There are no alien creatures in Nacho Vigalondo’s Extraterrestrial. It’s better to know that up-front. Still, this isn’t some ironically titled Merchant Ivory film about the alienation of being, but a story about a guy and a girl bonding in the face of a possible intergalactic invasion.
At some level, it is still the kind of movie the name conjures, while purposefully denying us most of the tropes we expect. Vigalondo crafts a bug-eyed monster movie where the beast refuses to show and the main characters stand around wondering if there really is anyone inside that giant, hovering spaceship. An alternate title might have been ‘Waiting for Gort.’
The set-up is deceptively simple. Gawky Julio (Julian Villagram) wakes up next to sexy Julia (Michelle Jenner), assuming they slept together the night before. As they both struggle to complete that awkward ritual of recouping their clothes and gathering their bearings, they learn the world has drastically changed while they slept. Outside that apartment window the city is silent, the streets vacant and the sky full with a massive space-craft, hanging there in the air over Madrid. The world may be poised to end, but for Julio and Julia, it’s a possible beginning to romance. Sure, maybe only hours remain before our reptilian overlords are serving us as cocktail weenies at cosmic art galas, but when the cute girl next to you hasn’t demanded you saunter off, it’s not a completely bad day.
The story of course, isn’t quite that easy. Vigalondo is the same director that delivered 2007’s Timecrimes, a thriller that matched the mind-boggling cause-and-effect of Twelve Monkeys with the absurd misadventures of the Berenstein Bears. As you might expect, Julio and Julia aren’t left to themselves to re-enact Before Sunrise in the empty streets of Spain. Julia’s ex-boyfriend Carlos comes looking for her—wanting to protect her and leaving a safety camp to do so—at the same time that crazy neighbor Angel (Carlos Areces) decides that the end-of-the-world is the perfect venue to proclaim his unrequited ardour for her.
Julio makes up a lie about why they are together, Julia corroborates it, and then the fib factory goes into overtime. It’s not long before the monsters have come on down to Maple Street (ease up, I meant figuratively!) and the two blossoming lovers are spinning tales of alien replicants infiltrating the human populace. All the while, there’s that ship up in the air. Garbled news reports imply that there are more vessels all the world over, and as far as Julio is concerned, if three’s company than four’s a cheeky indie rom-com.
Despite the claustrophobic tension of the close-quarters setting and the minimalist thriller elements gathering at the corners, a cheeky rom-com is exactly what Extraterrestrial reveals itself to be. As lies pile up in the same way that paradoxes stacked high in TimeCrimes, Vigalondo once again proves himself adept at channeling many competing tones and emotions in a small frame. He’s also scored relatively well in casting; Cimas and Areces are formidable as the second-tier paramours, and Villagram is appropriately enthusiastic for a guy who thinks he’s found his soul mate at the beginning of the end of all things. I like Jenner the best, mostly because she’s taken unbearably cute and channeled it through the old b-movie hysteria that no one else seems to be thinking about. Like his previous feature, Vigalondo makes all of it visually mysterious and classically lovely. A movie with a plot like this never looked half so moody and contemplative.
Still, the movie never properly starts its engine, and when the final credits rolled I felt like it had all but stalled for me on an emotional level. There are some clever and witty passages spread throughout, but Vigalondo’s biggest mistake is the same one that kept Timecrimes from really connecting with me; I was not particularly interested in the human story that trumps the science fiction. Extraterrestrial may try to transcend its genre by refusing to deal with the particulars, but it doesn’t give a compelling reason to be invested in these characters. Carlos and Angel, despite the efforts of the actors playing them, come off as what they are; agents of the plot. Julio and Julia are not as sympathetic as they could be because of the destructive nature of the lies they tell, often done so for selfish purposes. They lead Carlos to believe Angel is an alien intruder and then take no responsibility for the consequences. The twists that pop up in the finale are only intriguing because they signal a closure to the repetitious arguments and accusations.
The main problem is that Vigalondo seems to doubt his own mundane approach. He keeps striking ‘watch the skies’ pulp notes whenever he tires of the melodrama, which is often. Inspired in part by last year’s Monsters, there has been a recent glut of low-tech science fiction ignoring the more sensational aspects of the genre. Safety Not Guaranteed and The Sound of My Voice both dodged the confirmed existence of their time travel, and now Extraterrestrial doesn’t care about whether or not we know there are aliens. In the two previously mentioned pictures, this approach worked because those elements played second fiddle to engaging personal stories. In the best science fiction, rocket ships or no, we observe humans being. In Extraterrestrial, we wave goodbye to the little green men, and settle for humans bitching. At the end of the day, it’s a heck of a waste of a giant spaceship.