The second film I have chosen for my list of the Ten Worst Sci-Fi Films is The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Ron Underwood’s 2002 suck-fest.
For more on how I am choosing these films, see my post on Battlefield Earth.
Written by Neil Cuthbert, whose previous film Mystery Men is one of my all-time favorites, Pluto Nash is an attempt to fuse a 40’s film noir with a sci-fi comedy. The attempt fails on every single level, producing a film that is not so much unwatchably bad as it is unwatchably dull.
Eddie Murphy, who hasn’t carried top billing on a decent film since Coming to America in 1988, plays the eponymous hero, a nightclub owner who is muscled out by the local mob boss. Murphy spends the rest of the film trying to find out the mob boss’ identity, with the help of his bodyguard and a waitress from his club.
So how is this a science fiction film? It takes place on the Moon! Isn’t that clever?
The whole point of the science fiction genre is to explore how science and technology affect society. But in Pluto Nash the hard-boiled 1940’s film noir plot is transplanted whole and unchanged onto a lunar colony. The fact that the story takes place on the Moon bears almost no relation to the story – it just easily could have taken place in Chicago. Or on Madagascar.
Sure, Nash’s bodyguard is a robot. His robot taxicab is controlled by the holographic head of John Cleese. He has various adventures outside the dome, on the lunar surface. But none of these things affect the plot in any meaningful way. Each sci-fi element just replaces an ordinary story component, without any real reasoning behind it.
The only sci-fi element that affects the story comes at the end. If I haven’t sufficiently warned you off watching this film, then you’d better stop reading.
It’s established during the film that Rex Crater, the mob boss, is a “clone.” I put “clone” in quotes because he’s not a real clone, he’s one of those ridiculous Xerox duplicates a la Multiplicity – an adult copy who possesses all of the original human’s memories. Think of all the technology this would require – successful human cloning, plus a method of force-growing the clone to adulthood that preserves all the original human’s ontogeny, plus (most importantly) a way to transfer the original human’s brain structure and chemistry to the new “clone.”
Could all this technology be developed by 2080? I would guess not, though I could easily be wrong. But these technologies would fundamentally change society, particularly the method of thought transfer. None of these changes are portrayed in Pluto Nash. Essentially, the cloning technology isn’t sci-fi, it’s magic.
Worse, Rex Crater turns out to be a clone of… Eddie Murphy. This is not foreshadowed anywhere in the film, and makes absolutely no sense. It’s as if the filmmakers wanted to surprise the audience just for the sake of surprising us. Also, it kind of a rip-off of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 Total Recall, another film that thinks life in space is just like life on Earth; and at the end, Arnold Schwarzenegger discovers he’s the bad guy.
There’s more to hate in Pluto Nash. The computer-generated effects are terrible, even for 2000 (the year it was shot). Although certainly more advanced, the CG reminded me of The Last Starfighter, circa 1984.
Costume design? What costume design? Lunar citizens of 2080 pretty much dress (and act) like people do today, except perhaps with a bit of 1940’s flair. The production design was ripped straight from Blade Runner, which may be a cinematic classic, but it’s also 26 years old.
Oh, and by the way – taking an ordinary gun, and adding that warm-up noise old-style camera flash units used to make, does not turn it into a futuristic super-gun.
America Online still exists in 2080? AOL doesn’t still exist in 2008!
Eddie Murphy was perfectly serviceable in the title role – the man has more than enough charisma to lug this film around on his back. And I’ll watch anything with Rosario Dawson. But the one performance that really stank up this movie was from the otherwise reliable Randy Quaid. In his attempt to portray a comical robot he evidently took his cues from Tiffany Brissette.
But Pluto Nash’s ultimate sin is that it’s just not funny. I didn’t laugh once, not even at John Cleese. And the film is entirely without charm. It’s no wonder Pluto Nash sat on the shelf for two years before someone decided to release it anyway; or that it’s considered one of the greatest box office bombs of all time.