"Timecrimes," the feature-length debut of Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo, was a loopy shot of comic suspense about inadvertent time travel. Four years later, his sophomore effort seemingly has less daring aims. But the superficial exterior of "Extraterrestrial," about four acquaintances holed up in their apartment building while a UFO looms overhead, hides a much smarter parable about human behavior. Guided by Vigalondo's understated wit, the story never adheres to expectations. Whereas "Timecrimes" playfully doubled back on itself, "Extraterrestrial" wanders away from its alleged science fiction roots to focus on a sweetly unassuming love story made fresh by the unlikely backdrop.
The movie opens with Julio (Juliían Villagrán), an astute industrial design student, waking up in the apartment of the aptly named Julia (Michelle Jenner) after a one-night stand. While Julia initially wants to cast Julio to the curb before her boyfriend Carlos (Raúl Cimas) comes home, a quick glance out the window changes the terms of their situation. High above the city hangs a nondescript alien spaceship, the kind of obvious cliché that in most movies would imply a lack of new ideas. In this case, it's the start of one.
Honing a camcorder on the object and displaying the image on Julia's TV, they sit transfixed on her couch, heeding media reports to stay in the house. When Carlos shows up, oblivious and excited, he accepts a perfunctory excuse for Julio's presence and insists that the man stick around. After the couple's nosy oddball of a neighbor Ángel (Carlos Areces) stops by, the trim cast of "Extraterrestrial" is complete and the chemistry between them grows.
Unsure whether their one-night fling might lead to something more, Julio and Julia continually dodge Ángel's suspicions while keeping Carlos at bay. Not that he needs the help; naively devoted to leading their survival efforts, Carlos makes repeated journeys to the empty outdoors in search of resources. His trip, however, remains off-screen. Vigalondo's interest stays with the drama in the apartment for much of the running time and the movie only loses some steam when he ventures outside of it.
Presumably tired of Carlos, Julia struggles with conflicted feelings and Julio responds in turn. In whispered conversations behind Carlos' back, they assure themselves they haven't cheated. "This is something else," they each say. The line also provides a clue to the motivation behind the plot's discursive tendencies.
In premise alone, Vigalondo's premise bears a similarity to "Signs" and other minimalist alien invasion tales where the interaction between a small group of isolated survivors plays a greater role than any unnatural events. Instead, "Extraterrestrial" calls to mind Luis Buñuel's "The Exterminating Angel," a surreal classic about dinner guests inexplicably unable to leave their party. Although "Extraterrestrial" has a more conventional structure, it also focuses on the results of a sudden, contained scenario rather than the reasons behind it. The UFO is a MacGuffin in place to create the conditions for characters to bounce off each other — an Unidentified Flying Obstruction.
However, the group's constant scrambling to figure out their next move means that "Extraterrestrial" still legitimately inhabits the science fiction genre. Vigalondo uses polished visuals that make the proceedings cinematic instead of purely theatrical. The ominously empty, trash-riddled streets and the warm glow of faraway explosions take on an expressionistic quality, highlighting Julio and Julia's mounting frustrations over their future prospects. "Extraterrestrial" can be forgiven the tangents into melodramatic territory due to Vigalondo's seamless ability to navigate those soapy waters.
Comparisons to "Timecrimes" might make "Extraterrestrial" look simplistic, but the screenplay's complexity creeps up on you. The UFO is an excuse for probing the quiet love triangle taking place beneath it, as well as a means for the characters to evade their problems. Once Julio and Julia start embellishing on the situation, using the possibility of alien invaders as a way to get rid of the uncooperative Ángel, the cascade of lies never stops. In Vigalondo's amusingly perceptive script, the layering of information takes prominence over exposition. Even when it drags, "Extraterrestrial" keeps the smart concept in check: It's all talk masked by the illusion of larger events that never come to the forefront. When Julio admits that "we might have exaggerated a bit," it marks the movie's only instance of overstatement.
Even though Vigalondo never digs into the precise reason for the spaceship's arrival, he gives it a deeper meaning that renders the basic mystery irrelevant within minutes. The flying saucer never moves, but its metaphorical appeal grows with time. Eventually, the only alien presence among the pile up of lies and hidden motives comes from the desire to tell the truth.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Focus World releases "Extraterrestrial" on VOD and DVD this Friday. It also opens in several cities, including Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Austin and New York. Although unlikely to garner nearly as much attention (or acclaim) as "Timecrimes," the movie is well-positioned to find a steady audience among curious genre fans over the next few months.
Editor's note: A version of this review originally ran during last year's Fantastic Fest.