FANTASTIC FEST 2011: EXTRATERRESTRIAL Review

     September 27, 2011

extraterrestrial-slice

Nacho Vigalondo made quite the splash here at Fantastic Fest a few years ago when he debuted his twisty, brilliant, hard sci-fi time-travel flick TimeCrimes, and since then, fans of the dude’s work have been wondering when he’d drop another clever little film into our laps.  Well, the wait is over:  Vigalondo’s Extraterrestrial made its debut here at Fantastic Fest 2011, and after checking it out, I’m prepared to make it official—Vigalondo’s a helluva talent, one of the best genre directors currently producing original material.  Read on for my Extraterrestrial review, after the jump.

extraterrestrial-movie-image-1Nacho Vigalondo made quite the splash here at Fantastic Fest a few years ago when he debuted his twisty, brilliant, hard sci-fi time-travel flick TimeCrimes, and since then, fans of the dude’s work have been wondering when he’d drop another clever little film into our laps.  Well, the wait is over:  Vigalondo’s Extraterrestrial made its debut here at Fantastic Fest 2011, and after checking it out, I’m prepared to make it official—Vigalondo’s a helluva talent, one of the best genre directors currently producing original material.  Read on for my Extraterrestrial review, after the jump.

I was an enormous fan of Nacho Vigalondo’s TimeCrimes, and I know that there’s a strong following for the film online and amongst film geeks.  But I’ve shown that film to a good dozen or so people, and I’ve yet to find anyone who loves it as dearly as I do.  I was kind of hoping that Vigalondo’s latest—the alien-invasion rom-com Extraterrestrial—would be something a little more accessible, a little more “Hollywood”, something that might convince all those people that didn’t “get” TimeCrimes to get onboard the Vigalondo fanboy train.  Alas:  I think Extraterrestrial is almost as challenging, just as smart (but in a different way), and couldn’t be further from the standard Hollywood blockbuster fare.

extraterrestrial-movie-image-2In other words, Extraterrestrial is great if you already love the work of Nacho Vigalondo, but if you’re one of the people that’re still trying to figure out why the rest of us are raving about the dude?  You’re probably still going to be waiting after Extraterrestrial.

Here’s why I think Extraterrestrial’s going to have a hard time becoming a crossover hit:  it offers no pat ending, no easy answers to the mysteries that it introduces.  It also may lose points amongst viewers for making some very trenchant, well-observed observations about the ways in which we lie to one another, the things we do for sex, and what it really means to be a “hero”.  I can imagine a good segment of the filmgoing population feeling uncomfortable with these truths.

The film seems borderline simplistic if you simply recount the plot out loud, but if you stop to examine what’s really going on here—and what Vigalondo’s really getting at—the film’s actually quite complex. Not TimeCrimes complex, but complex nonetheless.

extraterrestrial-movie-image-3Extraterrestrial tells the story of Julio (Julian Villagran), who awakens one morning to find himself in the apartment of the beyond-beautiful Julia (Michelle Jenner, one of the most gorgeous females I have seen on film in a long, long time).  The two have clearly just shared a one-night stand, and now they’re forced to navigate the awkward morning after…that is, that’s what’s about to take place when Julio notices that the streets outside are empty, that the hour is much later than it should be, and that his phone isn’t working.

In short order, Julio and Julia discover that an alien invasion (I use that word loosely here, as it’s really more of an “alien announcement”) has unfolded nearby while they slept.  A next door neighbor, Angel (Carlos Ereces, a standout performer here), arrives to poke and prod the couple, and then a few more things become apparent:  for one thing, Angel’s absolutely smitten with Julia, and very unhappy about the fact that someone else has spent the night with her;  and, for another, Julia’s got a boyfriend—Carlos (Raul Cimas), who shows up right on the heels of Angel’s visit.

The lies that Julio and Julia have to tell both Angel and Carlos in order to keep their one-night stand secret are the gasoline that powers Extraterrestrial, and there are times when the sci-fi element of the film disappears completely while the film becomes a comedy of errors.  It’s true that everything in Extraterrestrial unfolds against the backdrop of an alien invasion, but I’d call Vigalondo’s film a rom-com before I’d call it a sci-fi comedy.  That’s not a bad thing, of course (and Extraterrestrial’s a helluva lot better than the average rom-com), but for those expecting a film that’s as hard sci-fi as TimeCrimes was, Extraterrestrial may be a slight disappointment.  I’d been warned about all this prior to seeing the film, though, so I was able to sit back and enjoy the comings and goings of all the characters (and the increasingly ridiculous lies being told by Julio and Julia) without wondering if an alien was going to make an appearance at any moment.

extraterrestrial-movie-posterVigalondo makes things complicated for Julia and Julio early on, and then introduces characters and problems (most stemming from the lies they tell) until their situation has gone from “complicated” to “oh, shit”.  Angel starts off as a minor annoyance, but as he gets progressively more and more jealous and outraged about Julia’s infidelity, he takes some pretty drastic measures to narc the pair out to Julia’s boyfriend (including the most creative use of a tennis-ball throwing machine that I’ve ever seen on film).  Carlos, meanwhile, initially seems like a typical alpha-male type, always looking to take charge and “fix” whatever’s broken…but eventually, his heroism turns into something else entirely, something that leaves Julio and Julia kind of bewildered.

Speaking of Carlos, one of my favorite things about the film is Carlos’ subplot, and how much of it takes place off-screen.  One can imagine an entirely different movie taking place from Carlos’ point of view, and I’m willing to bet that many other filmmakers would’ve chosen to tell that story with these characters.  But heroics and explosions aren’t really of interest to Vigalondo, so we spend the majority of our time watching Julia and Julio fall in love, lie through their teeth, and tie up all the loose ends that those lies have caused.  Watching it all unfold is absolutely delightful, and that’s a word that I really hate using.

I should make a note of two things here:  one, the cast is fantastic across the board– I could devote a fawning paragraph to each and every one of them—and two, Vigalondo’s direction here is even more assured than it was in TimeCrimes.  Vigalondo’s a strong director with a great sense for pacing, and he also proves himself more than capable at writing comedy here:  there are many, many laugh-out-loud moments in Extraterrestrial.  After the one-two punch of TimeCrimes and Extraterrestrial, I’m comfortable proclaiming Vigalondo to be one of the best genre directors currently working.  I’m actively looking forward to all of his future stuff.

This is a lightweight, charming little film, and one of the better movies I’ve seen at Fantastic Fest 2011.  It’s not as challenging as TimeCrimes was in the amount of attention that it demands to keep up with the film’s plot, but I suspect that the lack of sci-fi overtones and the somewhat open-ended ending will alienate (no pun intended) some viewers.  Don’t come into Extraterrestrial looking for “TimeCrimes with aliens” and you’ll have a blast.

My grade?  A-

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