Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Alien Trespass: A Concept Film That Works Great. . . For Its Niche.

The Good: Funny, Realistically recreates '50s science fiction today, Decent acting
The Bad: Purposely ridiculous, Low appeal outside niche audience
The Basics: R.W. Goodwin directs Eric McCormack and Jenni Baird in a brand new 1950's-style science fiction film which will appeal greatly to those who love classic science fiction, but few others.

Sometimes, I need to take a few moments to reiterate my standards and separate the stuff from the stuff. I tend to review all movies on the same scale: Scary Movie competes with Casablanca and The Usual Suspects on a scale of objective standards that evaluates all films I encounter on plot, character, acting and effects. And there are perfect comedies and dramas and every other genre which have superlative ratings in all four categories. Every now and then, there is a flaw in the system which is that a film might be made that does what it attempts to do extraordinarily well, but objectively is not a great film. Alien Trespass is one such film.

My other problem with reviewing Alien Trespass is this; I went to Boston to attend a screening of the film that the movie's director, R.W. Goodwin, was present for. After the viewing, I was able to ask Mr. Goodwin several questions and I enjoyed the movie, his presentation and the opportunity to pick his brain about the making of Alien Trespass and his work on The X-Files (reviewed here!). Moreover, I "get" Alien Trespass and think that for the purpose, Goodwin and writers James Swift and Steven P. Fisher did an awesome job of achieving it. The point of Alien Trespass is to create a 1950's science fiction film today. Alien Trespass achieves the retro look, feel and sound better than the only other comparable concept film, Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow.

The news of the day for November 21, 1957 (presented in vivid black and white) includes a story that Goldstone Pictures, having had a contract fallout with one of its big stars, is burying the film Alien Trespass, which is said to be the greatest science fiction masterpiece of all time. All copies of the film are thought destroyed, much to the dismay of the star, who believes it is his best performance. But then, in vivid color, Alien Trespass begins with a flying saucer careening out of control. It crashes in the Mohave Desert near a small town and something inside quickly gets out. One thing that escapes is a one-eyed phallic-looking creature with a tentacle which has the ability to turn invisible and quickly liquefies a wolf.

Also aboard the saucer is a giant silver-suited entity, whose appearance coincides with the disappearance of local astronomer, Dr. Ted Lewis, who investigates the crash of the flying saucer when he realizes it was not simply a meteor as part of the Perseal meteor shower. Ted resurfaces, claiming to his wife and to local waitress Tammy, that he is not Ted. Instead, he claims to be Urp of Codar in the Drago Cluster and he is hunting the vicious Gotah. The Gotah begins attacking everyone it comes in contact with, from the police officer, Vernon, to the nanny of the local doctor. Urp attempts to convince Tammy that they must act fast, for the Gotah is about to multiply and they must get it back into stasis before it kills everyone on the planet!

Alien Trespass is appropriately campy '50's science fiction and director R.W. Goodwin does an amazing job of replicating the look and feel of 1950's science fiction films. The flying saucer rocks awkwardly as it enters the atmosphere, the Gotah is made out of rubber and Urp in his natural form is incredibly low-budget in appearance. As well, attention is paid to the set dressings and props, up to and including getting authentic science fiction movie posters from the '50s for the child's room. There is a greaser and Tammy wears a bright pink skirt which screams bubblegum '50s. Police Chief Dawson is appropriately grizzled and Officer Vernon is accompanied by a young officer who relies on him for guidance completely.

But more than simply replicating the look of 1950s cinema - though the film does not have a grainy look to it that would have been appropriate for its retro appearance - Alien Trespass recreates the sound and feel of '50's America, as captured in the cinema of the time. Characters worry that the crashed vessel could be a "secret commie rocket" and they use "gosh" and "dang" as opposed to anything stronger. The relationship between Dr. Lewis and his wife Lana is healthy; they are celebrating their anniversary when the meteor shower begins. As well, Lana provides Ted a romantic option that is presented in a wholesome and unrevealing way (this is a PG movie appropriate for anyone over ten years old - the Gotah, we were told by the director, has been known to completely scare children younger than ten). Moreover, local youth Dick Perkins and his girlfriend Penny, despite being at the Point, manage to not engage in premarital sex.

The structure of the story even has the retro feel down pat; Ted and his wife are busy living their lives when they are interrupted by Ted being possessed by Urp. Lana believes unquestioningly in her husband and is attentive enough that she notices immediately when he returns from the hills acting strangely. The film explains itself pretty well, likening Urp to a federal marshal, calling attention to his weapon and setting up story elements like Tammy using salt to slow down the Gotah. Urp explains the state of the universe in dramatic terms and characterizes Gotah in a string of technobabble that makes sense when it is broken down, but is remarkably esoteric, which will alienate many viewers.

One of the positive things that most any audience will appreciate about Alien Trespass is the philosophy. In addition to having a strong female protagonist, in the form of Tammy, the film is not lacking in the 1950's sense of optimism about the future and about space travel. Thus, the eventual Big Preachy Speech actually fits the film remarkably well. As well, R.W. Goodwin did an amazing job of directing the film. Goodwin, who directed the seminal mythology episode of The X-Files, "The Erlenmeyer Flask" (reviewed here!) applies the same level of care and detail to making a campy film as he did to making serious science fiction. The look and feel of Alien Trespass is immaculate in its attention to detail.

Also surprisingly well done is the acting. Robert Patrick gives his usual solid performance in the supporting role of Officer Vernon and similarly Dan Lauria does as well as he can in the somewhat monolithic role of Chief Dawson. Eric McCormack gets top billing as Ted Lewis and the alien known as Urp. McCormack is challenged with playing an actor who is hamming it up some as classic science fiction actors were known to. Here, McCormack manages to brilliantly portray both an arrogant actor who believes he is acting at the top of his game and the awkward performance that is that actor's performance. McCormack pulls off that balance wonderfully.

But it is Jenni Baird who steals the show as Tammy. Baird manages to balance the serious appearance of a young woman who is suddenly thrust into a position where she might be responsible for saving the world from an alien invasion, but also playing the role with a sense of comic timing that would achieve the goal of replicating the '50's sense of camp. Baird achieves the goal by playing the role as straightlaced as possible and with an earnest quality that might seem slightly over-the-top by today's standards, but was more par for the course in the '50s. Baird makes Tammy into a worthwhile and memorable heroine.

Largely, though, Alien Trespass is geared toward a very specific audience: science fiction fans who appreciate a sense of classical science fiction, despite the cheesy special effects and predictable frights. The result is a cinematic experiment that is successful, but carries with it the inherent weaknesses of plot and character that the material it is referencing held. In other words, this film is strictly for science fiction fans and in the interest of supporting independent filmmakers and a little (worthwhile) film that can, I heartily recommend Alien Trespass to the niche audience it is intended for. But for general audiences, it might be more worthwhile to check out on DVD when it comes out, because it is more of a fun flick than a movie attempting to seriously express the ideas within it.

Now out on DVD, Alien Trespass comes with an anemic amount of bonus features. With only three featurettes and an interview with McCormack and Goodwin, plus the film's trailers, this makes less use of the DVD medium than other small budget films to truly captivate an audience.

As a final note, at the film's website, there is a bridge for the opening news story (wherein all copies of Alien Trespass are destroyed) and the actual film, where two construction workers recover a lost copy of the movie. It is hilarious and worth the time of anyone who might like a good laugh and who might be swayed to go see the film from outside the target audience.

For other science fiction comedy films, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Men In Black II
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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