Monday, December 14, 2009

Planet 51

When my wife and I went to see Planet 51, it was a Sunday night in the pouring rain. We were the only people in the theater. And that was apt, because we're probably the only adults who actually bothered to see the movie and got all the jokes.

On Planet 51, things are looking up for Lem (Justin Long), an aspiring assistant manager for the local planetarium. He just got the job and he's about to ask out the girl next door, Neera (Jessica Biel). Until an "alien" shows up. And that alien is Captain Charles (Chuck) T. Baker (Dwayne Johnson), a human astronaut.

Chuck, you see, has landed on a planet he thought was uninhabited. His job was to plant a flag, play a few rounds of interplanetary golf, and then get back to his ship and report home. But all those plans are threatened by the military that wants to dissect him, embodied by the sinister General Grawl (Gary Oldman) and the resident mad scientist Professor Kipple (John Cleese).

On the one hand, Planet 51 wants to entertain the kiddies. It features a computer-rendered world full of lush retro-futuristic landscapes rendered through a 1950s lens. It has rocket ships, aliens both benign and belligerent, and not one but TWO cute dogs-that-aren't-dog characters.

On the other hand, Planet 51 wants to be an action homage to the sci-fi of yesteryear. It features characters smooching, gunfire, 50s-style nostalgia, 50s-style paranoia, and references to genitalia.

The problem is that Chuck's kind of a jerk. Put in the role of the kindly extraterrestrial, Chuck can't pull it off – he's not above intimidating people, playing into their worst fears, lying to get what he wants, and his cries of "not having the right stuff" are hard to believe given that he's, ya know, an ASTRONAUT. Lem spends most of the movie whining about not getting the girl, Chuck spends most of the movie whining about not getting home, and the only reason the plot moves forward at all is because Rover (one of the two aforementioned "dogs") saves the day.

In fact, Rover steals the show. Cleverly designed to look like a cross between the Mars rover and a dog, Rover propels the plot on his tiny wheels alone. If the movie was more about Rover and got rid of Chuck, it would have been a much more entertaining film.

Instead, Planet 51 teeters between tedious characters arguing, simplistic moralizing (Lem explains to the General that he's "afraid of the unknown." Really?), and lame side plots that are just mean-spirited (two citizens have their brains removed…hilarious!).

If you're a twelve-year-old boy who happens to remember 1950s science fiction movies, E.T., Populuxe architecture, Aliens, and The Right Stuff, then this movie's for you. But since the odds of that happening are about as realistic as a planet full of half-dressed English-speaking aliens, adults will likely find Planet 51 too childish and the shout-outs to older sci-fi will go over the kids' heads.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Godzilla 2000

I was a big Godzilla fan in the 80s, when the Monster Movie of the Week seemed to play every hour of every day of the week. Although I can't precisely remember every monster and every battle, I fondly remember "Godzy" (as my mom would call him, both of my parents are sci-fi fans) beating the rubbery stuffing out of his opponents. Sometimes he had allies (Rodan), sometimes he had recurring enemies (King Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla) and sometimes he just blew stuff up a lot.

Appreciating a Godzilla movie requires the viewer to adjust his expectations. Godzilla movies aren't about great acting, linear plots, or special effects. The Japanese movie industry understands its audience--if you're going to buy into a gigantic atomic-breathing humanoid lizard, pretty much anything goes. "Anything" includes robots, aliens, robots built by aliens, size-shifting robots (Jet Jaguar ROCKS!) and tiny singing faeries. And don't forget the giant moth.

Trying to make the Godzillaverse make sense is a huge mistake, as evidenced by the failure of the American version of Godzilla in theaters. There's nothing quite like creating a titanic lizard and then not giving him atomic breath because "that just wouldn't make sense." Godzilla 2000 is the Toho studio's response to the American movie. Which is to say it is both better and worse.

By the time we get to Godzilla 2000, the big lug has been around long enough to create two rival investigating forces. On the good guy side we have the Godzilla Prediction Network (GPN) led by Shinoda (Takehiro Murata) and his daughter Io (Mayu Suzuki). The GPN team (if you can call them that) is accompanied by Yuki (Naomi Nishida), who is trying to get a good picture of Godzilla for the local newspaper. Ironically, nobody can get a good close-up of Godzilla because he emits enough radiation to ruin photography. Which really does make one wonder...shouldn't just being in proximity to Godzilla fry every human being in a hundred mile radius?

The bad guys consist of the Crisis Control Intelligence (CCI) agency, led by Katagiri (Hiroshi Abe). The two groups have a bit of history: Shinoda used to work for the CCI before he left due to their "violent tendencies." Where GPN seeks to examine and understand Godzilla for the good of mankind, the CCI wants to blow him up into big, radioactive chunks.

Much of the movie centers on this philosophical argument as to how to treat Godzilla. It's pretty clear that Godzilla doesn't care either way, as he comes rampaging ashore in a quest to find Japan's power sources. Why? Because in a not very subtle way, Godzilla is a parallel for the dangers of atomic weapons. At least he was, when Godzilla first graced the screen. Godzilla is the result of our warmongering and he retaliates with a vengeance by attacking atomic plants.

The CCI takes the direct approach, accepting any human casualties that might be necessary to take Godzilla head on. Tanks, mines, armor-piercing missiles...none of it works, because Godzilla regenerates at incredibly high speed. That little tidbit of information greatly interests the GPN, who names Godzilla's DNA (Regenerator-1) and seeks to use it to save humanity. Well, maybe eventually. In another movie.

The unearthing of a meteorite by the CCI eventually interrupts Godzilla's rampage. Sure enough, the meterorite, which is millions of years old, awakens when touched by light. And that meteor is in reality an alien spacecraft with DNA mimicking capabilities. It immediately makes a beeline for Godzilla.

This alien being/ship is known as Orga, and it goes through several phases. First it starts out as a particularly feminine looking saucer. Then it transforms, for about thirty seconds, into a large jellyfish. This scene is so short and irrelevant to the movie that it seems like something was cut. Finally, Orga turns into a big guy in a rubber suit. And then we're back to the Godzilla movies from the 80s, where guys in suits slap each other silly until one of them falls down.

Godzilla has been redesigned for this film to make him look more feral looking. For the most part, it works. His dorsal spikes are particularly vicious, his fangs jut out over his lips, and his eyes are perpetually fixed in a cruel glare. Orga, on the other hand, looks ridiculous. He's a big, floppy-fisted monster with barely enough motion to move his gigantic oversized claws.

I never appreciated the physical acting required for Godzilla. When it's a rubber suit, the emotion that can be conveyed must be over-the-top pantomiming. This actor doesn't have it.

Godzilla has arms. Past Godzilla movies have made sure Godzilla ripped things apart with his claws, mauled his opponents, or twitched in agitation. This version of Godzilla doesn't have much to do but sort of wave his arms around slightly. It makes him look pretty foolish when he's trying to be scary or in pain.

The other problem, and this is a big one, is how Godzilla uses his breath weapon. In other Godzilla movies, he reared backwards and you got the sense that breathing atomic fire took a lot of effort. When the flames blew out of his mouth, it seemed like a true exhalation of atomic destruction. In this movie, Godzilla looks vaguely constipated, waves his head about, and then the flames sort of fall out of his mouth.

Throughout the first half of the movie there is some amusing dialogue (or at least, amusing translations), some real moments of tension, and a lot of human stupidity. During the second half, the humans stand around and watch the city get blown up real good.

Of all the characters, Katagiri steals the show. When staring down Godzilla eye-to-eye, Katagiri simply lights a cigarette and says "I've never been this close to Godzilla before." But as well all know, nobody stares Godzilla in the eye and walks away without glowing.

The movie spirals into bizarre territory at the end, with Orga trying to absorb Godzilla, who strangely complies (there's a whole Orga/female Godzilla/male thing going on too, ICK). Scientists spout about Regenerator-1 genes, military generals philosophize about aliens from outer space, and Shinoda tells his daughter in a voice over about how Godzilla keeps protecting humanity because there's a little bit of him in all of us...

Meanwhile, in the background, Godzilla sets the entire city ablaze with his radioactive breath.

This movie is more like two movies, bridging the original Godzilla film with the later Monsterama battles that Godzilla has become known for. In fact, it's more a homage to all the Godzilla films that went before. All in all, a worthy successor to the Godzilla series and certainly more respectful of its origins than the American version.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Day the Earth Stood Still

The original movie version of The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of my father's all time favorite movies. A science fiction classic that permanently embedded the catch phrase "klaatu barada nikto" into the geek lexicon, the first film was a parable about the Cold War. Both the producer and director were criticized for the liberal themes of the film, which promoted world peace and a draw down of military hostilities. The "standing still" of the world was a reference to all electrical systems on Earth freezing for a half hour, with the exception of critical systems. In short, the movie's message was thought provoking, intended to begin a discussion about American policies.

The remake is no different (spoiler alerts abound). This new version features a hostile military led by Regina Jackson (the stalwart Kathy Bates), the monotone human-like alien (Keanu Reeves as Klaatu), an aggrieved scientist widow (the beautiful Jennifer Connelly) and her angry son (played by Jaden Smith). This new version pokes viewers with a stick: the Benson patriarch died in Iraq; the president's response to an alien invasion is openly hostile; and the Message is no longer about the Cold War but Global Warming. In other words: the movie's message is thought provoking, intended to begin a discussion about American policies.

But is it a good movie? Overall, the film bulks up special effects, smoothes over some of the rough edges from the original, and does its best to translate the original to modern sensibilities. GORT now stands for Genetically Organized Robot Technology, is a giant nanotechnology war machine, and the descending globes of light are arks to save the Earth. The computer graphics are outstanding.

The acting, not so much. Reeves sleepwalks through his role, which, while not inappropriate, doesn't stretch his acting chops either. Klaatu is suitably creepy as a blank-faced drone, but difficult to sympathize with as he becomes more human. Connelly has little to do besides plead at the camera with her eyes. Smith comes off as recalcitrant and unlikable, a weakness in the child actor who represents the sum of humanity's relationship. The sole stand out is John Cleese as Professor Karl Barnhardt, projecting a level of warmth and kindness that's we rarely see on screen. If I had to pick a person to argue for humanity's survival, Cleese would be an excellent choice.

The ending feels sloppy. GORT transforms from a giant robot (scary!) to a hissing swarm of metal locusts (biblical, but not as scary). The biblical parallels continue with Klaatu's birth and sacrifice, but the film seems conflicted as to how to wrap things up. The movie concludes with the Earth standing still, permanently – hospital machines and airplanes be damned.

Whether or not you agree with the movie's tenets is moot. If you're nodding your head or rolling your eyes then this version, like the original before it, did its job. But in comparison, the original has better acting and a tighter plot.