parents' basement and dreaming of a future in film school, where he will learn to be the next Michael Bay or some shit.

Part of the problem with Planet 51 is that perhaps too many people were calling the shots on this film's production. In the debut picture from Ilion Animation Studios (Madrid), there are already three people at the helm (director Jorge Blanco, along with co-directors Javier Abad and Marcos Martinez), and things have certainly been complicated by the involvement of countless producers (both of the ordinary and executive variety). However, the bulk of the responsibility for Planet 51's obnoxious meta-reference orgy and virtually nonexistent narrative lands upon the scriptwriter, Joe Stillman (Shrek, Beavis and Butthead Do America), who doesn't realize that a movie cannot simply exist as a means to meta-reference one's audience to death. Fatally, Stillman rehashes a well-trod plot with no notable additions, so, when it comes to wondering whether it's worth a trip to the multiplex to see Planet 51, just don't bother. You've seen this all before, and you've seen it done a thousand times better.

On a lesser yet still rather infuriating note, the filmmakers have not only continued to indulge Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's self-imposed imprisonment within kiddieflickland, but some executive got the bright idea to use him only as "voice talent" instead of crafting his character in Johnson's likeness. So, instead of providing any conciliatory eyecandy, the character that houses Johnson's voice ended up looking like Conan O'Brien on steroids and acting like Buzz Lightyear on quaaludes (a "BuzzLite," if you will), which doesn't exactly encourage a flattering twist of audience panties.

Talk about a kick in the ovaries, eh?

As far as a threadbare excuse for a story goes, Planet 51 involves Earth's somewhat cannibalistic search for unoccupied planets. Naturally, the United States wants to lead the way, so an unconvincingly cocksure astronaut named Capt. Charles "Chuck" Baker (Johnson) sets his autopilot for the titular Planet 51. To his dismay, Chuck finds that the planet is populated by rubbery-looking green creatures who, remarkably, speak English and live in a sort of parallel universe to 1950s suburban America. Unfortunately, this civilization also lives in constant fear of imminent invasion of "Humanoids," and their paranoia has been fueled by a series of recent sci-fi movies (does this sound familiar yet?), in which the villainous species delight in feasting upon rubbery green brains. Of course, Chuck is shocked to learn that he is considered an alien to Planet 51's citizens, which is a "twist" that the filmmakers seem to feel is creative enough to form the basis of the rest of the movie, wherein, in the name of scientific research, the "bad guys"--Gen. Grawl (Gary Oldman) and Professor Kipple (John Cleese, who tries but just can't resuscitate a D.O.A. flick) -- chase the "good guy" through various permutations of slapstick action. Somehow, Chuck manages to find an instant ally in Lem (Justin Long), a geeky teenager who works at the planetarium, and Lem's obligatory love interest and pseudo-hottie-green-girl-next-door, Neera (Jessica Biel, ha!). In exchange, Chuck provides some largely ineffective "moves" for Lem to try out on the ladies, and the two work together to help Chuck get back to Earth. Altogether, Planet 51 is an unexciting, perfectly horrid way to waste a theatergoing experience, and all but the most easily impressed children will rue the day that Dwayne Johnson decided to entertain kiddies for a living. Oh, and did I mention the butt plug and acidic pee jokes? Aces.

Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and can be found at agentbedhead.com.


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