An alien lands on our planet. Citizens respond in fear, while the military desperately searches for it with plans to dissect the creature for scientific study. Meanwhile, the alien hides out in suburbia and befriends a local boy, who tries to help the creature find a way back home.

Sounds like the outline for E.T. and numerous other movies, right? Planet 51 follows the formula with one key alteration: This time, man is the alien who finds himself the target of fear and paranoia on another inhabited planet.

It's a simple premise that has intriguing potential—a fish-out-of-water comedy with Star Trek-styled ideals concerning the perils of prejudice and paranoia. Unfortunately, Planet 51 aims low, lazily relying on all-too-familiar clichés from every sci-fi and animated feature you've ever seen.

Lem (voiced by Justin Long) and astronaut Chuck (Dwayne Johnson)

Lem (voiced by Justin Long) and astronaut Chuck (Dwayne Johnson)

The movie's opening scene is its most clever, depicting a standard '50s sci-fi B-movie—a War of the Worlds-styled monster flick involving a teen couple at "Make-Out Point," the giant one-eyed monster that terrorizes them, and the massive alien warship using disintegrator rays to annihilate the army. But all the main characters are in silhouette; a few minutes later, they're finally lit well enough for us to note the green skin, webbed feet, antennae, and lack of a nose.

These actors are clearly not human—nor are the moviegoers watching. Then we cut to life outside the theater, which resembles '50s suburbia with picket fences, neighborly citizens, and a pristine town square resembling the one in Back to the Future. You'd swear it was Earth—if it weren't for the green-skinned citizens, the friendly dog that looks like the Alien creature, and the fact that it rains rocks instead of water.

Life is certainly familiar on Planet 51, and that's one of the chief problems: It's too familiar. Why has this planet so improbably evolved into a mirror of American culture? I guessed it had something to do with Earth's satellites influencing the planet, but as revealed in the movie, the army has quarantined such probes, so there's no way the alien culture could have observed and mimicked us in that way.

The town square is reminiscent of 'Back to the Future'

The town square is reminiscent of 'Back to the Future'

Perhaps that's over-thinking a kids' movie, but is it asking too much to transport us to another world, or else to explain the copycat setting? By telling the story from the alien perspective and making their lifestyle so comparable to ours, the similarities end up becoming the running joke, relying on overused pop culture references applied to an alien world, rather than inventiveness. This leads to gags like a photo of an alien actress dressed just like Marilyn Monroe from The Seven Year Itch, a hippie alien driving a floating car modeled after a VW van, and characters slapping hands saying, "Gimme four!"

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With the setting reduced to nothing more than a copy of ours, we're stuck with the predictable story of teenager Lem (voiced by Justin Long), who lives with his parents and kid brother while trying to land a prominent job at the local planetarium. Unfortunately, everyone around him has trouble taking astronomy seriously while the movie theaters are packed with a popular sci-fi horror franchise involving alien "Humaniacs."

When a real "alien" like Captain Charles T. Baker (Dwayne Johnson) arrives from Earth—initially believing that he's landed on an uninhabited planet—it's no wonder the locals greet him with fear and paranoia. Lem, of course, meets Baker through happenstance, and reluctantly agrees to help him get back to his ship before the military captures him and removes his brain (because that's what they do, right?).

Neera, voiced by Jessica Biel

Neera, voiced by Jessica Biel

The story is thin, the characterizations even thinner. Pixar's Up had audiences crying over an elderly couple in just 10 minutes. Planet 51 labors to make us care about anyone during its 90 minutes.

Baker is too annoying and stupid a caricature to worry about his safe return. Lem is the typical slightly nerdy teen found at the center of movies, his best friend Skiff (Seann William Scott) an even nerdier teen who works at a comic book store. Neera (Jessica Biel) is a bland romantic interest for Lem to gaze longingly at; the fact that Lem actually tries the romantic advice of an alien/astronaut he just met shows how desperate he (and this plot) truly is. With nothing to work with, the voice actors add nothing themselves—casting unknowns would have been equally effective and cheaper.

Like Scrat in Ice Age, the single saving grace of Planet 51 is Rover, a little robotic probe obsessed with collecting rocks and finding his master. He could easily pass as Wall-E's little cousin with all his antics, and his adorable canine affectations provide the movie with the most heart and life.

Planet 51 simply goes through the motions in every other way—disappointing from writer Joe Stillman, whose previous work includes the first two Shrek films. Those movies at least integrated the pop culture references into clever jokes. Here we have an endless parade of sci-fi references, as if mentioning other movies were funny itself. It's all here, from the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey, to the shot of a character flying against a full moon like E.T., plus a barrage of Star Wars quotes, among other things.

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Rover, who provides the film's best moment, meets a 'dog'

Rover, who provides the film's best moment, meets a 'dog'

There's enough to keep kids entertained, though parents may take issue with some of the scatological humor. Many of the cultural references will sail over the heads of kids. Some would say this is par for the course, but I find the best animated comedies to be a shared experience for parents and kids. Planet 51 is generally too juvenile for adults, yet at times a bit inappropriate for younger viewers.

This is the first feature from Madrid-based Ilion Animation Studios, and the directorial debut from Jorge Blanco; it's not a good start, despite the serviceable animation. It's hard not to compare, but Pixar's classy and imaginative films set the bar high, while movies like this aim too low.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. What fuels the citizens' fear of Humaniacs and space zombies? How is it comparable to real-world fears of communism in the '50s or terrorism today? To what extent is such fear warranted? What's the difference between wary diligence and paranoia?

  2. Planet 51's residents think they know everything about their universe and back up their theories with science. Are there parallels in human history? What does this say about the roles of science and faith? In what ways are we simply "dust in space"? In what ways are we more?

  3. When asked for help, Lem responds, "But my life was just getting perfect!" Should we expect things to be convenient when people are in need? Would you be quick to help someone if it meant losing the respect of others or even going to prison?

  4. What is "The Right Stuff" as defined by this movie? How does Lem demonstrate it (see Matt. 25:34-40)? How does Captain Baker demonstrate "The Right Stuff" at the end (see Matthew 5:43-48)?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Planet 51 is rated PG for mild sci-fi action and some suggestive humor. There's enough to give parents pause: The sci-fi action involves a movie parody reminiscent of War of the Worlds with space aliens disintegrating army soldiers. There's an oddly creepy running gag involving two soldiers who are lobotomized by a crackpot scientist. The suggestive humor includes references to making out, a scene discussing crude "suppositories" to prevent alien probing, and a remark about the nude astronaut's "antenna." There's also poop and barf humor aplenty.

Planet 51
Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(4 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG (for mild sci-fi action and some suggestive humor)
Directed By
Jorge Blanco, Javier Abad, Marcos Martínez
Run Time
1 hour 31 minutes
Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Jessica Biel
Theatre Release
November 20, 2009 by TriStar/Sony Pictures
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