SIFF Roundup: “Extraterrestrial”, “John Dies at the End”

Poster for "Extraterrestrial"
It appears I can cross “alien invasion sex comedy” off my dwindling list of unseen genre mashups. This is the latest small-budget feature from Nacho Vigalondo, the Spanish writer/director behind the tense and violent 2007 sci-fi thriller Timecrimes – another brilliant film that otherwise has so little in common with the director’s sophomore effort that the connection seems scarcely worth mentioning. While Los Cronocrimenes was driven by a taut and carefully scripted sci-fi plotline, Extraterrestre merely uses the backdrop of an alien invasion to frame a sexy rom-com.

Julio (Julián Villagrán) wakes up in the apartment and bed of Julia (Michelle Jenner), following an awkward one-night stand only made more so by the fact that neither of the two can remember anything about the night before – including, indeed, whether or not they even had sex. This question becomes a bit more important when a pair of interested parties arrive – Ángel (Carlos Areces), a nosy neighbor with a serious crush on Julia, and Carlos (Raúl Cimas), her long-distance boyfriend. With the streets of Madrid empty and the downtown core beneath a mile-wide alien spaceship, this essentially becomes a locked-room romantic comedy. Julio and Julia explore their newfound, philandering chemistry, Ángel deftly demonstrates why he can’t get the girl, and Carlos, a steadfast survivalist, obliviously plans the group’s next move.

Don’t get me wrong, these characters sound a bit cookie-cutter, but the entire first act of this film is brilliantly written. The film fits right into that nice Zombieland niche in which ordinary characters are tossed together amusingly amid extraordinary circumstances. Sure, the world might be coming to an end, but can’t we still engage in petty bickering over who f’d whom? All of the cuckolding drama is a bit celebratory of bad behavior, but the plot maintains just the right tone of naughty fun to avoid feeling too mean-spirited. Even with a merciless love-quadrangle, the film has an impressive amount of heart, and makes you genuinely care about each of the four characters at least some of the time.

The problem is, these characters get kicked out of the film one by one. We definitely needed time for the core romance – if that is what it is – to grow, but at least one of the rival characters had to get short shrift, and it really wasn’t the one I expected. One of them veers just a bit too much off the rails in the third act, and it isn’t the guy with the tennis ball launcher. While this bit of screwball comedy was still entertaining, it does feel just a bit like the film is turning on its characters as they begin to strain likeability even further.

Fortunately, Extraterrestrial manages to stick the landing. The ending is sweet and seems tonally appropriate, concluding with a gorgeous sunset shot that just about perfectly sums up the film. Save the interstellar warfare for the Americans…we’re just here to hang out in Madrid.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5/10
Extraterrestrial will be playing a couple more times at SIFF, and staying for at least a weeklong Seattle run at SIFF Cinema when the festival concludes. If you’re interested in seeing the film in your town, you can also “demand it” by visiting this link.

Poster for "John Dies At the End"

John Dies at the End is pure, unadulterated insanity. I saw it at midnight under the influence of 9 hours of road-trip driving, a shot of Jägermeister, a glass of hefeweizen, and a 12-oz can of Red Bull (in that order), which might just comprise an ideal viewing experience. The film features the bizarre, drug-fueled, stream-of-consciousness journey of David Wong (Chase Williamson) and John Cheese (Rob Mayes), a pair of bros who dabble in paranormal investigation. Their recent discovery is a drug called “soy sauce”, which, when injected, enables the user to see into other places, times, dimensions, etc.

The drug is basically whatever the plot needs it to be from moment to moment, operating variably as a means of clairvoyance, precognition, telekinesis, and so on. But really, that’s fine. The drug is no different in principle than demonic possession, alien invasion, or any number of other paranormal plot devices. What keeps this movie stampeding along is not plot convention but an immense sense of kinetic fun and a commitment to remain at least semi-coherent. Don Coscarelli‘s strong low-budget visuals (which he previously demonstrated in Bubba Ho-Tep) are out in full force here. Even the most ridiculous practical effects and creatures manage to strike a nice balance between laughable and menacing. The film felt almost like an R-rated take on Ghostbusters, with the main duo seemingly quite knowledgeable about all things paranormal, despite the insane, bumbling adventure on which they must embark.

The film utilizes a number of clever devices, including phone calls displaced in time, demons who appear as different people depending on who’s looking, and even a clever reference to the Grandfather’s Axe paradox. There was seemingly a great deal of care and intelligence that went into this psychotic romp. It feels like a meticulously constructed doll, woven by a maniac into a tattered conglomeration of twigs and human hair, which he brushes lovingly every night before he goes to bed. Perhaps he calls it Sheila. Or Brutus. And then one night, he decides to use it as a quill with which to pen his manifesto on the padded walls of his suburban living room, using an ink composed principly of his own urine.

I’m pretty sure that’s an accurate summation.

FilmWonk rating: 7-ish out of 10