Film Review: Extraterrestrial (Extraterrestre)

Diverting trifle of romantic misunderstandings in Madrid, under the shadow of an apparently benign spaceship occupation, never gathers steam nor finds a consistent tone.

For his second feature, Spanish writer-director Nacho Vigalondo returns to sci-fi in an everyday mode: Where his debut, Timecrimes (2007), concerned a suburban husband stumbling into a backyard murder mystery and literally trying time and again to change the past from the future, Extraterrestrial (Extraterrestre) is a romantic farce set in motion by the presence of hovering flying saucers.

As no actual extraterrestrials were used in the making of this motion picture—none are ever seen or otherwise interact with the five-person cast—the title seems a metaphoric reference to Julio (Julián Villagran), a stranger who enters the lives of Julia (doe-eyed stunner Michelle Jenner), her boyfriend Carlos (Raúl Cimas) and Julia's arrogantly creepy apartment-house neighbor Angel (Carlos Areces). Julio, in fact, is such a stranger in a strange land as the movie opens that neither he nor Julia can remember each other's names in the morning after an apparently drunken one-night stand.

With exquisite unspoken cues on both actors' parts, a polite but adamant Julia wants lover-boy out of the house and on his way, while the let's say interesting-looking Julio wants to stick around and find out more about a girl who would normally be out of his league. Then they see the spaceship outside her window. The military, it turns out, has evacuated the city while they were sleeping it off. Then the chubby, balding, bespectacled Angel—who's got a thing for Julia and I'm sure collects Star Wars action figures—stops by, not having evacuated since it's clear he could only have Julia if he were the last guy on Earth. He's not happy to see Julio. On the other hand, Carlos—the boyfriend, of whom Julio was unaware—arrives and is such a bluff, good-natured guy that he of course believes Julia's story that she found Julio passed out in the street and has been nursing him. Would-be wacky complications ensue.

And that's the problem. The set-up seems ripe for a comedy of escalating misunderstandings, but the movie never settles on a tone. Is it supposed to be suspenseful? A psychological seriocomedy? A slapstick farce with falling bookcases, unloaded guns being waved and a tennis-ball machine being used in a hostile manner? It all sounds funnier that it is.

It would have been nice if the barely there musical score had given us a clue, but no luck. It also doesn't help that we never get a fix on the relative reality of the situation. On the one hand, water and electricity go out and so generators must be used; on the other, there's an open grocery store conveniently around the corner even though Madrid's been evacuated—who were they planning to sell to?—and an equally handy open sporting-goods store where Carlos, who walked eight-and-a-half hours from an evacuee encampment to reach Julia, stopped in on the way.

As well, Julia's sudden, surreptitious flirting with Julio, and her having furtive sex with him while her devoted boyfriend is asleep in another room, paints a distasteful sheen on what Vigalondo seemed to intend as a charming comedy. It doesn't make your heroine charming to see her sleazily cheating on a good, decent guy. I dunno. Maybe that's funny in Spain?

Extraterrestrial is being released simultaneously in theaters and on video-on-demand and, interestingly, is an early example of a film also being distributed via Tugg—an Internet option whereby you or I can choose a date, time and theatre and then crowd-source an audience of friends and friends-of-friends, which automatically books once you reach a certain threshold. Offhand, that doesn't sound a like bad alternative for theatre owners for that slow night of the week.