Saturday, 25 May 2013

Escape from Planet Earth

Along with A Monster in Paris, this film was one I wanted to watch on the plane mostly as it came from an underdog studio: a CGI feature film that wasn’t from Disney/Pixar, Dreamworks or Fox. This film comes from Rainmaker, who I actually really wanted to succeed – back in the 90s they were called Mainframe Entertainment and made the superb and groundbreaking ReBoot. Well, I say superb – that comes with a little rose-tinted-spectacles outlook. But it was still a good show.

This film marked the point where they went from making execrable direct-to-video toy films (mostly Barbie) and attempted to join the big boys. Unfortunately, they don’t find a unique voice, stick much too closely to a box-ticking Hollywood formula for the story and basically come over like low-tier Fox releases. It’s not a thousand miles from fellow underdog studio Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me, but without the anarchic quality or appealing comedy minions. And that makes sense, as the director comes from a background of storyboarding that very film, as well as some minor Fox hits.

The film had a rocky production history, with a lawsuit revolving around the amount of time it took to develop, apparently revolving around numerous script rewrites – possibly explaining why the result is so soulless. It comes over from the trailer as dull-witted and ignorable, and that’s why it was the kind of film I skipped at the cinema and watched on a long-haul flight. Critical consensus seems to be that small kids will likely enjoy the action and bright colours, but unlike the Toy Storys of the world, it won’t have anything to keep the adults engaged too – and that’s about right.

The premise is the obvious one – the film seeks to reverse the sci-fi cliché of human space invaders landing on an alien planet and being terrorised by the creatures there by having alien space invaders landing on Earth and being terrorised by humans. Unfortunately, while the original concept probably would have revolved around a charming and funny interpretation of everyday human life being terrifying for an outsider, instead the film takes the easy route – when brash alien Scorch Supernova ignores his clever but overcautious brother’s advice and lands on the ‘dark planet’, he is quickly captured by government agents in Area 51, and used as bait to bring in his brother – whose genius holds the key to building (what else?) a huge death ray. Of course, everything has been a set-up, and with kooky new alien allies with hilarious ethnic accents, the brothers can overcome their differences and (along with older brother Gary’s wife and small, cute, somewhat annoying son) bust their way out to freedom and foil the plans of the evil General Shanker.

There are big problems with the set-up. Having the conflict between the brothers that can later be resolved makes them both quite hard to like, especially with their rather ugly noseless designs and the way neither really seem very vulnerable at any point. The quick capture by government agents means that for a film spreading galaxies, it feels very small-scale – there’s a mission on a strange planet as a prologue, but after that the settings are basically alien mission control, a 7-11 and inside a secret bunker. That makes everything feel so limited and the personal journeys so lacking in epic scale.

The voice cast is impressive, but wasted. There are big names here, beyond the main character Gary, who is voiced by someone from The Daily Show I don’t think I’ve seen as anyone except the silly best friend zombie in Warm Bodies on the very same air journey. Brendan Fraser is brought in to be Scorch, but could have been any generic hero-sounding performer.  Sarah Jessica Parker sounds like she could be anybody too, as Gary’s wife, and Jessica Alba is the mission controller – making her sound more like bratty teen than kingpin. William Shatner has fun hamming it up as the bad guy, and ham is welcome for his part, but more of his insecure, fake-hair and silly background side would have been a good idea. And then they get Ricky Gervais in to be the talking computer, and if Gervais is ever funny, it’s because of very clever writing – but they give him nothing to do at all and he fails entirely to make humourless dialogue amusing, because that’s not one of his talents, making it very unfortunate that he’s one of the most recognisable voices here, as he simply isn’t funny.

There’s lots of bangs and flashes and even spaceship chases at the end, but I have to agree with the reviews – ultimately, there is little more here than in a very low-quality weekly CGI sci-fi cartoon, and it completely lacked the necessary emotional resonance to make something like this work. 

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