Planet 51

Planet 51. TriStar Pictures 2009.

Before watching the movie:

I vaguely recall the publicity for this movie at the time, and it didn’t particularly interest me then. The concept of extraterrestrials reacting to an astronaut from Earth as an alien invasion plot turned inside out was moderately intriguing, but it didn’t particularly call out to me at the time. Animation outside of Disney and Pixar (and sometimes them as well) at the time struck a tone that didn’t really connect with me, and still doesn’t. But as that tone was almost obligatory for the market of the day, it was probably exaggerated in the advertisements and this has the potential to be more in line with what does appeal to me.

I didn’t even know that the astronaut is played by Dwayne Johnson. The character design even looks a little bit like a redheaded reimagining of Johnson, how his appearance (and race) would have to change to fit the classic image of space race NASA astronauts. Or I may just be very bad with faces.

After watching the movie:

On a planet where green-skinned extraterrestrials have mastered levitation but are culturally similar to the US 1950s, they believe they have learned all there is to learn about space, which is almost 500 miles across. While pop culture is saturated with B-movies and pulpy comics about the “Humaniacs”, invaders from another world with one big eyeball under glass and mind control powers, Lem, as a planetarium professional, no longer believes in such goofy ideas, to the chagrin of his fanatic friends. Then a spaceship from earth lands in Lem’s neighbor’s yard, and the inhabitant turns up hiding in the planetarium, where Lem finds him. Chuck Baker isn’t at all what society has taught Lem to expect from aliens. He’s conceited, selfish, and completely incapable of firing ray beams or hypnotizing people. He’s also going to be marooned on a planet that wants to capture and study him if he doesn’t get back to his ship before the autopilot takes off. Lem’s decision to help sneak Chuck past the military guard further complicates his inability to get a relationship off the ground with the girl of his dreams Neera, who’s recently started hanging out with a counterculture slacker named Glar. With Lem’s comic shop friend Skiff and neighbor kid Eckle, Lem and Chuck will have to find a way to evade General Grawl, who intends to keep the world safe from the alien at all costs.

In tone, this story reminds me a lot of Disney’s Chicken Little, released about a production cycle before it. That probably comes a lot from more superficial elements, but the neighborhood kids getting into an alien adventure and clashing with the adults who think they know best is a clear point of comparison. Arguably it has more DNA in common with The Iron Giant, as the “alien” is friendly and the young hero is a kid with a background in sci-fi fandom set in a Cold War aesthetic, but it comes off as more like the former.

It bothers me from a story perspective that Neera is more of a macguffin than character until the third act and then she’s part of the team. We haven’t really gotten to know anything about her except that she’s been waiting for Lem to spit it out and gotten into Glar’s parody protest group. I don’t even recall anything she particularly contributed to the final act except presumably being a contact for getting Glar involved in the plan, but I can see why they wanted to include her. It’s just everything around her joining the group doesn’t add much. On the other hand, there was a lot more character arc for Chuck than I expected.

A lot of the world design is very well done in evoking a look and a feel, but some choices are a bit heavy handed. The evasion of straight lines and corners is nice, but I don’t see a point to all books having a large loop in the top corner except to make them look alien. The b-movie/pulp aesthetic of the Humaniac media is very well done. I get the sense that they may have intended to do more with it than ultimately fit in the movie.

I don’t think this is going to end up on any lists of classics outside of those made by people who saw it as kids, but this is a fun movie with more to say than I expected, and hits all its beats more than competently. Most of the big name cast blend in better than one might think as well. This movie is just a great adventure with some throwback elements thrown in for some extra flavor.

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