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STUDIO Entertainment One
RUNNING TIME 90 minutes
• Making-of featurette
• International poster gallery
• Short films by Nacho Vigalondo
An alien invasion movie! Except we don’t see any aliens. And there’s not much of an invasion. Also it’s about two people trying to cover up their one-night stand.
Julián Villagrán, Michelle Jenner, Raúl Cimas, Carlos Areces
Julio wakes up next to the beautiful Julia, who seems like the girl of his dreams. Unfortunately, as the morning goes on, two significant problems emerge: 1) Julia has a boyfriend, and 2) the streets of Madrid have been evacuated, and a giant flying saucer hovers overhead. It turns out that #2 is much less of a pressing issue than #1, though, as the boyfriend, Carlos, soon comes home, and Julio and Julia must make excuses for Julio’s presence. Add in a nosy neighbor and a healthy dose of paranoia about that thing in the sky on Carlos’s part, and the situation becomes increasingly complicated as the pair must concoct more and more elaborate lies in order to cover their tracks, while at the same time try to ride out survival in the deserted city.
Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo became a darling of the geek world after the release of his debut feature Timecrimes back in 2007, and with good reason. The film, a twisty-turny time travel thriller, is equal parts funny and scary, and is whip-smart, to boot. It’s also one of the handful of stories involving time travel where it actually makes sense. Extraterrestrial is his follow-up, and it doesn’t disappoint. Even better, though, is that it simultaneously lives up to and defies any expectations that his previous work may have set for you.
See, the movie is really good, but it isn’t the kind of story that you’d think it is based on the posters, which prominently feature that giant-ass spaceship. But the presence of that ship is really nothing more than an excuse to force the small cast to stay together. It’s an instigator for human-on-human conflict, and nothing more. A few familiar tropes of the invasion story, such as aliens impersonating people and becoming infiltrators, are incorporated as a joke. Some of the characters suspect they’re in such a plot, but their actions (and the actions of other characters exploiting their fears) drive home the point that the real aliens are other people. This is basic sci-fi allegory here, but Vigalondo pulls it off beautifully.
The reason it works are the four principals, who, outside of a few moments, are the only people in the film at all. Julián Villagrán is great as the haplessly lovestruck yet always-devious Julio. And Michelle Jenner’s absolutely radiant, somehow an idol of affection and a fully-rounded character at the same time. As Carlos, Raúl Cima pulls off a trick balancing act between being incredibly likable and dangerously unhinged. Even Carlos Areces fleshes out a seemingly one-dimensional “creepy guy next door” act, injecting just the right amount of sympathy into the weirdo Angél.
Technically, Julio and Julia are the bad guys in this situation. Most of the movie consists of them continually screwing over poor Carlos, in ways that take a toll on his sanity in the face of the inexplicable alien presence. And Angél, creep or not, probably doesn’t deserve to be continually tied up and subjected to abuse the way he is as a result of the duo’s scheming. But they’re both terrifically sympathetic, against all odds. And Julio has a subtle but wonderful arc through the film as he slowly comes to grips with the consequences of his actions, leading up to a charged, emotional finale.
Despite its limited usage of location, low budget, and few characters, Extraterrestrial is actually quite cinematic. This ain’t no filmed stage play. It breaks out into the streets enough times to make sure that the main apartment setting never feels stale. Vigalondo, having worked with no money for so long, knows exactly how to move the camera’s eye within the spaces with which he has to work.
When talking about lower-profile filmmakers, we often wish that they could be given greater budgets to play with. I’m honestly terrified of what Nacho Vigalondo could be capable of with tens of millions of dollars or more under his belt. The man already gets so much out of so little. Whatever he does, though, any sci-fi fan should be hella enthused for it.
There’s a poster gallery that demonstrates the limits of how many ways there are to integrate a tennis ball into a poster. There’s also a pretty standard twenty minute making-of feature, which is admittedly helpful if you want to learn some of the context behind the casting choices (turns out that Areces, for instance, is a pretty well-known comedian in Spain).
But the real meat here comes from the four Vigalondo-directed short films. Changing the World features a man trying to go through his morning routine who discovers that every possible action he thinks up results in the creation of a parallel universe. Marisa uses scores of different actresses to portray a single character whose personality changes depending on her physical location. Sunday has a married couple bickering as they film a spaceship. But my favorite is A Lesson in Filmmaking, which involves something called a “bat ball” and is indeed a valuable lesson in filmmaking. Like the rest of Vigalondo’s work, the shorts are all ultra low-budget, low production value, but they win through ingenuity and wit.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars