The Adventures of Pluto Nash

The Adventures of Pluto Nash. Castle Rock Entertainment 2002.

Before watching the movie:

I was vaguely aware of this movie coming out, and it looked vaguely interesting, but I couldn’t really tell much about it from what I saw. This poster, which is just about all the promotional material I saw at the time, tells you that it stars Eddie Murphy, that he’s having adventures on the moon, and it looks vaguely like throwback to the Flash Gordon serials.

This has since become known as one of Eddie Murphy’s biggest flops, which is a distinction with a lot of competition from the 90s through the 00s. I always got the idea it was either not the movie audiences wanted it to be or didn’t hit the tone it was trying for, or both. I can certainly see Summer 2002 being a very bad time for an homage/parody of 30s pulp sci-fi.

After watching the movie:

The moon has been fully colonized by 2080, and the largest colony is known as Little America. Pluto Nash, a convicted smuggler, takes over his friend Anthony Frankowski’s failed polka bar so that the bookies he took a loan from don’t pour battery acid down his throat and turns it into the most popular nightclub on the Earthside of the moon. Seven years later, Dina Lake, who came to the moon for a singing job at a club that was closed by the time she arrived and can’t afford to get home, comes to Pluto for a job as a favor to her father, an old business associate. Goons for Rex Crater, the owner of the only casino on the dark side of the moon, the only place where gambling is legal, come to Pluto to order him to sell his club, as gambling will soon become legal on the Earthside and Crater plans to buy up all the clubs so no one else can become competition. Pluto refuses, and Crater’s men bomb the club, though Pluto, Dina, and Pluto’s antiquated robot bodyguard Bruno escape and shake the hitmen after Pluto and anyone with him.

The organized crime story is definitely much more modern than what they would have been telling in the midcentury, at least in the scifi genre. I kept feeling like I was seeing a smaller version of Total Recall, like it was something that wanted to be Total Recall but didn’t have the resources to actually achieve it. From reading a bit about the production of the movie (it was stuck in development for almost 20 years, there’s your throwback!), it was meant as a comedy but once Murphy joined the project he kept asking for the script to be less comedic and more like a Stallone action movie to give him room to improvise the humor back into it. That kind of direction seems to have led to a movie that isn’t completely sure what it wants to be. It’s kind of just an action movie that uses the mob plot as an excuse to run through a sci-fi world that isn’t quite as big as it wants to be, and the jokes are never as funny as they want to be because Murphy is the only one who’s allowed to be funny.

The style really is all over the place. Whatever this is, this isn’t a 30s film serials throwback or even a 2000s pastiche of them. The fashion is very lightly modified to not at all modified from what was in style in the early 2000s, but the props feel a bit more like they’re trying to be futuristic, and the sets and setpieces look like they skimmed a book on what the early to mid-20th century thought the future would look like and then grunged it up. There’s a kind of look to a lot of late 90s/early 2000s theatrical sci-fi that, while I can’t quite figure out what causes it, for me the constructed sets destroy immersion in a way that’s more irritating than the plywood sets of the 60s and 70s. They don’t look low budget, but they look medium-budget, like they had enough money that I shouldn’t be getting this distracted by it. It feels like there’s something un-cinematic about the lens geometry or film stock too, so maybe they’re using television set design techniques that fall apart for film cameras?

The movie also equivocates a bit about the AIs of this world. Bruno often is the most sympathetic character but he’s also often the main punching bag. We’re supposed to disapprove of how Pluto treats him but also laugh at it. At one point Pluto says that of course Bruno doesn’t care how Pluto treats him because Pluto programmed him to always be smiling, even though the reason it came up is because Bruno’s smile often seems to be more of a grimace. Other robots seem more limited but their programs seem to be shackles on top of more natural personalities. There’s a female robot Pluto forgot he left in his smuggling hideout that was left running a “drop the duster, bend way over picking it up” program, but when Bruno makes a pass at her, she slaps him. A stolen car’s holographic chauffeur whinges about everything and Pluto tries to be diplomatic but also nobody seems to have any qualms about leaving him yelling for help in a pile of scrap that used to be the car when the bad guys blow it up. That was the main thing that made me uncomfortable about the worldbuilding. Just like in Star Wars, the synthetic beings are slaves, but this keeps going out of its way to highlight that, expecting to get a laugh from it. For good measure, it does the same with clones, including one thrown in as an unexpected twist that barely makes sense but also opens a can of worms about identity and character that this movie is entirely not interested in exploring.

This movie is not one that I enjoyed very much first watching it in 2023. But for the few who saw it in 2002, especially the ones who were about the age I was, I can honestly see this being a sentimental if problematic favorite. A plagued production full of missteps, but I think it would not necessarily have been received quite so poorly if the studio had had the courage to market it properly, or if it had had the opportunity to be released into the market climate it had been produced in expectation of. It could have been great, but it had so many albatrosses on its neck.

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