Directed by Angus MacLane
Written by Jason Headley, Matthew Aldrich, and Angus MacLane
I'm stepping in it to say so, because it's already been collectively decided that it's an abomination upon our childhoods, but I believe that the fundamental concept underlying Pixar's latest film, Lightyear, is not an inherently bad idea. "What is that idea?", I shall pretend you asked, in order to structure this essay in a fashion that rhetorically pleases me (for as a practical matter you doubtless already know). Well, as Lightyear's opening title card explains, what we're notionally watching is as follows: "In 1995, a boy named Andy got a Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday. It was from his favorite movie. This is that movie." That's almost classy. No cumbersome framing device. Even the brand management aspect of it is kept tastefully minimized by only alluding to 1995's Toy Story. Frankly, we could have just as easily expected an opening sequence wherein all the toys beg Buzz to put in the old VHS tape they've been carefully preserving for these last twenty-seven years, and right before the climax, Rex would pause it right there on the theater screen because he's too scared. There'd be a whole bit. Hell, maybe this is a better idea, I don't know.
Anyway, I don't hate the concept of Lightyear and am, honestly, kind of surprised how much loathing it's actually received. There was a time that I believe it would've been considered genuinely clever, but perhaps that time could only have been long ago, before the exploitation of metafiction had become old hat, before the major studios devoted themselves almost exclusively to keeping up the polish on pre-existing IP by whatever means necessary, and, at the very least, before Disney drove their real space opera into the ground, and probably before they foisted a fourth Toy Story upon us with so little legitimate reason that they never quite figured out what toy story Toy Story 4 was supposed to actually tell, allowing it to drift off into an untethered fable about pint-sized immortal beings who aren't even meaningfully children's toys anymore. That doesn't mean Toy Story 4 is terrible (I've called it "good" though I truly don't know if it would hold up to a second spin), but, by comparison, Lightyear should be a less exhausted kind of brand extension.
Rather than a bad idea, then, it's a hard one. Unfortunately, it looks like a bad one, because when director and co-scenarist Angus MacLane and everyone else involved realized how hard it was, they gave up. (This is assuming enough good faith to suppose they didn't intend on a path of least resistance all along, but I do prefer to assume it.) For absolute starters, this conceit demanded in no uncertain terms that Lightyear had to be at least good enough to capture the imagination of a country and define a year of a child's life, and even with the most charity possible, I just don't see it. I'm not sure I see how the Pixar staff who made this film could have seen it. But that's a qualitative judgment, and let's circle back to those later.
The conceit also promises a film that embodies a 1990s blockbuster, and objectively there is not one thing about it that even gestures at the prospect that this is a piece of media retrieved from 1995. It seems like the mere process of reverse-engineering the quintessence of a "90s blockbuster" for 2022 should have been fun and interesting enough to have fired the creativity of everyone involved—with blockbuster cinema in flux throughout the decade, and 90s culture (and nostalgia for 90s culture) still, two decades later, a difficult thing to pin down, you could hardly have gone wrong with an honest effort. Judging by the films that hit no. 1 at the box office back in 1995—not counting Toy Story itself, which wouldn't exist—I suppose the platonic ideal of "a 1995 film" ought to have Will Smith, Chris Farley, and a religiously-motivated serial killer in it; meanwhile, the platonic ideal of a 1995 space film would apparently just be Apollo 13. We'd probably be forgiven, then, for skipping ahead to the following year, but comparing this to freaking Independence Day really underlines how completely nobody tried. Lightyear can't muster enough gumption to end with a rap song about the movie we just watched—that's the freebie. But then it's so indifferent to the explanation for its existence that it's entirely impossible to imagine that it entered the mind of even a single artist or animator or storyperson that Lightyear is, nominally, a live-action movie from 1995. Instead, the clearest influence is late 50s and early 60s spaceflight movies revolving around square-headed astromen and big-haired astrowomen exploring hostile planets on behalf of fuzzily-defined cosmic authorities, a fairly easy pick for the single weakest strain of that era's cinematic science fiction, and Lightyear's not great at being that either.
So, then: on a long mission of colonization on behalf of a fuzzily-defined cosmic authority, we find our man, Space Ranger Busby Lightyear (Chris Evans), automatically awakened from cryosleep to scout a habitable planet for potential dangers. (In the first blush of things not being especially well thought-through, despite this future civilization having auxiliary spacecraft that can function as landers, they don't use auxiliary spacecraft, and instead plop the entire sleeper ship on the surface before they've checked it out, apparently under the optimistic belief that it's never too dangerous.) Well, accompanying Buzz are his boss and best friend Alisha (Uzo Aduba), as well as a rookie Ranger (Bill Hader), whom I guess Buzz avoided meeting at orientation day before the multi-year space mission, and whose name is stupid and difficult to pronounce—these are the jokes, folks!—and Buzz, Alisha, and the other guy discover, very quickly, that this planet is indeed extremely dangerous, already occupied by a species of carnivorous, or at least angry and defensive, giant vines. Buzz, in a fit of narcissism, attempts to single-handedly pilot the vessel out of harm's way—and these, folks, are the arcs—but fails, breaking the ship and stranding the entire colony project on a world that is actively trying to kill and perhaps eat them.
Guilt-ridden, Buzz volunteers to test a new synthetic fuel that can power their rebuilt hyperdrive by sending himself on a series of risky test flights that blatantly steal iconography from Star Trek IV and 2001. Now things truly go awry, for every time Buzz returns relativistic effects have brought him fully years into the "future," while Alisha and the colony have necessarily spent their intervening time making the hell planet a home. Alisha has gotten married (to a woman, even, in a sequence where you can feel the carefully-calculated compromise choices radiating off the screen—maybe this is the "90s movie" part, except the mores of twenty-seven years ago might well have been more liberal, as the mandate of a PG-13 action-adventure blockbuster would've been to make it signifcantly clearer that lesbians have sex*).
Buzz watches his friend grow old, and grow sick, yet only days pass for him. In the end, she dies, leaving Buzz with only his company-issued therapy robot, a feloid named SOX (Peter Sohn), for company. Worse, the new commander (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) is a native-born resident of hell, with the conservative streak to match, and has cancelled Buzz's decades-long project. Very predictably, Buzz steals the test ship for one last try, and it tells you just how far out of time that Buzz has gotten himself now, when following his return from a successful hyperfuel test for once, he meets Alisha's granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer), already a grown-up and a would-be Space Ranger herself. She's one of the few people still around when Buzz comes back, for the settlement has sealed itself off from an enormous alien spaceship squatting in the sky and spewing robot soldiers at them. We are invited to recognize these villains as the forces of Zurg, though all Izzy can tell Buzz is that they showed up for war, and it falls to them (give or take two more sidekicks) to take on the Zurg and save the day.
There's more to it than that, and it's easy to lose track of it because the movie is simply not good, but it's got a skeleton of something good, and arguably it has a whole Goddamn movie already just within its first act that doesn't really need any of the rest of it. It helps that the first act maybe is good—it's not really hiding how much it's a stretched version of the masterpiece prologue to Up (I assure you that you don't want to know how I feel about any other part of Up), with a time dilation gimmick to give it a distinct flavor—and it is tantalizingly easy, anyway, if you started in the mid-2000s, to imagine a trajectory for Pixar that actually did bring them to a point where they could be doing adult sci-fi meditations about time and loss. The compressed version we get isn't as interesting as it could be, gunked up with a pair of acts attached to the end of it (the middle being genuinely vestigial), and it suffers from the elisions it makes; there's a reasonably effective sense of Buzz's best friend becoming essentially a stranger to him, surrounded by other strangers he'll never know, though this is a colder, more contemplative and melancholy thing than the Pixar Emotional Wallop it plainly intends to be, and it feels a little miscalibrated as a result.
It comes off even worse in hindsight because of the extraordinary vagueness of this film's setting, which is only an incipient problem while Buzz is flying through space and time, but becomes incredibly annoying as it fails to resolve into anything sharper over the course of a remaining hour. Here Buzz effectively steps into an entirely new culture, and we learn even less about this one, almost literally nothing—possibly the sole detail we learn about human life on Hellplanet is that they eat reverse sandwiches, meat outside/bread inside, which is a joke (maybe just on a technicality), and frankly I don't even know where the meat came from a century after crash-landing. We do not learn, anyway, what underlies the happy siege mentality of the new government (we don't even learn how this openly-authoritarian "government" is achieved), nor do we learn what if any dynamics drive this society, nor even how after a century the humans have failed to expand much beyond the pitiful makeshift settlement they started out with, where even the elite live in cramped dormitories, so that nearly a hundred years have passed without any countervailing push to either exterminate that Goddamn vine monster or, at the very least, contact the rest of humanity. It's not so much as brought up to be brushed off.
"What if Zion from The Matrix, but entirely unmotivated?" is one of the least appealing ways I can imagine to evoke a setting, but there we are, and it becomes depressingly obvious that they are in fact going out of their way not to detail their world, because it is the extremely fragile pivot upon which the film's themes turn, insofar as Buzz can't look like a total maniac for wanting to leave but under no circumstances can any of the problems that might arise in an isolated colony on a hostile world be described. (Those themes, incidentally, are like a warped companion piece to Monsters University, which understood striving and merely suggested that you should know when to quit; Lightyear is nominally about enjoying what you have, but feels like it's about staying perfectly still until you stop breathing.) SOX the comic relief cat is the one very modestly successful piece of world-building we get here (even he has his problems: the levels of AI tech are all over the place in this movie) but even he's not integrated well; he's an artifact from an inorganic quasi-dystopia that still values emotional health, but has no real idea how to achieve it, and this is reflected in basically no other way in any other aspect of the screenplay. He's also not, like, especially funny, and I assume the miniature fandom that the toyetic robot cat has engendered is merely the result of the normal human desire to like something about a movie.
He is, nonetheless, the one thing that made me laugh out loud (evading a "hey, wait a minute!"-style question from Buzz about the purpose of the concealed knock-out darts he carries in his chassis); ironically, the robotic animal is nearly the one thing that manages so much as a simulacrum of personality here, and Sohn has some fun being a parody of a robot (and a parody of a cat). Such a thing as "personality" is not found in the secondary cast: Aduba and Palmer are anodyne enough, but we don't spend much time with Alisha, and Izzy is barely a character (she has a plug-n-play arc about being phobic about outer space). I barely even mentioned that there are two more members of the secondary cast: Dale Soules as an elderly convict-turned-Space-Ranger-trainee who's at least some breed of pyromaniac, which is something; and an utterly featureless fourth member of our party (his one trait is "being incompetent in the most generic manner possible"), played by Taika Waititi under the apparent belief that he would improv funny material, a strategy that I'm not sure has ever worked, and he doesn't even do it. These two, anyway, are so unimportant to the plot that they could have been removed without the slightest change, and not even from the screenplay—their character models could've been deleted post-rendering and after the final assembly, and I'm barely exaggerating to suggest that the only way you'd notice is that sometimes we'd cut to some empty hallways for no obvious reason. They're not humorous, despite this being their only function, but almost nothing is funny in this movie that's almost constantly trying to be comedic, and Lightyear may represent the apex of modern blockbuster screenwriting technology and performance techniques, where nobody can even momentarily pretend that they're ever in any danger, and everything is a running joke without any actual joke component and delivered so mechanically that I would believe you if you told me that Evans only recorded the line "Ugh, autopilots" once even though Buzz says this line approximately two hundred times.
We cannot look to our hero, then: Evans's performance is crushed into oblivion by the extrinsic demands of the role, so that at its best, it's also at its worst, a tentative, watery impersonation of Tim Allen saying things vaguely akin to the toy version of the character; mostly it isn't anything, even "Chris Evans," which already seems like a pretty low bar. (Weirdly, Lightyear provides a superior alternative for a "serious" Buzz within the film itself, and of course there's always Patrick Warburton.) This gets us back to Lightyear was "a hard idea," and I don't necessarily mind the plot, though nearly every piece of execution is bad; but while it's not an original thought, it's no less true that "Buzz Lightyear" is fundamentally just a parody of space opera and Star Wars in particular, and while it can be done, resituating a parody into a freestanding work is terribly difficult. There's a reason nobody's tried to make, for example, a gritty reboot of Spaceballs. There is no doubt in my mind Lightyear would already be a little better if it weren't Toy Story 5 (or Toy Story Zero), because it already kind of wants to be its own thing.
But there's no changing that, and it's still "a Pixar film," even if there's essentially no point anymore in describing their lighting effects, etc.; it's only "an advance" in comparison to its pair of lightweight predecessors, and, thank God for small miracles, it repudiates the grotesque beanmouth-in-CGI character design of Luca and Turning Red. But much as Evans is trapped trying to be a "serious, grounded" version of a pompous moron, with material that makes a somber, morose moron out of the character, even the production design here is dragged down by the fact that "Buzz Lightyear" originated as a pure joke, visually neither more nor less than an intentionally-dopey "spaceman" aesthetic, while even his colors seem to have been chosen just to distinguish him from Woody as much as possible. And, you know, this is entirely spitting into the wind, but a character in a "1995 live-action film" would not actually have to look exactly like his fucking toy. He's certainly not required to have fucking buttons on his side that might make sense for a toy but a whole lot less for a human being's weaponized spacesuit; and things get worse once the Zurg forces show up. There is nothing to be done with Zurg. Maybe it should've been "the 1995 Saturday morning cartoon show." Give or take a few years, this was a thing that actually existed, so maybe that would've been the better conceit, though at this point I might also suggest "outsource it to DreamWorks."
*Then again, perhaps that's unkind to a company with literally thousands of soft targets when this has already gotten the Stochastic Terrorism Party to describe them as ravenous pedophiles.