The Ecch Files
Planet 51 is basically your standard-issue brightly colored mostly flavorless computer animated 3-D feature. Its one semi-clever conceit: instead of an alien lost in a human world (can you say 'Spielberg' quickly twenty times without gagging?) we have human astronaut Chuck Baker (Dwayne Johnson) lost in a world of vaguely green men.
Half a point to the writers for originality; two extra bonus points to whoever in the audience points out that the idea is actually not that original--Charlton Heston's arrogant, self-absorbed astronaut found himself lost in a world of non-humans in Franklin J. Schaffner's Planet of the Apes (1968). Come to think of it, the earlier picture was a lot funnier--not as much slapstick but a keener sense of satire, not to mention it spawned a film series that brought the story full circle, with a hyperintelligent chimpanzee growing up in a world of hostile humans.
Tim Burton remade Schaffner's film in 2001 and while a lot of critics were not a fan, I think it's very much underrated--not only does it have a lush color palette, it takes Schaffner's ode to persecuted paranoia and transforms it into a sonnet for interspecies sensuality. As for this picture, I can't see it spawning any sequel, much less a remake, much less a franchise that would bring anything to a full anything else.
So far so not funny. Once the initial joke has worn off we're left with the tired plot of the wise father figure teaching insecure teen hero how to puff up the chest and pick up girls (for the record, Baker's technique deserves a slap across the face for sheer cheesiness). Some gags make one want to scratch one's head (Baker convinces two dim soldiers he's taken over their minds); some are mildly amusing (the villainous general (Gary Oldman) assigns every soldier a soldier to shoot in case the human takes over their minds). None are offensively stupid, though I'd have appreciated something sexist or racist or tasteless or whatever--to tee me off enough that I could stay awake.
As in the tradition of second-class computer animated pictures like Ice Age or Bolt or this, the supporting characters upstage the main. Ice Age had its superdetermined squirrel, Bolt its superpowerful gerbil; this picture has two--a wheeled robot named “Rover” that acts like a dog (if they really wanted it to act like a dog, it should hump someone's leg), and a leashed pet that resembles H.R. Giger's alien (pees acid, too). Not saying these two creatures are actually interesting (I prefer my Rover in the shape of a large, semi-inflated beach ball), but sitting there in the dark for so long like a helpless convict you have to have something to focus on, help pass the time.
Man on the loose, man hunted down, man alone in a world out to get him--one can do so many things with the subject, one in fact remembers so many examples in noir or science fiction one wonders what on earth the filmmakers were thinking. What made them look upon the genre and say “Hm. This could use yet another computer-animated family comedy”? One wants the loneliness, the terror of being chased, of having no friends, family resources, of being the only difference in a world of homogeneity. Having Dwayne Johnson clown around and flash shiny teeth at a club full of blue-haired aliens does not inspire terror, or laughter, or much of anything--a mild queasiness, at most.
More than this picture, more than Franklin J. Schaffner's adaptation of Pierre Boulle's classic (or Burton's remake of the same), there is one science-fiction novel that perfectly encapsulates the man-against-the-world predicament: Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, where one man (Robert Neville) survives a pandemic that has turned everyone else into vampires. Talk about loneliness, or terror--Matheson dwells on Neville's endless supplies of canned and stored food, his countless weapons and security measures, all the better to emphasize the hopelessness of his situation: he's the last man on Earth. When he goes, that's it, game over, the end.
None of the film adaptations have properly adapted the novel, though Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow's 1964 The Last Man on Earth comes closest with its eerie atmosphere and moody black-and-white cinematography, especially in the early scenes. All versions have fudged the novel's ending, when Neville realizes his true position in relation to the planet and the new society inhabiting it, and the full meaning of the book's title comes out. That kind of realization, that complete and utter inversion of one's complacent way of thinking, that leading the reader (or viewer) carefully, step by logical step, to the crucial conceptual breakthrough, that's what real science fiction is all about. This on the other hand is mainly proof that yes, even Spanish filmmakers (in this case,Jorge Blanco and Javier Abad) are perfectly capable of creating a ninety-minute, nondescript, Hollywood-style pain in the rear.
First published in Businessworld, 12.04.09