We waited with excitement and anticipation to see this clever and funny story about a human astronaut who lands on what was supposed to be a deserted planet, only to find it populated with an up-and-coming xenophobic alien civilization. We were so ready to be entertained and delighted. We were so surprised.
Planet 51’s story, set in an alien world’s version of 1957, is seen through the eyes of Lem, an alien teenager who’s trying to make his way in life. An off-worlder sets his spaceship down in the boy’s backyard, and, by extreme coincidence, looks exactly like the monsters in the alien invasion movie playing at the theater downtown. He sets off an alien invasion panic upon his arrival, and it’s up to the teenager to get him safely out of trouble. Sounds okay, doesn’t it?
Dwayne Johnson does a great job as Captain Chuck Baker, the American astronaut, and Justin Long is very astute in his characterization of Lem, the teenage alien.
The problem lies in the writing. Lem’s story of teen angst in the ’50s is so hackneyed and worn out that I found myself praying for the spaceship to land! And it takes a long time for that to happen. Captain Baker’s dialog, when he finally does arrive, is so cartoonish, so aimed at a quick laugh, that the story’s viability immediately evaporates. Because his reactions aren’t realistic, it’s hard to willingly suspend disbelief. I found myself thinking “but, an astronaut wouldn’t DO that” over and over again. The story needed a strong central character to carry forward its sense of urgency, but never found it. Without that urgency, I found I no longer really cared what happened to anybody. I believe the film’s message was supposed to have been “believe in yourself”. Unfortunately, the message I got was “run from the un-listening, close-minded establishment cops before they blast you.” I felt like I was watching a half-hour Comedy Network screamer, slowed down and drawn out.
The only relief from this “same old monster movie” is the arrival of Professor Kipple, ably played by John Cleese. The dark humor surrounding his desire to remove people’s brains…he is successful twice in this story…falls flat, as the unwilling patients are a couple of cheerful, amiable fellows. They’re rather charming in their simplicity, making the removal of their brains seem cruel and brutal, bordering on child abuse. It was very most definitely not pleasant.
So, see Planet 51 for the art, for the music, see it for the amusing glimpse into what 1957 might look like on another planet. Just don’t expect a great movie.