In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

16. Planet 51

BlueLight Cinemas 5
Tucked away in Cupertino's Oaks Shopping Center, BlueLight Cinemas 5 is a second-run theater with a funky atmosphere and unbeatable prices. If you're not looking for it, you might miss it. For the past three and a half years I've been working just over a mile away from its location, and have even been in its parking lot once, but only recently learned of its existence (in pursuit of my goal). It makes me sick to think of all the great movies I've missed.

The theater's entrance faces inward toward the plaza of the shopping center. There is plenty of parking skirting its edges. From the back and sides you might notice posters (they're small) advertising that the building is a theater, but more importantly, the price: $3.75 per movie. This is actually my first visit to a second-run theater, other than going to drive-ins. Though they might be common elsewhere, they have all but disappeared from the Bay Area.

I visit the South Bay every Tuesday. As it just so happens, BlueLight Cinemas only charges $2.00 for movies on Tuesdays. That price is so good, it deserves its own paragraph.


The theater makes up for the low admission fee with slightly more expensive concessions. But my ticket, Red Vines (somebody stop me!), and a bottled water totaled $9.25, still less than I've been paying for tickets recently.

In addition to a lower price, second-run theaters provide another valuable service by extending a movie's lifespan for patrons who couldn't quite squeeze it into their schedule while the movie was in wide release (as was the case for me with Planet 51). Such a theater could very well bridge the gap between a movie's theatrical and video release (BlueLight Cinemas is still showing Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, released on video January 5th). In this case, it might actually be cheaper to see it in the theater than on video, and even if it isn't, I appreciate having the choice.

The theater's lobby has a few tables across from the concession area. Like the Cafe Cinemas in Cinemark's Century theaters, these tables create a comfortable little space to wait for someone else to arrive. When I exited my movie, the concession area was packed with people, just hanging out and having fun. The concession stand also offers a unique delicacy I haven't seen at any other theater: vegetable samosas. Unfortunately I spotted them only when leaving, but next time it won't be Red Vines for me. Check out the Specials page on BlueLight's website for deals on free sodas and other reduced concessions.

I was in auditorium 4, which you can see in this photo. Look closely; see anything odd? The seats in the front are higher up than the seats in the middle. The floor has a concave shape; anyone sitting in the middle is at the low point. The result is a sort of prepared-for-liftoff feeling, strapped into a rocket aimed for the stars. I've never seen anything like it and can't imagine what inspired its design other than a sinkhole. Surprisingly, it didn't seem to matter when viewing the movie, and someone chose to sit behind me, so the reverse-rake must not adversely affect visibility too much. Overall, the auditoriums and hallway leading to them are aesthetically unappealing, but unlike the back end of the CinéArts @ Pleasant Hill, this funky quality adds a bit of character to the theater.

The theater promotes itself as family-friendly, and is right across the street from De Anza College. While I waited for the movie to begin, a few kids were running around unsupervised, having a good time. I was anticipating interruptions, but their guardian arrived just before the film started, and they then behaved as well as the rest of us. The turnout was relatively good for a movie that has been in theaters for two months.

The projector light went out for about thirty seconds during the film; I haven't seen this happen in a long time, so either the law of averages finally caught up with me, or the theater is using older equipment.

Did I mention it only cost $2.00?



Planet 51
What would the 16th Century Europeans have done if giant canoes had docked on Europe's shore, and Native Americans came pouring out, bivouacking themselves on the coast in ever-increasing numbers? Would there have camaraderie that, years later, would be celebrated as Thanksgiving, when those nice Europeans helped the American colonists through the cold winter? Or would Europe have coined the phrase, "Oh no you didn't"?

Science Fiction movies of inter-species contact tend toward the latter. We're perfectly capable of decimating our planet all by ourselves, thank you very much; we don't need help from some warmongering squid race that wants to enslave/exterminate/eat all of humankind. In such Sci-Fi tales, the 'fiction' aspect is that humans are the victims; we project onto the vicious aliens all our guilt and self-hate for the luxuries many of us enjoy to this day at the expense of someone in the past.

It is the rare exception, like in The Martian Chronicles or Avatar, where the genre asks, have we learned our lesson from our colonial past? (The people on the receiving end of that lesson could have volunteered the answer before the instruction began.) We look to the stars, claim them in the name of such-and-such, and finally arrive with the kitchen sink and no small amount of entitlement, only to find the world already inhabited. How inconvenient. For them.

Planet 51 begins shortly before that moment. It's a typical day for the inhabitants of some unnamed world (I presume that Planet 51 is an Earth designation). The people are green, a bit amphibious in appearance, and wear no pants, but otherwise speak English and live in a culture reminiscent of our 1950s. Lem (Justin Long) just got a job at the local planetarium, where he will instruct young children about the reaches of the cosmos, known to be 500 miles wide. Lem's friend Skiff (Seann William Scott) is obsessed with horror movies, namely Humaniacs II, in which one-eyed bipeds descend upon their world, intent on eating brains and turning the witless into obedient zombies. Lem is in love with his neighbor Neera (Jessica Biel, who we all suspect is too attractive to be human anyway), and pals around with Skiff and Neera's younger brother, Eckle.

A tiny craft lands. Out hops a lumbering alien. Humming music from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the alien proceeds to stake the ground with an American flag, only then realizing that he's interrupted a barbecue and everyone is staring at him. The astronaut freaks out, goes on the run, and ends up in Lem's planetarium, where, of course, Lem reluctantly agrees to help the alien, now known as Chuck (Dwayne Johnson).

The press and military descend upon Chuck's landing pod, though, making it difficult for Chuck to escape back to his orbiting spaceship before its auto-pilot is engaged, sending it back to Earth without him. Lem, Chuck, and eventually all the other likable characters, hatch an unconventional plan to get Chuck back to his ship so he can take off: they will get Chuck back to his ship, so he can take off. It's so crazy it just might work.

As animation goes, Chuck is fun, but the aliens aren't. They are bland looking. Their town, however, is quite interesting. Every building, vehicle, and artifact is modeled after something familiar to us, but always with an alien twist, and typically in deference to their preferred shape, the top. I found myself eyeing the backdrops throughout the film, finding amusing trinkets and clever jokes. Neera joins up with some anti-war hippies, who are a bit directionless, since there isn't really anything to protest. They wave signs that say, "Make like, not warm", and Neera quotes the leader as saying, "The times, they are a'different."

The voice acting is disappointing. Johnson does a great job as Chuck, and is almost unrecognizable. The other characters are all too-human sounding. I had a difficult time not picturing Justin Long each time Lem spoke. There are many similarities between this movie and the more serious Battle for Terra, not least of which is that it is disorienting to have aliens speak English. Terra deals with it in an awkward but explainable way. Planet 51 uses it as the source for a joke, which works.

The movie's plot is mundane, but the jokes are amusing throughout. One of the consistent themes is that the townspeople, all aware of Humaniacs II, are convinced that Chuck can enslave them with his mind powers. Even the evil General Grawl (Gary Oldman) is susceptible to this propaganda, as evidenced in a hilarious scene in which the General details to Chuck his counter strategy should Chuck succeed in taking over the General's mind.

Chuck is portrayed as a doofus of an astronaut, merely babysitting an otherwise automated mission, so his lack of diplomatic skills makes him not your first choice for first contact. Attempting to give Lem romantic advice, he asks, "Are you considered very ugly on this planet? Because I can't tell." The dialog is funny, as are the references to the era. I'd see it again.


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  2. All my theater attendance takes place at what you call a second run theater. I take my two daughters most weekends to watch a movie. I call it the dollar theater, though to be honest it has been charging $1.50 since we started going and recently raised its price to $1.75. The humanity! ... Wait, you paid $2.00, and it would have been $3.75 on the weekend???

    Oh, that's right, I pay $1.75 and get this, its still $1.00 on Wednesday and on Monday if you buy three tickets its 50 cents each! That $1.50 for all three of us.

    The movie theater is pretty run down. I remember when it was still a first run theater, back in 2006, when I attended it for the first time to watch "Lady in the Water" Shortly after a brand spanking new shiny Cinemark was built one exit further and this theater, unable to compete, switched to a dollar theater. It seems to have recently branded itself as a kids theater, as on any given day more then half of the movies they show are targeted towards children. Since there are a limited supply of these movies, they tend to hold them for a LONG time. This theater still has Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs as well. And I would be watching that this Sunday except for the fact that we just got PLANET 51! I'm excited. Every new movie that arrives means one more weekend I don't have to watch ones of these movies for the second time.

  3. Well, I watched it this weekend with Sophie, and am scheduled to watch it again next weekend with Olivia. Sophia liked it but admitted it was a bit scary. I think she is referring to the scene with the mad scientist and his spinning razor. And this is the girl who has been nagging me about letting her watch "9" and insisting it won't be to scary for her.

    I thought it was funny. Not in the same league with "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" but decent enough. My favorite part was when the general outlined his plan in case Chuck turns him into a zombie, and a close second was when the aliens cover their ears and shriek in horror at the music coming from Chuck's IPOD, which is shortly after revealed to be "the Macarena".

    Alien encounter stories such as this one, whether in film or in print almost always include as part of the story the differences in technological advancement. The alien invasion movies almost always begin with the invaders easily destroying our defences through their advanced weaponry. Likewise in the reverse situation of Avatar the point is emphasized when the Colonel stands nonchalantly with a coffee cup as arrows bounce harmlessly off the windshield of his jet. This movie leaves this very prominent trope mostly unexplored, spare Chuck telling Lem about the actual size of the universe. As you outlined, the aliens are supposed to be roughly equivalent to the US of the 1950s in culture and technology. However, all their vehicles were hovercrafts. I found this disorienting the entire film since in my mind that demonstrates advanced technology. Since vehicles are fairly prominent throughout and since I am so programmed to look for this familiar trope to be utilized I was somewhat . . . . (well I can't think of another synonym for it) . . . disoriented the entire film. The only real advanced technology in the story is Rover (spare momentary shots of a camera phone and ipod), whose AI and agility are of course way beyond what is possible today. But Rover, being from earth, had wheels.

  4. FYI - Jackie Cohen, of Bluelight Cinemas, has informed me that the samosas are vegetarian, not vegan.

  5. This is a minor point of interst but I must update that this is the first weekend that my dollar theater has finnally dropped "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs". Five months after it was realeased and 5 1/2 weeks after being on video. Even after all that time this was unexpected as our dollar theater reduces the number of showings of movies that are on their way out, but Cloudy was still showing some six showings a day last weekend.