Extraterrestrial (2011)

Directed by Nacho Vigalondo


There is a new movie coming out this month called Colossal with Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis, and the trailer looks awesome.  It’s a movie about a woman, Hathaway, who has a mental link with a Godzilla-like monster that attacks Seoul, South Korea.  Basically, Hathaway controls the monster’s movements like a puppet, and she has no idea why.

So I thought that looked great and decided to check out the director’s other movies.  His name is Nacho Vigalondo, and he has a list of several high-concept movies, including one about time travel, one about Elijah Wood spying on an actress or something.  And then there is Extraterrestrial, a story about a guy and a girl after a one night stand on the same morning a bunch of aliens show up Arrival style.

So I just started watching this for no reason other than it looks somewhat interesting.  The film, though, feels very low budget and in many ways amateurish.  The cinematography feels a little too brightly lit (like every light is a spotlight, rather than diffused), the performances are occasionally stilted, and the script forces the characters to act in pretty unbelievable ways using uneven logic in order to get from point A to point B.

But overall, this film felt very creative and inspired, in a weird way.  If I had to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d probably only give it a 5, but looking at the piece as a part of the process towards future, better movies, there is a lot to appreciate and enjoy here.

Our protagonist is Julio, who wakes up in the bed of a women, Julia, with whom he had a drunken one night stand that he doesn’t remember at all.  It’s made clear that Julio likes Julia, and they decide to stick together in her apartment when they learn that aliens have showed up in a giant space ship hovering above their city, Madrid.  Julia’s creepy neighbor, Angel, gives them (and us) all the necessary exposition in a clunky scene in which he just explains what happened while they were sleeping.  Everyone else has left, and they decide the best thing to do is just wait… but I’m not sure what they expect to happen.

Soon after, Julia’s boyfriend Carlos shows up, and she lies to him, claiming she found Julio stumbling down the street and simply invited him up so he didn’t hurt himself.  From here the film becomes basically a play, a romantic comedy in which characters quietly fight with each other and whisper while another is out of the room.  Angel is infatuated with Julia, and both Julio and Carlos know it.  When Angel discovers that Julio has slept with Julia, he threatens to tell Carlos, so Julia and Julio conspire against Angel, telling Carlos that they worry that Angel is one of “them,” (the aliens).  They appeal to Carlos’ already intense paranoia, and he and Julio tie Angel up and send him on his way.

Later, Carlos goes off to fight the powers that be which are a local news station which claims to be part of the rebellion but is in reality very inept.  Meanwhile, Angel returns and announces through a banner, through marked tennis balls and through a megaphone that Julia is sleeping with Julio.  His goal is to inform Carlos, but then it’s unclear what he expects to happen.  He just doesn’t like Julio, and that’s all there is.

As this is going on, Julio and Julia are falling into some kind of love.  Eventually, Julio takes Angel away to get rid of him, but then, in a stretch of the imagination, Angel starts to believe that Julio is himself an alien.  This realization is depicted through awkward flashbacks which explain to us Angel’s thinking, but it’s very unintelligible thinking.  There is no reason to think that Julio is an alien, but because that’s what the story needs, that’s what Angel thinks.

Julio’s final plan is to find Carlos and tell him that he is an alien, but a nice alien.  This happens what Julia tells Julio that she can’t leave Carlos and wants to tell him the truth.  Julio records a video of him telling his plan to Julia, and this is shown to the audience at the same time we see the plan he’s talking about.

Basically, he visits Carlos, pretends to have been an alien all along and bids Carlos adieu, allowing him to go home to Julia where they will live happily ever after.  What’s so awkward about this sequence is that it’s presented as some big, emotional sacrifice (that’s often the desired impact of cross-cutting between a scene showing the making of a plan and the plan itself), and yet the plan is so laughable.  It’s another moment where we see a bunch of flashback cutaways to justify why Carlos believes this.

I think there is so much fun and funny stuff in this film that would be better utilized by embracing the screwball comedy of the story.  I’m picturing something with John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell or Danny McBride and Nick Swarsdon.  Basically, this is a movie that has nothing to do with aliens, not that I ever expected them to enter the story once I realized how low budget this film was.  That might feel like a letdown, but the ability of these characters to completely ignore the aliens and instead focus on these petty conflicts between themselves was pretty hilarious.  It would work better if the story admitted to itself how delusional these characters were.  Carlos and Angel are shown to be delusional, but that’s because they are forces of opposition to our heroes, Julio and Julia.  Julio is never depicted as anything but absolutely right.  He is supposed to be cool, handsome, intelligent, etc.  I think the movie should’ve made all the characters equally idiotic.  After all, everyone in town has fled already, and these people stayed behind because they’re either stupid or were too hungover the night before.  Even then they don’t leave despite not having any clear plan for what to do next.

Damn, I would absolutely love to see this movie with a big comedy cast.  I can picture it in so many different styles, something like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Portlandia or something directed by Adam McKay or Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.

But the movie suffers from taking itself too seriously.  At the end of the story, we’re meant to feel for Julio and his sacrifice.  Even the alien presence is mostly ignored.  There is one moment in which Carlos, believing Julio to be one of the aliens, asks him why they’re there, and Julio shrugs and says there’s no reason.  Arrival was all about the humans trying to understand the aliens and why they showed up, and while I obviously don’t accept this movie to explore that, you’d think there would be at least some time devoted to what they think about this alien arrival.  The fact that they don’t really discuss it, past the first ten minutes of the film, suggests they are shortsighted and selfish, which they are.  Again, if the story just embraced these characters as foolish, stubborn and ignorant, then I think it would work much better.

There are plenty of comic situations in movies and shows in which a character suffers because they don’t know the real problem at hand, and we laugh at them for it.  Think of a Charlie Chaplin gag, or the Chaplin-esque Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes gag from The Simpsons:

We laugh at Bob because he’s playing the fool, and we should laugh at the four characters in Extraterrestrial because they too are playing fools.  So when the movie gets serious again, it feels a little odd.  It’s like if the above Simpsons gad ended with Bob ruminating on his suffering, trying to make us understand it even though we see clearly that if he pays attention, there is plenty of space in between the rakes.

Extraterrestrial, in this way, shows us the space between the rakes but doesn’t ask why its characters make use of that space.  They get themselves into silly problems that can only be resolved, apparently, through silly solutions.

I think there is a great story premise here, but director Nacho Vigalondo chose the wrong direction.

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