Movie review: Little life on ‘Planet 51’

Al Alexander

Just when you thought animated sci-fi couldn’t get any worse than “Astro Boy,” along comes the insipid “Planet 51” to blow it out of the galaxy.

The film, a nadir in the genre of alien-human role reversal, is little more than a floating mass of space junk filtered through the porous minds of lazy, unimaginative filmmakers who think pop-culture jokes are the center of the universe.

It’s so bad, the script’s repeat references to brain removal become more of a prerequisite for viewing than a running gag. Gag being the operative word, because that’s exactly what you do every time the film’s trio of talent-starved directors fills the screen with sappy uplift and cacophonous action that’s likely to spur more migraines than excitement.

The worst part is that “Planet 51” began as a promising idea in which an earthling is the invader, and the paranoid but peace-loving creatures from another world are the frightened masses. Unfortunately, writer Joe Stillman takes that seed and buries it under a mountain of clichés.

The result is something akin to a Flintstoneian alternative universe, where 1950s America is imposed on a long distant culture. In this case, it’s a planet billions of miles from Earth in a sleepy little burg called Glipforg.

It’s a Utopian community in which every one is the same color (green) and apparently worships the same god.

It’s into this passive fascist society that dim-witted astronaut Capt. Chuck Baker sets his interplanetary ship down, immediately stirring the wrath of the military and a pint-sized scientist with an enlarged cranium.

They all want Chuck’s brain – what there is of one, anyway. And they just might get it unless Chuck’s new pal, a nerdy teen astronomer named Lem, can keep the Chuckster and his adorable robotic cohort, Rover, hidden away.

If that notion sounds familiar, it’s because it’s stolen directly out of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” and it’s just one of a dozen sci-fi classics “Planet 51” pilfers in a story that plays more like “The Day the Brain Stood Still.”

And that brain belongs to Stillman, assuming he retains pride in ownership. And he’s not about to exert it by being clever or innovative. At least he’s consistent, always taking the path of least resistance, like making sure the folks in Glipforg conveniently speak the same language as Chuck (English) and consume products bearing the familiar names of Volkswagen, Kellogg’s and Twix. Gee, I guess corporations really are universal.

What I don’t understand is how hippies and microbuses made their way into a society that’s supposed to mirror 1950s America and all the unfounded fear and paranoia that goes with it. Oh, that’s right, we’re not supposed to think or question the logic of “Planet 51’s” unfearless leaders.

Apparently inconsistency is part of the game plan, seeing how it also encompasses the voice talent, headed by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Chuck and Justin Long as Lem. Curiously, Johnson drops the “The Rock” from his screen credit, presumably because he drops the ball on his character by turning him into a monotonous, monosyllabic dullard.

No wonder Long sounds so bored. In fact, the entire cast – including Gary Oldman as the general, John Cleese as the mad scientist, Jessica Biel as Lem’s love interest and Seann William Scott as Lem’s best pal – sounds like it’s caught in a malaise. And who could blame them? All they do is spout inanities.

The only thing less imaginative is the animation, which is flat and surprisingly uncolorful. And the characters, except for Chuck and Rover, all look like they were transplanted from a Dr. Seuss book.

Such thievery borders on a sacrilege, but that should come as no surprise given how we’re dealing with filmmakers who think “anal probe” jokes fresh. I just hope they’re smart enough to know where to stick them.

PLANET 51 (PG for mild sci-fi action and some suggestive humor) Featuring the voices of Dwayne Johnson, Justin Long, Jessica Biel, Gary Oldman, Seann William Scott and John Cleese. Co-directed by Jorge Blanco, Javier Abad and Marcos Martinez. 1 star out of 4.

Patriot Ledger writer Al Alexander may be reached