You have to admire Robert Rodriguez. Or, well, you don't have to, and indeed you might not, but the man is usually good at what he does, though you might not like what it is that he does. You might not like Planet Terror, for example, because it's gross as shit.
He certainly starts off on the right foot, with a scantily-clad Rose McGowan performing a red-hot stage dance as the film shakes, jumps and occasionally melts outright as if in response to what it's been asked to display. It's the third time Rodriguez has incorporated an exotic dance scene into one of his films, and the third time's the charm. It's meant as a loud, blazing bit of foreshadowing for what we're about to sit through, a film with no desire to appeal to our higher instincts. Planet Terror (which is just plain old Earth) was Rodriguez's half of the ultimately failed Grindhouse double-bill with Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, and is the far more enjoyable half of the set, provided that you don't happen to be eating during the first reel, which might just taint the experience.
The plot involves a gaseous toxin which is released during a deal gone wrong at an old military base (designated "military base"), causing those exposed to turn into zombie-like creatures who infect others and rip people limb from limb. It's not exactly King Lear, but the screenplay compensates by stuffing the proceedings full of colorful characters. There's the self-named go-go dancer Cherry Darling, who's tough and cynical while still managing to cry during every performance, there's the sheriff and his estranged brother who feud over BBQ sauce recipes and rent, there's the sadistic doctor and his wife, also a doctor, who carries her syringes in a garter, there's the return of Earl McGraw from Dusk 'till Dawn and Kill Bill, and there's the mysterious Wray, who appears to know a little about everything and is a one-man killing machine whose past seems tied to everyone else in the film. Add Bruce Willis as a hardassed military man and a pair of insane babysitters, and you end up with a film which is surprisingly still coherent and never dull, though animal lovers may wince at an unnecessarily mean-spirited scene involving a dog. I know I did.
So as a throwback to dirty exploitation flicks of bygone days, is Planet Terror a success? As an homage, certainly. As something that could ever be taken for the real deal, not on your life. The fact is that Rodriguez is too good a director/editor to actually make something look cheap and tossed-off, no matter how many scratches and ragged edits he adds to the picture. Consider that the distressing applied to the image to make it look old and worn is done in a way which is anything but random. Sexy scenes melt the film, tense scenes become streaked and grainy, and violent scenes are filled with harsh splices and jump-cuts. Clever and fun, and a pretty unique directorial angle, but hardly an actual evocation of the source material. The digital replacement of Cherry's leg with a table leg (and later, with a machine gun) feels effortless, yet would've been far out of the technical or budgetary range of any '70s grindhouse pic. Production values aside, the film isn't nearly as sleazy as it pretends to be. Cherry and Wray's inevitable love scene contains no actual nudity-in fact, beyond one fleeting scene just post-titles, there really isn't any. The gross-out scenes aren't in short supply, and while I know there are definitely fans of gooey, gory cinema, I suspect that if you took a poll on whether audience members, male or female, would rather see more scenes of blood and viscera or more of Rose McGowan's body, you'd find a heavily disproportionate weighting towards the latter. It's a weird disorder of our culture and the useless MPAA that we're less disturbed by bodies eviscerated than bodies uncovered, or, in a colossal case of being out of touch with reality, that characters can engage in sex on television but an automatic "R" rating goes to any film that uses the word "fuck" to mean what it actually means. Maybe none of this is a factor here. Maybe it was a jealous possessiveness on the part of the director, who was banging his star in real life before the production had wrapped.
Ultimately it's a matter of personal perspective whether or not the clearly manufactured shabbiness enhances your viewing pleasure or takes you out of the experience. It's mostly utilized in a creative, expressive way, but occasionally little details seem to slip the director's notice. Partway through the sex scene, the film breaks and is replaced by a title card proclaiming "reel missing," as if an unscrupulous projectionist had made off with the footage of the good bits. It's an effective gag and is used to create more enigma in the story (the "missing reel" never actually existed), but considering the fact that projected reels are twenty minutes in length, it creates the implication that the "complete" film was supposed to run nearly 140 minutes. What cheapie blood-and-guts flick ever ran that long?
-review by Matt Murray