Thursday, April 2, 2009
Following on the heels of the animated "Monsters Vs. Aliens," "Alien Trespass" (opening April 3 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) covers somewhat similar ground. Both films present us with an alien who comes to earth and then the films try to use the trappings of 50s sci-fi movies to sell the premise. But unlike "Monsters Vs. Aliens," "Alien Trespass" is live action. It also comes from R. W. Goodwin who should know what he's doing since he worked on the cult TV show "The X-Files," which frequently dealt with aliens although usually in a more serious vein.
The plot of "Alien Trespass" is somewhat inconsequential - it's merely the gag that gets the ball rolling on this parody homage to 50s sci-fi. But in case you want to know, the film opens with a newsreel recounting the failed attempt to bring a big budgeted 1950s sci-fi film called "Alien Trespass" to the big screen. The film was thought destroyed because of a contract dispute between the studio head and the film's star. But the film survived and it's served up for us immediately following the newsreel. The film proper then deals with an asteroid that crashes out in the desert. A bookish astronomer named Ted (Erik McCormack) goes to investigate and his body is taken over by the extraterrestial Urp, who has to capture the evil alien Ghota that escaped from his ship when it crashed landed on our quaint little planet. Ghota will eat everything in sight and keep dividing until it destroys the planet. Perky blond waitress Tammy (Jenni Baird) has the hots for the married Ted and is eager to help him. Now that Urp has taken over his body, Ted can't remember that he's married, which leaves quite an opening for Tammy. Throw into the mix some wacky teens and incompetent law enforcement and you've got "Alien Trespass."
The film draws heavily on elements from "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (for GORT and the benevolent alien), "It Came From Outer Space" and "The Blob" (for the Ghota), and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "I Married a Monster From Outer Space" (for aliens taking over human bodies). There are many more references but those seem the most prevalent. The Blob even gets quoted with a clip of the 1958 creature attacking a movie theater being shown in a movie theater as the Ghota attacks. But the references aren't clever. Goodwin and writer Steven P. Fisher don't come across as sci-fi fanboys who knows the genre they're spoofing. They get the surface to look relatively the same but they don't seem to have the devoted affection for the genre necessary to make a spoof of this sort work effectively. The filmmakers also fail to make anything of the opening newsreel, there's no playing off of that later in the film.
"Alien Trespass" tries painfully hard to be cute, clever, hip, kitschy, and retro all at once. Unfortunately it mostly falls flat with most of the laughs feeling forced. Goodwin and company are so aware of the humor they are trying to pull off that the whole thing feels somewhat strained, and that's never a good thing in a comedy. Goodwin is too self-aware of what he's doing and the laughs he's going for. He has a competent cast that almost pulls off the mock serious tone with cheery energy. I'll also give props to the film for keeping most of the effects, especially those involving the Ghota, fittingly low budget and free of CGI. The cheese factor in this case works in its favor. But the things that work are far outweighed by the things that don't. The pace and timing are just off and that can be fatal to a comedy. Plus the film is so thin you can see through it. All it is is a riff on old sci-fi films. Goodwin isn't trying to say anything with his spoof; it's simply a paint by numbers attempt at recreating 50s genre elements but with a smug and knowing wink to the audience.
The recent zombie comedy "Fido" tried for a similar mix of elements but managed to pull it off with great humor and aplomb. That film knew what it wanted to achieve with its spoof. It didn't merely want to imitate a style and formula but rather it wanted to show how that happy, glossy suburban image was a façade covering something much grimmer and bleaker. It had an immaculate sense of style - capturing the squeaky clean visual look of cheery sitcom TV shows melded to 50s sci-fi horror. But "Alien Trespass" doesn't really have anything to say beyond look how clever we are. There's a forced politically correct statement at the end about sharing the universe and keeping the peace but that's so tacked on and lame that it can't really count.
"Alien Trespass" (rated PG for sci-fi action and brief historical smoking - that's from the MPAA) is quaint and mildly amusing at times. It recalls another failed attempt at 50s sci-fi parody, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. The thing with spoofs is that they look easy but are actually difficult to successfully pull off. Mere imitation is not enough to succeed. Skip this film and go back and rent some of the real sci-fi films of the 50s or a charming piece of genuine kitsch like Mexico's La Nave de los Montruos/Ship of Monsters with the lovely Lorena Velazquez.
Companion viewing: "The Blob," "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Fido," "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai," "I Married a Monster from Outer Space," "La Nave de los Montruos/Ship of Monsters"