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‘Extraterrestre’: entertaining alien farce just misses the mark

Nacho Vigalondo’s alien-themed romantic comedy is more about the human tendency to complicate simple matters than a threat to planet earth. But matching the brilliance of the director's previous feature is no easy feat.


Extraterrestre: Comedy, but not as we know it...

Those who have seen Nacho Vigalondo’s debut feature Los Cronocrímenes will be familiar with the director’s style. In terms of uniqueness, he is more on a par with the likes of Wes Anderson than Clint Eastwood. And much like Anderson, you either dig his particular vision of the world or you don’t.

Humour, mixed with a healthy dose of darkness, is an essential ingredient of Vigalondo’s work and Extraterrestre (or Extraterrestrial) is no different. The laughs and lighter moments are frequent but they are accompanied by an underlying sensation of subtle menace (one of the most classic examples of this is his 2003 Oscar-nominated short movie 7.35 de la mañana.

As in Los Cronocrímenes, in Extraterrestre the fantastic is juxtaposed with the mundane and everyday. Where in the 2007 film the theme was time travel, here, the backdrop to the action is an apparent alien invasion. The image of a UFO floating over Madrid is as technical as the special effects get, however; Extraterrestre – like Los Cronocrímenes before it – is stripped down to the bare essentials in terms of set and design.

The film opens in the morning after the night before for Julio (Julián Villagrán) and Julia (Michelle Jenner), as they come too after a drunken one-night stand. Having slept through most of the day they are oblivious to the warnings broadcast on the radio which have led to a mass exodus from the Spanish capital, leaving them almost completely alone in the city.

The first 20 minutes of the film focus on the awkwardly comical exchanges between Julio and Julia. The extraterrestrial presence hovering in the skies above them ironically provides a timely diversion from the alien nature of their situation.

The crudeness of the film also allows for some excellent moments of bathos. In one of its earlier scenes, for example, engineer Julio attempts to determine the size of the UFO by calculating the speed of its revolutions. This makes for some high-tech spiel typical of the sci-fi genre, though it also feels glaringly incongruous in a manner reminiscent of a Douglas Adams novel.

Creepy neighbour Angel (Carlos Areces), who is obsessed with Julia, and Julia’s boyfriend, the likeable but crazed Carlos (Raúl Cimes) are the remaining half of the four-part principle cast and provide the film’s more manically comic moments.

Ultimately, Extraterrestre is more about a very human tendency to complicate simple matters than any real alien threat to planet earth. A desperate lie about possible alien body-snatchers in an attempt to hide the truth about Julio and Julia’s one-night stand from the unsuspecting Carlos ends up creating paranoia about the characters’ true identities, lending the story one of its darker elements.

Beneath all its layers of parody, it is also a love story with an absurdly complicated four-part love “triangle”. In one of the film’s most laugh-out-loud scenes, Angel’s very terrestrial preoccupation with Julio and Julia’s relationship culminates in an ingenious attempt to rat them out to Carlos.

Same formula, less polish

But this feature is inferior to Vigalondo’s debut, possibly because Los Cronocrímenes was so fresh. A film led almost entirely by a script bursting with originality and with little to no dependence on special effects is a rare gem these days.

Extraterrestre contains many of the same ingredients as its predecessor, but feels less polished. The more limited nature of the argument – alien invasion versus the implications of time travel – means the film relies more on the absurd and ridiculous than on the downright original.

Despite that, it is thoroughly enjoyable mostly thanks to the performances of the four leads. Michelle Jenner delights and amuses as the bewildered and flirtatious Julia and is matched by the understatedly love-lorn Villagrán as Julio. Areces offers pathos and comic relief as lonely-but-deranged neighbour Angel, as does Cimes as oblivious boyfriend Carlos.

If you are new to the world as viewed by Vigalondo, his latest offering may not be for you. But if you are looking for an easy evening’s entertainment, Extraterrestre could well be worth your six euros.

‘Extraterrestre’ is on general release across Spain.

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Published: Apr 9 2012
Category: Culture, Featured, Films, IberoArts
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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