Generally considered to be one of the worst box office flops of all time – it grossed around $7 million on a $100 million budget – The Adventures of Pluto Nash is an oddity, cursed by a series of poor performances, a plot that consistently fails to engage, and visuals that range from awful to overblown. That said, it’s still worth seeing, because it stands out in the sci-fi genre. If The Fifth Element had a stupid cousin that no-one in the family liked to talk about, then this would be it.
The film’s biggest mistake is casting Eddie Murphy in the title role. Don’t get me wrong: Murphy’s perfectly suited to some roles (with the usual rule being the sillier the better) but he’s not meant to play the straight man – something he tries to take on here, bless him, but fails miserably. Rosario Dawson, brilliant in Clerks 2 and perfectly adequate in recent release Unstoppable, is reduced to a simpering moron, and Randy Quaid’s robot bodyguard… after seeing this film, it’s understandable that he thinks there’s an assassination plot against him. He’s horrifying.
This film suffers from the same contradiction that tends to befall a lot of science fiction films – epic ambition, but narrow vision. It clumsily addresses a ton of subjects, but the only thing done with any competency is the principal storyline, which is fairly straightforward (if sprawling). But then again, perhaps the outside nods are meant as in-jokes rather than commentary, in which case… it sort of works.
Here’s the problem: The Adventures of Pluto Nash isn’t necessarily an awful film. It doesn’t really deserve to be treated here, but considering that it received a host of negative reviews upon its release, it has to. But it’s genuinely funny at points (though, in fairness, pathetically unfunny at others), has a fair few peripheral characters who are genuinely compelling – veterans Peter Boyle and John Cleese stand out in particular – and while some of the effects might be low-key, at least they’re consistent. And there are parts that are stellar – the sets are stunning, and there’s convincing use of CGI for panoramic shots. In effect, it’s a pretty good B-movie.
Having said this, it did have a budget of $100 million, and was agonisingly deliberated over for nearly 20 years prior to production (the script first surfaced in the 1980s). And there are parts… most readers of this will understand what I mean when I say “Y2K hangover”. There were a slew of sci-fi films, and elements of pop culture (particularly music videos), which definitely belong to the pre-2000 period, because they imagine a gritty yet lurid cyberpunk future where everyone dances like robots and everyone has their personalities turned up to 11.
Sometimes, this was done to great effect – in fact, despite it being set on Earth, Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days seemed like the closest parallel to this film after The Fifth Element – but more often than not, it’s something we can look back on with wide-eyed confusion. And this is where The Adventures of Pluto Nash belongs – sure, it’s a rollicking fun adventure, but at the same time it clearly takes itself a little too seriously. And some of the sequences – like a hover-campervan being driven across the moon to “Moon Beach” from (get this) “Little America” – are just absurd. They’re too distracting to be able to focus on the story.
Having said this, it’s easy to see why this is consistently ranked as one of the most entertaining films to have a hellish time in the box office and amongst the critics – it’s no lost gem, but in all its lurid, ridiculous, nostalgic mess, it’s a genuinely engaging film. Watch it with a healthy dose of scepticism, and you might even enjoy it.