screenplay by Jason Headley, Angus MacLane
directed by Angus MacLane
by Walter Chaw Angus MacLane's handsome-looking Lightyear gets enough things right that it's unfortunate it can't quite shake how its best parts are borrowed from Joe Haldeman's classic The Forever War. It has more problems than that, granted, mainly with how its thin supporting cast fails to give the film the humour and pathos it needs to honour the by-now-familiar "heartwarming tearjerker" Pixar formula. There's not a lot of rewatch value here, alas, and that has everything to do with Lightyear's awkward dialogue and inability to stick the landing--maladies, both, that afflicted co-writer Jason Headley's previous Pixar outing, the similarly disappointing and COVID-doomed Onward. The highlight of the piece is robot cat SOX (Peter Sohn), who provides the film its credulous audience surrogate as well as its adorable animal-sidekick comic relief. By himself, SOX saves Lightyear, though he can't elevate it above the airless jokes and pained delivery. What a shame, considering the movie sets a new bar in terms of the complexity of its digital imagery and animation. With Taika Waititi in the cast, I gotta think they could've hit him up for a quick joke polish.
The first 36 minutes of Lightyear are exceptional. Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans) and his partner Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) are members of the elite Space Rangers, the tip of the spear in deep-space exploration, awakened Alien-like from subspace hibernation when their ship, carrying a crew of 1,200 specialists, is diverted off-course by lifeform readings on an uncharted planet. What they discover is a planet inhospitable to human life, teeming with sentient vines and giant insects. In their attempt to escape, Lightyear's hostility towards computer-assisted aviation tech--and to "rookies" in the form of the also-defrosted but otherwise useless and instantly-discarded Feartheringhamstan (Bill Hader)--leads to their being stranded on this verdant hell-planet until the now-awakened crew can figure out a way to manufacture stable-enough rocket fuel to make it back to Earth. The first test flight echoes the one from this summer's Top Gun: Maverick (which lifted it from The Right Stuff), with the twist that four minutes in near-lightspeed travel results in four-and-a-half years passing on the alien planet. Lightyear is barely older, but his friend Hawthorne is well into settling into life in this place, including finding the woman of her dreams, getting married, and, as subsequent test flights fail at everything but causing Lightyear to lose time, starting a family. There are elements of Up's extraordinary opening montage in Hawthorne's accelerated journey into old age, plus elements, of course, of The Forever War (and even "Twilight Zone"'s season 5 episode "The Long Morrow") in the picture's temporal-distortion horror. The only constant for Lightyear is SOX, and our worry about his well-being is the reason there's even a movie after the first thirty minutes are complete.
If only Lightyear had the brains and the courage to play its threads out to their logical, melancholy conclusions. These explorers, having already spent what the opening chyrons tell us is decades in hyperspace, have been away from Earth for millennia. What would happen if they succeeded in returning? What kind of Earth would they find? Would they find any Earth at all? What about the number of settlers resigned to starting over in this place? That's a...pretty shallow gene pool, isn't it? At some point, it seems as though Lightyear is going to examine what happens when the settlement falls under martial, authoritarian governance, but then it declines to go there, and the reveal of arch-villain Zurg (James Brolin), the head of an army of Stern's Berzerk robots, raises all sorts of temporal issues Lightyear labours unsuccessfully to make emotionally resonant. In the Wizard of Oz trifecta, Lightyear doesn't have much heart, either. At least, not once Hawthorne passes on and is replaced by her granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer), the head of a band of misfit weekend warriors, including pathologically clumsy Mo (Waititi) and diminutive felon Darby (Dale Soules). Precious pages are given over to this trio knocking shit over, throwing deeply unfunny insults at one another, and engaging in banal slapstick. Whatever momentum the first third of the film has built up--and it's considerable--dissipates almost immediately, leaving time to ponder how the premise of this film is that a young boy loved this story so much in 1995 he wanted an action figure of its main character for his birthday. Is that kid ever undemanding. As much of the alleged tension of the film relies on the bonhomie established between Buzz and these three stooges, the inability to create anything like warmth and comfort between them makes it all less pathos than pathetic.
Still, I liked the first third of Lightyear enough to forgive the movie some of its sins. I respect Disney finally putting a foot in the ground by presenting an unapologetically gay character in a committed, loving relationship, even if it produces a child in Izzy who seems pressured to live up to her grandmother's legacy. I don't even think it's unrealistic, really, just kind of a shame that this is Izzy's sole character motivation--one that speaks to how systemic, generational trauma tends to swap faces as demographics change. I love SOX, too, because he's the only character in this film worth rooting for: the only one not beholden to his programming (betraying it twice because it's the right thing to do); the only one truly helpful and competent; the only one who's actually funny because the humour of his character is how he's an innocent rather than a narcissist or fool. When we think this clockwork cat has died, it's the first and only time the film feels like it has human stakes. For the rest of it, Headley's two swings at the Pixar plate reveal an emergent voice dependent on constant pop-cultural pastiche and soulless callbacks, cheap, unearned emotion, and the subtle mishandling of Black women characters. In Onward, it's the small-business owner voiced by Octavia Spencer, who burns her own business to the ground. In Lightyear, it's the senior Hawthorne, whose life and death ultimately serve as the means through which a white man grows. The problem isn't intent, it's voice. The lingering impression from both Onward and Lightyear is that there's a better film lurking inside each of them. Fantasies of a kind, they succeed mainly in inspiring fantasies of what could have been. At least Lightyear has that dazzling start going for it--and, again, SOX. Maybe that should be the spinoff. I'd watch the shit out of that.