By Roshan Chandy
This Buzz Lightyear spin-off doesn’t boldly go to infinity and beyond.
“Do not go gentle into that good night” is the line Michael Caine’s Kip Thorne-inspired scientist quotes Dylan Thomas in Chris Nolan’s gargantuan space epic Interstellar (2014). It’s a line I couldn’t help, but think of when watching Lightyear (2022) – Pixar’s actiony spin-off of the legendary Toy Story astronaut. I did feel this movie doesn’t “rage, rage against the dying of the light”. What I mean is it lacks the god-fearing ideas to be worthy of the great Sci-Fi pictures. Much like Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) wasn’t “strange” enough compared with Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022), I felt this Lightyear paled in comparison to the weirdness of the very best Sci-Fis including Pixar’s very own Wall-E (2008).
Lightyear is a muscled torsoed, action-heavy, WHAM! BAM! PAM! superhero blockbuster. With its intergalactic dogfights and lunar shootouts, it very much resembles the kind of kitschy Saturday Morning Picture Show that populated the matinee screenings of the 30s and 40s. It’s the sort of movie we often associate with Mike Hodge’s Flash Gordon (1980) – a movie which hasn’t aged well at 40 years.
Like most superhero movies, Lightyear is an origins story about the birth and creation saga of Buzz Lightyear before him and Woody became bosom buddies in the original Toy Story. There’s a new Lightyear in the voice part. That’s cinema’s very own Captain America Chris Evans who replaces the seminal and epochal Tim Allen. He’s a big, bright American voice – very smooth, womanizing, sexy and charismatic. But I felt he lacked Allen’s world-weariness and wisdom to boldly go to infinity and beyond.
The first thing is that there are positives about this film. The animation is frankly the best I’ve seen of Pixar and trillion years ahead of where they started off in 1995. Through Whale Shark navy blues and Kryptonite stars, Director Angus MacFarlane paints and fruitcakes the frame in the most beautiful colours. The design of the moon – all craters of grey, Nietzchean abyss – and the space station – full of turmeric – are the most particularly impressive. You really get the sense you’re truly in space like the best Sci-Fis give the impression.
Some of the action is superb – redolent of the best live-action action adventures and deep space blockbusters. There’s a shootout on the moon where this works particularly well with Buzz dodging space bullets and laser rays and playing ballet n’ dodgeball with the moon holes. You’ll certainly get bang for your buck when you watch Lightyear…
I’m sorry to say, though, that this movie just isn’t smart enough for a true Sci-Fi classic. It’s not that Sci-Fis always have to ask grandstanding questions about god, ape and man – the original Star Wars trilogy was an exercise in bang before beef and that was perfectly fine. But Pixar have done serious Sci-Fis before – in the Silent Running-inspired robot romance Wall-E (2008) and Soul (2020) which has emotional depth of the Christmas Carol-worthy character transformation of It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). By comparison, Lightyear is lightweight. It lacks the rare meat of those previous Pixar classics.
Wall-E was a movie that probed at ideas about environmentalism and man finding a new home galaxies far, far away from Planet Earth. It was about growing new trees and finding life-essential water on a space station. It was also about the fact that even androids can feel n’ show emotion and practice love as we saw in the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story of Wall-E and EVE. That’s much more beef for your bang than anything in Lightyear which has approximately the emotional intelligence of an Emu.
Lightyears big emotional moment and connection comes from Buzz’s relationship and chemistry with his long-lost and evil father Zurg (James Brolin) – character of the greatest Star Wars reference in a kids film in Toy Story 2 (2000). We’ve seen fathers and sons, dads before bros everywhere in Sci-Fi. Maybe I should say fathers and daughters in the case of Interstellar or Contact (1997) or mommies and their babies such as in Arrival (2016). Pixar have even done boys and their pas themselves in Onward (2020). That had a better father n’ son chemistry than Lightyear.
Lightyear is a perfectly serviceable action adventure with some great dogfights and space shootouts. If you go in craving an empty belly Sci-Fi experience, you won’t be disappointed. But the best Pixars were about so much more than that. They were about losing your loved ones, the importance of being best friends and doing kind gestures and favours for people, about robots learning to emote. The best Sci-Fis are about real-world themes such as emotion, artificial intelligence and fears for the future. There’s none of that in Lightyear which is one of the most emotionally empty Pixar movies.
When Pixar are behind the camera, I expect bigger, brainier, better…