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December 3rd, 2009:

Review: Planet 51

Planet51.jpgThere’s concept, and there’s execution. You need both to make a truly terrific work of fiction, whether on film or in text. I had high expectations for Planet 51, and the concept did not disappoint me: A loopy twist on the classic alien monster movies of the 1950s…except that this time, we’re the aliens, landing on a planet full of…1950s aliens.

Or, let’s say, 1950s aliens living in an alien analog of 1950s small-town America. As with the 2005 animated film Robots, there’s an alien analog to just about everything Earthish: Malt shops, bowling alleys, poodle skirts, backyard barbecues, and hovering alien ’59 Caddies. There are 50’s alien monster movies, and 50s paranoia, here directed against…aliens. Somewhere off in the desert is a mythic alien Secret Base a la Men In Black, where dozens of captured robotic space probes from Earth are kept under glass domes. Into the thick of all this lands a souped-up Lunar Excursion Module containing an oafish, self-involved square-jawed astronaut, who is surprised that Planet 51 is inhabited, and is as terrified of its innocuous green noseless inhabitants as they are of him. His arrival triggers the awakening of a 6-wheeled robotic rover named Rover, which handily dismantles the dome under which he’s been stored, and then goes looking for his master, NASA Capt. Chuck Baker.

Is that a great concept or what? Alas, for all the great ideas and great artwork, somehow it doesn’t completely gel. Much could be done with an astronaut who realizes (as Chuck Baker eventually does) that he’s simply baggage strapped into a completely automated spacecraft, and that it’s not about him. Too bad that nothing is; Baker is drawn as an idiot, but somehow isn’t even true to that time-honored Hollywood template. Is he an astronaut, a lounge lizard, or a motivational speaker? (I got the impression that the scriptwriters couldn’t quite agree on who or what he was.) The alien characters are fun because they’re just barefoot green 50s suburbanites (the women all have built-in high heels) doing 50s things, and even listening to 50s music. It’s a stretch, but this is a cartoon movie, and for the most part the alien side of things works. Teen alien Lem debates with his comic-store geek friend Skiff about the existence of, well, aliens. (I.e., humans.) Skiff is sure that we’re out here; Lem can’t take any of it seriously, at least until he has to hide Capt. Baker in his bedroom. Lem pines over alien girl Neera, whose growing sensitivity to social issues prompts her to hang out with a group of protesters led by a long-haired, guitar toting alien hippie jerk named Glar. (Bzzzzzt! Hippies had not yet evolved in 1959, and the friction between the two cultures suggest something more like 1965 than 1959.) Once knowledge of Baker’s landing escapes the boundaries of sleepy alien town Glipforg, the alien army converges on the town, under cool, sunglassed Patton-archetyped General Grawl, and acts pretty much like the US Army acts in all those 50s alien monster movies.

rover1.jpgThe film is carried largely by the brilliant little robot Rover, who acts like a very bright dog with a power screwdriver, and gets most of the good sight gags and physical humor, including a surreal riff on “Singin’ in the Rain,” as it rains…rocks. (Rover’s job is to pick up rocks, like any good interplanetary probe. Alien rain is thus a species of nirvana for him.)

There are some good laughs here, though not as many as I wanted. The mandatory cultural references come thick and fast, some of them so subtle that if you blink you’ll miss them. The big negative is that Baker’s character is almost entirely wasted, even as a comedic figure. I also think some of the potty humor was over the line, or at least it would have been when I was a 12-year-old.

But hey, it was good (if not completely clean) fun. I have a special fondness for Rover, because he was pretty much how I imagined a character in one of my published stories: a clever and lonely Mars probe also named Rover. (See “Bathtub Mary” in my collection Souls in Silicon.) Burger King actually has a Planet 51 tie-in going on right now, and if I could force myself to eat at Burger King I could get a Rover toy for my bookshelf. (I’ve done worse for less, so we’ll see…)

Cautiously recommended.