Friday, January 02, 2015
Cult-Movie Review: Extraterrestrial (2014)
(Beware of spoilers!)
If Exists (2014) is the “angry Bigfoot” movie of last year, then I suppose Extraterrestrial qualifies as the “angry alien” movie of the same season.
In both horror films, inconsiderate twenty-something year-olds transgress against paranormal creatures, and -- without so much as a trigger warning -- the creatures respond with blazing, barbaric violence.
In fact, Exists and Extraterrestrial share a number of commonalities beyond that overarching one. They have in common a central location -- a cabin in the woods -- and even a deliberately placed tree blocking egress from the woods. In both films, protagonists find guns on the premises, and defend themselves with them, usually without much success.
But where Exists is relentless, terrifying, and exciting, due in large part to the direction of Eduardo Sanchez, Extraterrestrial is mostly ridiculous and derivative.
The latter film veers wildly between a campy tone -- evidenced in the eye-bulging performance of Michael Ironside and the Grand Guignol fate of one character named Seth -- and schmaltzy romance or melodrama.
Extraterrestrial also features more endings than a Peter Jackson film set in Middle Earth. I counted four. You'd think at least one of them would be effective.
I don’t know which of these two films -- Exists or Extraterrestrial -- was produced first so I can’t argue that one copied or even influenced the other. I can only say that Exists absolutely thrilled me (and I saw it first), and Extraterrestrial proved disappointing, in part because it seemed so familiar, and in part because I expected more from the Vicious Bros. after Grave Encounters (2011), a superior horror film, and one that every horror movie fan should see. The first hour or so of that movie is truly remarkable, and terrifying.
Extraterrestrial isn’t found footage in style, except for in a scene or two, but it is a wide-ranging tour of alien abduction movie and TV show tropes. One might want to make the argument “pastiche” here -- that the film tries to assimilate, incorporate and pay homage to a number of sources -- but that point seems to really be stretching the matter.
The last horror film I saw in 2014, Extraterrestrial is a massive disappointment, especially after such superior efforts as The Babadook, Exists, and another alien-centric film, Honeymoon.
“At the end of the day, we’re all just alone in the universe.”
April (Brittany Allen) and her boyfriend, Kyle (Freddie Stroma) plan a weekend at her mother’s cabin in the woods. But Kyle is planning to propose to her there, and asks some friends to come along: Mel (Melanie Papalia), Lex (Anja Savcic).
When Kyle pops the question, however, April says no, because she has other plans involving her education and career.
Kyle is heart-broken, but has no time to dwell on his disappointment because an alien saucer crash lands in the woods near the cabin, and foot-prints are visible in the mud.
An alien attacks the cabin, and April shoots it dead. This act provokes a merciless response by the aliens. A local nutcase and friend of April’s, Travis (Michael Ironside) suggests that she broke the “no engagement treaty” by killing the alien, and now…it’s war.
The aliens come after the youngsters one-by-one, and Kyle makes a brave last stand for the love of his life. Afterwards, April realizes the depths of his love, and risks everything to be reunited with him.
“We know each other, inside and out.”
I truly appreciate the idea of merciless, aggressive aliens attacking humans on our turf. For one thing, the concept fits into one of my deeply-held theories about horror movies. That theory goes that we, as Americans, live in a safe and secure world with no real predators. Yet the primitive part of our minds longs for that danger, for that opportunity to test our mettle.
Therefore, modern man must create imaginary predators so as to feel endangered, and horror movie boogeymen -- Freddy, Jason and Michael, to name a few -- are examples of them. These personalities boast strength and abilities well beyond our own, and, in essence, hunt us as prey.
By reckoning with such predators, we face, understand and internalize the emotion of fear, and test our instincts and responses. For a moment (or ninety minutes) the safe, buttoned-down nature of life slips away, and we are just scared creatures, huddling in the dark, like cave-men. We have no responsibilities to society except to survive, because we are overwhelmed by creatures of superior abilities.
Therefore, horror movies are an outlet for primitive fears in a society that has no saber-toothed tigers or other daily threats. Highly-advanced aliens, bent on revenge, are a perfect example of this kind of fictional predator.
This is a long-winded way of stating, I suppose, that I appreciate Extraterrestrial's conceit of angry aliens on the war-path.
I just wish the film stuck to that idea on a serious, straight-faced basis, and didn't feel compelled to cast a wider net, telling a tragic love story, and giving shout-outs to other alien abduction pictures.
Before Extraterrestrial finishes, for example, it features scenes that will be familiar to fans of Fire in the Sky (1993), and also The X-Files (1993 – 1999). In terms of the former inspiration, there’s a horrific alien abduction scene here.
It's still not as scary or well-designed as the one in Fire in the Sky.
On the latter front, a Cigarette Smoking Man/Federal Agent actually appears on screen for a few minutes, imitating the exact demeanor of William B. Davis’s iconic character.
One can argue that the film is attempting to construct an homage to such alien-abduction material, but that’s really a stretch. The Smoking Man has no depth or meaning here. He is merely a symbol piped in from a superior work of art, and his sudden presence (with no explanation) succeeds in taking the viewer out of the story.
Seth’s fate is particularly nonsensical too. Aliens take the trouble to pursue and abduct him, all so they can put him in a chair on their spaceship, and shove a roto-rooter drill through his rectum? His butt explodes in an ejaculation of blood, and Seth dies.
So, what was the point?
Why did the aliens do this?
It’s not like this was a test, or even a torture session because no information is taken from him. And it's not like the aliens couldn't have satisfied their rage in another way. Basically, these beings traveled light years and expended lots of energy just to blow up some obnoxious kid's butt-hole. If this is an example of how the aliens think, it is a wonder they ever developed space travel.
The moment is campy, yes, but totally out-of-tone with the rest of the picture, and it just collapses the movie’s sense of reality. There are many simpler, cheaper, more effective ways that the aliens could have killed this character off. For instance, they make a likable sheriff (Gil Bellows) blow his head off with his own shotgun, using mind-control powers. Was it really worth it to beam Seth up, restrain him, and then fatally corn-hole him?
The impact of the scene is that you want to tune out because the movie has turned…dumb.
Even the final scenes between Kyle and April -- determined to be together through thick and thin, and through alien abduction -- are actually highly reminiscent of Skyline (2011). But even with that inspiration (such as it is...), it’s abundantly plain the filmmakers have no idea how to end the love story.
Should the lovers be separated, so April learns what it really feels like to be alone in the universe?
Check, you get that ending.
Or maybe April should realize the error of her ways, and go to the ends of the Earth to save Kyle?
That ending is also here.
Should they survive and return to Earth?
Well, why not? You gotta love an unexpected happy ending!
But then, there story could still end tragically, not because of vengeful aliens, but because (cynically) of government cover-ups. Damn you, Big Government!
Fans of that ending will find something for them as well.
Extraterrestrial goes on ten or fifteen minutes too long as it decides in favor of “all of the above” and goes through ending after ending after ending after ending.
And as much as the film refuses to settle on an ending quickly, Extraterrestrial abruptly ends the sub-plot with Bellows when there is still some material to mine there. Specifically, his wife disappeared some time ago, and he realizes that she may have been abducted by aliens too. A moment after his realization that his wife really loved him, and didn’t leave him of her own volition, his blood is decorating a police cruiser’s windows.
End of subplot.
Similarly, a female camper and mother undergoes a fearsome abduction experience and is returned to Earth, but without her family, including her little boy. The movie gives her one scene that suggests she'll be an important character, or that her story will have larger meaning in the plot.
Instead, we never see her again. Instead, we have to keep going back to the dumb kids, like Seth, and April and Kyle.
I didn’t exactly love Alien Abduction (2014), a low-budget film set in North Carolina also featuring alien abduction, but even it is better and more internally consistent than this film is.
Again, I can’t stress enough how promising Grave Encounters was, and what a great job the Vicious Brothers did there.
If you want to see one of their films, make certain that’s the one you watch. In terms of Extraterrestrial, I only recommend you take Michael Ironside's advice:
Do not engage!