Monday, May 28, 2012

SIFF Review: 'Extraterrestrial'

As if waking up after a drunken one-night-stand isn’t awkward enough. There’s the fumbling around to find your clothes that are strewn all over a dark room, trying to pull on your pants in silence, and sneaking towards the door. There’s having to reintroduce yourself, or trying, hungover, to usher an equally haggard stranger out of your own apartment so you can shower away the mistakes of the previous evening. That’s all pretty terrible. But the worst part, the absolute worst, is the inevitable next morning alien invasion.

That’s the pits. And that’s also the premise for Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo’s (Timecrimes) new sci-fi comedy Extraterrestrial, a premise he executes with glee. The humor is a mixture of classic screwball antics and the more modern trend of setting up the most uncomfortable situations possible, where you can’t help but laugh at the sheer level of discomfort. Yet somehow, in the middle of all of everything else that happens, Vigalondo’s film has an undeniable heart, bittersweet romance, and is as smart as it is funny.

Before Julia (Michelle Jenner) can shoo Julio (Julian Villagran) out of her apartment and into her past, they notice something is wrong. The phones don’t work, the TV is dead, and the internet is down. Curious. Then they see the deserted streets down below, not to mention the massive flying saucer hovering over Madrid.

Most alien invasion movies focus primarily on people battling aggressors from space, with those brave few who rise up to stand against the occupying horde. Not the characters in Extraterrestrial. These are the other people, the ones who stay put and hide out. Julia and Julio aren’t going anywhere. Along with Julia’s stalker neighbor Angel (Carlos Areces), and her boyfriend Carlos (Raul Cimas), they hang out in the apartment, where the bulk of the action takes place. Julia and Julio do their damndest to keep the true nature of their tryst a secret, lies pile up, the deception gets deeper and deeper, and then things start to get weird.

The four main performances—Jenner, Villagran, Areces, and Cimas—are spot on. Jenner and Villagran have a great, awkward chemistry as they deal with their misdeeds, and gradually develop legitimate feelings for each other. Areces’ schluby, obsessed, unwanted intruder is both a creep as well as a victim of circumstance and his own neurosis. The latter manifest in ways that involve a tennis ball cannon. Cimas’ gung ho, wannabe hero gracelessly storms through the city without a clue, in the midst of a conflict only he is aware of. He’s a good, earnest guy, simply deceived and misled. Everyone in Extraterrestrial thinks they know something, thinks they have all the answers, only no one knows jack.

The aliens in Extraterrestrial are really a part of the background landscape, and the film is driven more by the characters than the sci-fi. Hell, a Magnetic Fields song plays over the end credits, so you can imagine what kind of story this is. In fact, all you ever see of the aliens are the saucers looming over the skyline, though their presence, and the inherent tension it brings, colors everything that happens, even if their motives remain a mystery. There is a hint of seriousness in even the silliest moments of the film, like maybe this will be the last joke someone will make, or that will be the last quick glance between illicit lovers. It is more about human interactions, the way they treat each other, than coping with an incursion from outer space.

Extraterrestrial is a small, simple movie, made on a shoestring budget with a minimum of locations. And it is a picture perfect example of doing a lot with very little. Vigalondo lets his characters carry the show. They’re emotionally complete, personable, and relatable, even when treating each other poorly. A quick, light pace bounces you along, and Extraterrestrial is a fantastic film about what it is to be human, informed by an alien invasion.

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