There's No Intelligent Life on Planet 51

Planet 51 has an intriguing premise, promising advance clips, and acid-piddling dog straight out of Alien. But none of that can save a rambling movie that's never quite sure where it's going.

Planet 51's tragedy is that it could have been a decent movie. It starts off with a neat premise: on a distant planet, there is an alien civilization that strongly resembles 1950s Americas — right down to everyone speaking English and grooving to The Chordettes. They even have a love for alien invasion movies, and, through a remarkable stroke of coincidence, the scifi franchise du jour is titled Humaniacs and features a monster that looks like an astronaut. Into this world plunges Captain Chuck Baxter, a middling US astronaut who has been sent to explore the planet (which NASA mistakenly believed was uninhabited) and suddenly finds that, on this world, he is the alien. Naturally chaos ensues. The movie also has some endearing and well-animated characters, especially in rock-craving robot Rover, and a Xenomorph-shaped dog that pees acid. The early clips promised a fun, if light, movie filled with cute science fiction references.

The problem is, Planet 51 has no idea what it's precisely about. Sure, it has a plot: a teenager named Lem has to help get Chuck back to his ship and off the planet before the military captures him and removes his brain (and, hopefully, without ruining Lem's life in the process). But it has the feel of a movie written by committee: too many ideas stuffed in and not enough fat trimmed off. Planet 51 tries to be about so many different things that it ends up being about nothing at all. Is it about the dangers of automatically attacking that which we don't understand? How the media makes us suggestible and paranoid? What it's like to learn that the universe is much larger than you ever imagined? Or is it about having the cojones to take risks and do the things you dream of doing? Okay, so the pants-less aliens have no visible cojones, but you get the point. And this lack of a center is symptomatic in the film's cast of predictable stock characters. Only the dog-like characters get any bite.

Even the jokes are just so much spaghetti thrown at the wall. Crude jokes about alien probes are mixed in with references to classic science fiction films, and great swaths of the film rely on forgettable sequences of slapstick. The odd joke hits, but when it does, it's just a solitary joke, and doesn't contribute anything to the movie as a whole. And, though it's a ostensibly kids movie, the rare jokes that elicited laughs went over the younger viewers' heads. During the viewing I attended, the audience laughed in unison just once — at a penis joke.

There are certain sins that children's films can sometimes get away with because they're geared toward younger viewers: being too busy or too cloying, or having a wearying or simplistic sense of humor. But Planet 51's problems are far deeper: it's a film that simply never engages, and for a science fiction film, leaves us with depressingly little to think about after it's over. Do yourself a favor and, instead of seeing Planet 51, watch these clips and pretend you've seen the entire movie. You'll be better off for it.