Through the same mysterious alchemy that gave the moviegoing public back-to-back CGI insect adventures (A Bug’s Life and Antz), deep-sea fish adventures (Finding Nemo and Shark Tale), and films about escaped zoo animals returning to nature (Madagascar and The Wild), 2009 has produced two films about peaceful alien civilizations disrupted by human invaders. The first, May’s Battle For Terra, was a cheaply animated but heady, ponderous think-piece about the nature of humanity and the causes of war. The second, the new comic adventure Planet 51, is Terra’s opposite in every way. Its visuals are far more sophisticated; its concepts, far less so. Planet 51 makes a few brief gestures in the direction of Terra’s ideas, but largely, it’s a jellybean of a movie: bright, colorful, sugary, and with no real content.
On a planet stuck in a kitschy version of the ’50s, dippy teen every-alien Lem (Justin Long) has an easygoing life until a smarmy pink biped from another planet lands a ship on his neighbors’ lawn and tries to claim it in the name of something called America. Since Lem’s society has a ’50s-era obsession with sci-fi pulp entertainment, the media and military completely freak out, assuming human astronaut Captain Baker (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is necessarily a mind-controlling, brain-devouring, planet-conquering monster. When a starchy general (Gary Oldman) and a kooky mad scientist (John Cleese) attempt to capture Baker, Lem grits his teeth and tries to do the right thing by helping him, even though he’s a dimwitted, manipulative douche.
The humans-are-the-aliens turnaround is amusing, but there’s no theme or thought to the movie, just a series of soft-pedaled jokes. Screenwriter Joe Stillman worked on Shrek and Shrek 2, and he piles on the Shrek-esque sight gags without any sense that he understands anything he evokes: It’s fitfully funny to see atomic-age “duck and cover” drills, space-age-paranoia movies, and a protest-leading stoner hippie in an alien setting, but on a world that doesn’t have atomic weapons, space exploration, pot, or Vietnam, it’s all just shallow, unimaginatively borrowed iconography. Nothing about the story goes any deeper than “Hey, remember that? Here it is again, with green skin and tentacles!” Granted, they’re well-animated tentacles: The whole film has a beautifully soft, rounded, luminous design, with a lot of Shrek-like attention to jokey detail. But the characters are irritatingly inconsistent—Baker in particular is by turns brave, cowardly, smart, idiotic, deluded, and insightful, as the weak witticism of the moment demands—and the whole film doesn’t have a brain in its head. Or rather, it has the colorful, creative right brain to Battle For Terra’s dryly analytical left brain. If only the two could be squashed into a single movie that’s pretty and ambitious.