In 2007 Nacho Vigalondo wrote, directed, and co-starred in “Timecrimes,” a loopy Spanish-language time travel thriller that announced a bold new voice in science fiction filmmaking. Ingenious on an almost molecular level, the incredibly low-budget feature combined traditional time travel concerns (including multiple variations of the same character) with a hard thriller edge and a De Palma-ian obsession with voyeurism. In short: it was an absolute blast. Well, Vigalondo is finally back, with an altogether different take on science fiction. “Extraterrestrial” (or “Extraterrestre” in its original language) is a kind of romantic comedy set against the backdrop of a global alien invasion. It might not be as bold or crackling as “Timecrimes,” but it is just as unique.
The set-up for “Extraterrestrial” is diabolically clever and just as simple – we watch two people as they wake up from what appears to be a one-night stand. The fellow, Julio (Julian Villagran, weedy and unshaved and Vincent Gallo-y), wakes up and looks for his pants, while his overnight paramour, Julia (Michelle Jenner, almost painfully adorable), scuttles about her apartment. It’s a great example of awkward near-interaction, but eventually they both pause, overtaken by the eerie silence that has blanketed the neighborhood. They crane out the window and see a giant spaceship, in classic flying saucer form, hovering over central Madrid. That certainly makes things more interesting.
Various subplots spin out from this central hub – Julia’s actual lover, Carlos (Raul Cimas), returns to check on her while the rest of Madrid is evacuated, which adds a super-uncomfortable love triangle vibe to the mix; they are constantly harassed by an overzealous neighbor Angel (Carlos Areces); and at various times the finger is pointed as to who could be an extraterrestrial spy, posing in human guise. But really, at its heart, it’s a romantic comedy about two people who meet under the most unusual and stressful of circumstances – after all, if the aliens mean us harm, this could be your last few moments on earth, wouldn’t you want to spend it in the arms of a super-cute Spanish girl?
At 88 minutes, “Extraterrestrial” flits by, gliding aloft on a series of intriguing ideas (one of the best being that no one actually knows anything and that most of the information is spread via an incompetent news anchor that refuses to go off air) but sometimes the plot seems desperate to keep things going, at the cost of common sense of character likability. An early episode involves Julia and Julio conspiring to accuse Angel of being an alien doppelganger, which leads the clearly not-all-together Carlos to drag Angel out of town and just leave him there. Not only is it an incredible leap in logic, bordering on “Three’s Company“-esque sitcom plot mechanics, but it makes our two leads, who we are supposed to be rooting for (and eventually watch fall in love), seem completely and totally unlikable. They gain most of that goodwill back, of course, mostly through the force of Jenner’s mothership-sized eyes. (The subplot about Carlos becoming a domestic terrorist/freedom fighter, seems inserted from another, altogether darker movie, too.)
But the merits far outweigh the detriments on “Extraterrestrial.” It’s a wonderful setting for a romantic comedy, and as the movie drips on, you see how these two people have basically slept through a seismically life-altering event. They hang around, sleep together, let the trash pile up, and scheme. The title is a double meaning, since these are characters imprisoned not just in their Madrid apartment but by their respective existential crises – would their relationship even exist without the alien invasion? (At one point Julia says, “This isn’t a relationship this is… something more complicated.”) If there is a fear in the movie, it isn’t the fear of being atomized by little green men, it’s the fear of their love evaporating when the spaceship returns to the cosmos.
And while we don’t get to see any slimy space beasts (sadly), we do get relationship unease, some clever third act twists, and a deep sense of resigned melancholy, all things that most romantic comedies could use more of. While it doesn’t quite live up to the lofty expectations that “Timecrimes” laid out, writer/director Vigalondo is an incredibly gifted filmmaker and his knack for both pretzel-y scripts and photographic elegance remain intact (there are beautiful shots where the camera glacially scans the apartment, offered up with cool detachment). He remains a genre filmmaker who is unafraid to pay homage to the past while pushing the boundaries out even further. “Extraterrestrial” is a bold move, but one that clearly spells out Vigalondo’s versatility – he can make you laugh just as easily as he can get you to scream. [B+]