ESCAPE FROM PLANET EARTH: We Received an SOS From the Dark Planet

Escape from Planet Earth

Escape from Planet Earth (2013) – Directed by Carl Brunker – Starring Brendan Fraser, Rob Corddry, Sarah Jessica Parker, William Shatner, Craig Robinson, Jessica Alba, George Lopez, Jane Lynch, Sofía Vergara, Jonathan Morgan Heit, Ricky Gervais, and Steve Zahn.

A week ago, I wrote this opening paragraph to my reaction to Journey 2: The Mysterious Island:

“Maybe it’s just a consequence of getting older, but it’s nice, on occasion, to watch a family friendly movie that is incredibly simple, straightforward, and likable. There’s nothing cool or hip or groundbreaking about JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, but that adds to the charm of a movie that flails about like an oversized puppy, clumsy and desperate to please.”

Now, let me show you my opening paragraph for ESCAPE FROM PLANET EARTH:

Maybe it’s just a consequence of getting older, but it’s nice, on occasion, to watch a family friendly movie that is incredibly simple, straightforward, and likable. There’s nothing cool or hip or groundbreaking about ESCAPE FROM PLANET EARTH, but that adds to the charm of a movie that flails about like an oversized puppy, clumsy and desperate to please.

In the week since I wrote the Journey 2 review, I haven’t thought about it twice. I suspect that a week from now, I won’t have thought of ESCAPE FROM PLANET EARTH much more, but neither of these facts should take away from the enjoyable experience each film provides. ESCAPE isn’t trying to be a Pixar movie or a Disney movie or even a DreamWorks movie; it’s just a throwback, made-for-kids adventure romp that moves fast, stays broad, and is surprisingly enjoyable.

There are three genres that movie critics seem to have the most problem properly evaluating: horror, superhero, and animated. We’ve been so spoiled by Pixar that I wonder if critics have lost the plot with animated movies. Go read the professional reviews quoted at Wikipedia. Or don’t. Here’s basically what they all say, “Okay for kids, not for adults.”

And they say that like it’s a bad thing.

Or they say it because it’s the lazy thing that critics have been saying about movies like ESCAPE since they started writing reviews.

I wonder, though, how many of these critics write reviews for films like 12 Years a Slave and make comments like, “Excellent film for adults, but children might be bored by the moral contemplation of slavery and brutality.”

ESCAPE FROM PLANET EARTH is clearly a kid’s movie the same way 12 Years a Slave is clearly an adult’s movie, and since I can remember what it was like to be a kid, I enjoyed ESCAPE on its own merits. This movie is an old Saturday morning cartoon writ large: it’s bright, fun, simple, and contains a great message about family and how everyone’s skills have an important value in a society. Are characters under-developed? Beyond the Supernova family, absolutely. Even with our main cast of blue-skinned aliens from the planet Baab, character development is mostly minimal. Gary (Rob Corddry) is the only full-developed character, but we get enough information about his brother Scorch (Brendan Fraser), his wife, Kira (Sarah Jessica Parker), and son, Kip (Jonathan Morgan Heit) to understand their actions and motivations.

Does the animation compare to Frozen? No. But it’s perfectly fine animation in its own right. As you’ve no doubt noticed if you’ve been kicking around the Anxiety for long, I think colors are massively important in movies, especially when it comes to kids’ movies, and ESCAPE provides all sorts of visual stimulation. I love how the palette is dominated by shades of blue sitting between bright yellows and reds on the hot end and grays and blacks on the cold end of the spectrum.

ESCAPE is also paced well; infodumps are kept to a minimum and the action comes in mostly short bursts, keeping things moving.

At the center of this story is the conflict between two brothers: Scorch, who is the masculine hero of the planet Baab, and Gary, his nerdy brother who runs the ops from mission control. It’s a good mix of personalities; Scorch gets all the glory (and wants all the glory), and while Gary doesn’t necessarily want all of the endorsement deals that his little brother has, he does want to be appreciated by Scorch for his contributions to their assignments.

Their relationship is a bit like the Buzz Lightyear / Woody relationship from the Toy Story films (one is cocky, the other reserved) but it’s not like Pixar has a copyright on relationships like that. Scorch has supreme confidence in his own abilities, and even if he won’t say it, complete confidence in Gary’s abilities to get him out of jams. Gary’s kid, Kip, wants to be like Scorch instead of his dad, but I love how it comes across not as, “I don’t want to be my dad,” but “I want to be the heroic adventurer.” It’s a rejection of his dad, on some level, but it’s not played in a hugely negative way.

ESCAPE often dampens the potential for a darker message to get through. After Scorch heads to the Dark Planet (Earth) without Gary’s approval and without his technical support (Gary quits over Scorch’s inability to properly prepare for the trip to the universe’s deadliest planet), he is captured by General Shanker (William Shatner), the head of the villainous Area 51 organization that traps aliens and forces them to create technology for the benefit of humans (this is how we get cell phones, social networking, the internet, etc.) After stopping Kip from making a rescue attempt, Gary undergoes the mission and gets captured, too. The aliens – Doc (Craig Robinson), Io (Jane Lynch), and Thurman (George Lopez) – are told that once they create enough new tech for Shanker that they’re allowed to go home.

Now, it’s clear they’re not going to be allowed to leave and for three scientists to not be able to figure this out is a bit weak, but Shanker’s promise to them allows them to work under the illusion of a better day and not a horrible end. (Shanker is actually freezing them in gel that looks like it was adapted from that breathable goop in The Abyss.) ESCAPE puts some bad stuff on the screen for effect (like when Shanker’s dad gets crushed by a falling alien ship) but there’s a clear emphasis to tone down the darker elements: Gary gets locked up in Shanker’s prison, but the film spends more time with these alien captors having a food fight in the cafeteria than it does with them in their cells.

While ESCAPE is clearly intended for kids, there are a few Easter eggs tossed in for adults – the yellow-clad, AIM-looking henchmen are named after famous directors (we hear someone yell at the henchman, “James, Cameron, get the aliens!”) and there’s a floor of autographs of aliens who have worked on the project containing an all-star list of great (and not so great) sci-fi characters of the past. There’s a set of classic gray aliens that talk like the Beatles, which was actually pretty funny because of how unexpected it was.

I have a whole lotta respect for movies that have relatively simple ambitions but still deliver a solid, professional performance and ESCAPE FROM PLANET EARTH delivers on that account. I watched the heck out of Saturday morning cartoons as a kid and ESCAPE offers a pleasant throwback to those shows for me. After a long day, when I’m just looking to watch something fun and not overly challenging before hitting the sack, I want a movie like ESCAPE to serve as a cinematic bowl of ice cream.