Planet 51 (PG)

Review Date: November 19th, 2009

I hope that if alien cultures are monitoring our entertainment, they take a pass on the film Planet 51. It may reverse the human/alien traditional roles by having the human astronaut be the fish out of water on an alien planet, but xenophobia stopped being a funny or useful plot device by the mid-'80s. Any mildly cognizant alien intelligences would take one look at this movie and decide to check back on the human race in another hundred years.

Justin Long plays Lem, just another awkward teenager, a role Long is too long-in-the-tooth to play in person anymore, but shortly, he could (and very well may) make a career out of doing it in voice work. Lem wants to be an astronomer and is vying for a job at the local observatory. He wants to score with neighborhood hottie Neera (Jessica Biel), but he can never quite muster up the confidence to make his move. His friends, obsessed with comics and science fiction movies of the googly-eyed alien invasion ilk, aren't helping either. The catch is that these are all green-skinned, tentacle-haired, no-genitaled aliens on a distant planet who, without a hint of explanation, are living their lives parallel to Earth's 1950s.

Lem is finally starting to get his game on when his life is turned upside down by the inconvenient entry of Captain Charles "Chuck" Baker (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson). Chuck is a human being and an astronaut who has landed his ship on the titular planet expecting something more barren, only to find himself on the run from a culture living in fear of invasion because of a popular series of alien invasion films. His only help to get back to his module and dock with his mother ship in orbit before his countdown runs out (?) is Lem and his group of nerdy friends. Adventure ostensibly ensues and lessons are eventually learned by all: The cowardly Lem learns self-confidence, the arrogant Chuck learns humility, and we're all supposed to learn tolerance towards those different from us. Unfortunately, the only lesson actually imparted here is to be more careful when choosing an animated sci-fi film on which to spend your money.

While the premise here -- turning a cliché on its head -- shows promise, Planet 51 has only switched the players. Every dumb alien joke since E.T. flew in front of the moon (and, of course, that's here too) is included in the unimaginative script, penned by the presumably sleep-writing Joe Stillman (Shrek, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America). There's not even anything fun and fast-paced here to take advantage of the animated CG format and make up for the crushing boredom. Why even do this sort of thing without an eye-candy chase scene or two?

The cast members, as talented as they may be, fare no better with the nothing they're given. Johnson sounds as if he was reading a children's book out loud to kindergarteners and it's exhausting listening to him pander. Long is going through the same ol' motions that have made up the majority of his career thus far, and Biel is ridiculously unnecessary since she is given practically nothing to say or do. You'd think appearances by John Cleese as an alien scientist or Gary Oldman as the general leading the search for Chuck would bring some creative juices or some (sadly lacking) clever humor to the affair, but they never manage to get past the tedious nature of the material written for them.

If there was ever an animated film that needed a clever punch-up team, it's this one. Planet 51 lacks both style AND substance, which is surprising given the wealth of opportunities you'd think would be presented here. Perhaps first-time Spanish director Jorge Blanco and new Madrid-based studio Ilion Animation were overconfident about making a children's film. All I can think is that they must have assumed this was going straight to DVD anyway and no one would notice. Planet 51 deserves to be packed up in a dusty crate in a corner of the Area 51 warehouse, never to be seen again. rated this film 1 star.