Tuesday, March 31, 2009

ALIEN TRESPASS: 1950 sci-fi comes not-quite alive

There's a good idea at the base of R.W. Goodwin's new ALIEN TRESPASS. Unfortunately, it is neither all that novel nor done well enough to take flight. Making fun of old sci-fi and fantasy films has been around for very nearly as long as the original genres themselves. (In fact, many of these old films, viewed today, become their own delightful self-satires.) The last pretty-good example I recall of one of these modern-day recreations was the Canadian Top of the Food Chain (1999, also known as Invasion!) with Campbell Scott. Just last week saw the opening of the mainstream, animated Monsters vs Aliens, which itself spoofs many of these movies and offers a character that bears a striking, one-eyed resemblance to the monster in Goodwin's new film.

The 50s are fertile ground for parody because so many cheap little sci-fi films were made back then, what with the threat of nuclear war on everyone's mind. Toss in the fashions, cars and colors of the period, and you would seem to have a can't-miss combination. If only. Taking a "deadpan" approach is one thing, but when this comes off with the accent on the first syllable, your movie is in trouble. Satire, even an "homage," is a trickier task than moviemakers often realize. Everyone -- writer, director, cast and production people -- have to be on (or near) the same page, yet here, there seem to be as many different pages in play as there are people involved. Styles vary from angst-y (Dan Lauria's police chief) to over-the-top (Robert Patrick's cop) to wide-eyed innocence (Sarah Smyth's ingenue). Mostly though, everything comes off as just flat. There's little wit to the screenplay (by Steve P. Fisher from a story by Fisher and James Swift), save one funny line about the Edsel, so after awhile, this viewer's goodwill began to run out.

Lead Eric McCormack (shown at right) is saddled for most of the movie with a character whose body is inhabited by one of the aliens, and so McCormack goes into a kind of "remote" mode, which allows him to express little emotion or energy. This is generally disastrous. Only one character, the coffee shop waitress Tammy, is brought fully to life by an Australian actress named Jennie Baird (shown below). Baird is terrific: a perfect icon of the 50s with pizazz, ponytail and allure to spare. She keeps her energy level high and on-target and her final scene at the spaceship is so well done, that I swear, those of you old enough will suddenly remember the late, great B-movie actress Beverly Garland -- who herself graced some of these 50s sci-fi flicks.

Ostensibly a "lost" studio masterpiece, Alien Trespass actually begins with a faux 50s newsreel that "explains" the film's provenance. While the news footage is relatively fun/funny, it doesn't work quite as well as it might because the narrator's voice doesn't come close to the style of that old announcer whom those of us who remember this period will know and love. In any case, if you've a taste for science-fiction spoofing and/or the 50s, nothing will keep you away from Alien Trespass. Just tamp down those expectations and you'll probably enjoy it more than did I.

The spaceship -- and special-effects star -- of Alien Trespass

The movie opens this Friday, April 3. For now you can see it in NYC at the AMC Empire 25 Theaters, Chelsea Clearview Cinemas, and the Angelika Film Center. In California, look for it in Berkeley at the Shattuck Cinemas 10; in Hollywood at the Mann Chinese 6; in Monterey at the Osio Plaza 6; and in Palm Springs at the Camelot Theatre 3.

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