Alien Trespass: Just Like the Real Thing?
Alien Trespass, a merrily obsessive recreation of the style and substance of 1950s B-movie science fiction, opens Friday, April 3, 2009. Possibly at a theater near you.
I never really got around to asking the question I really wanted to ask the director of Alien Trespass. In a 20-minute interview during his Wondercon press day, X-Files veteran R.W. Goodwin came across as a swell guy, a guy who really likes what he does and is almost breathlessly enthused about this project. His sincerity and likability—qualities evident in his movie—made it hard to ask my main question, which had to do with how the hell this movie is ever going to find an audience, because its premise seemed inherently rude. It’s really easy to come up with snarky crap on the Internet, I hear, but try doing it right in the face of a likable cat who’s done you no wrong.
Warming up, we started at the most obvious beginning: the genesis of the film, a collaboration particularly between Goodwin and screenwriter Jim Swift.
“The original idea was my partner, Jim Swift’s. He’s been thinking about this for decades, actually,” says Goodwin. “Because as a kid he was a fan, and I was, too. Although we only became friends in the last couple of years, it turns out we grew up in the same neighborhood, went to the same theater in Inglewood every Saturday to see the same sci-fi movies when we were kids.”
The love shines through. There’s very little about the movie that doesn’t feel like it came from 1957. Goodwin’s crew nails the look and feel, recreates the technology and effects, and even builds in some of the low-budget mistakes you’ll notice watching real fifties thrillers on late-night TV. His cast really throws themselves into things, doing that stagey old-Hollywood elocution without ever coming across as a Saturday Night Live mockery.
Goodwin sees no need to mock the genre—to today’s audience, the laughs will be built right in if they play it just like the original period films. “When they made them they were serious,” he says, “but looking at them now, with the styles changed and everything, they’re funny, and that was what I was looking for.”
Is he right? Your mileage may vary. I can’t think of anything more pointless or boring than a film that deliberately mocks a fifty-year-old filmmaking style, but on the other hand, you keep waiting for them to do something with the inherent lameness besides just recreating it.
Sexism and a knowing subtext to innocent teen dating show the hand of modern moviemakers, but don’t really go anywhere, because commentary isn’t the goal. There are a few low-budget “errors” built into the execution, and a pair of deliberate gags that, small as they are, have a modern feel that really stands out. When I point them out to Goodwin, he says that both were improv’d suggestions from lead actor Eric McCormack, the Will & Grace star who plays a stodgy fifties-dad type of professor who gets possessed by a clueless, robotic alien mind.
If you’re not in it for the laughs or the hope of a “big statement,” you might be in it for the cast’s group impression of fifties theatrical stylings. McCormack is perfectly droll as the stuffy professor and the cold alien mind, and Jenni Baird is spot-on as the earnest heroine (a conscious update—it’s a woman who leads the fight and saves the day). Most entertaining, perhaps, is Jody Thompson, as loving wife to the ever-distracted McCormack—imagine Dita Von Teese playing June Cleaver, then imagine it in a way that doesn’t make you feel unclean. Her sexuality boils just beneath the surface without ever escaping through some cheesy wink to the audience, and it entertains exactly the way the whole movie is meant to.
Yet other aspects fall terribly flat. Teenagers trying to get some action by parking at the local makeout spot kill every scene they dutifully hit their marks in. But damn, even the kid actors feel like they just stepped out of a time machine. You had to wonder how many takes got blown thanks to perfectly good performances that were simply too contemporary. Not a lot, Goodwin says, noting he shot the whole film in fifteen days.
“We did a lot of work leading up to it, we did read-throughs and rehearsals and stuff like that,” Goodwin says. “And I really had everybody—crew, cast, staff, producers: everybody—immerse themselves in those fifties movies. So we had stacks of DVDs, with the good ones, War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, It Came From Outer Space…”
That’s where the film—and the interview—get fun: when you consider the project, the sheer technical effort of creating an authentic period piece. The monster’s a guy in a rubber suit. Does anyone really know how to make those anymore? Haven’t the techniques and technologies of this kind of filmmaking been lost in the intervening decades?
“You know, I was afraid of that, but boy, everybody came to the party,” Goodwin says, ticking off the creature maker, props crew, set decorator and production and costume designers. “They did their research quickly and effectively. Our cinematographer, who won the American Cinematographer’s award, he’s a brilliant guy but he’s not old, he’s a younger man. He came to me and said, “They only shot with three lenses, the 25, the 50 and the 75,” and I said, ‘Really? That’s it?’ ‘That’s it. And that’s all you get.’ And I knew I couldn’t use Steadicam; if I moved the camera it had to be on a dolly which is what they did. I only worked within the confines of what was available to us.”
While on a technical level, that’s a fun challenge, it’s hard not to wonder about the similarly period-limited storytelling choices. The filmmakers try to make an adventure film using a playbook that might not feel adventurous to an audience that saw Watchmen last week. But when I try to ask about making this film for a world jaded by the excesses of Wes Craven and George Lucas, maybe I softball it a little, and Goodwin answers more about technical recreation. So I try to ask about the perceived market—in an era when every film feels like the studio has tweaked the life out to better appeal to every damned demographic subgroup, what’s up with making something that obviously has only the nichiest of niche appeal? Goodwin talks about how similar that is to the films he’s emulating, made in a time when a quirky, half-baked idea and a few bucks could make a movie. But we don’t really get to the why of it.
So I leave to make room for the next web “journalist,” who probably won’t make any better headway toward any greater truth than I did, and I’m left to ponder the movie on my own. And I come back to the love the simple, unrelenting childhood love. This guy loves the hell out of the movies that thrilled him as a kid, and he has the idea that he can demonstrate that love by distilling it into this single ninety-minute film. If you share that love, if you share an affection for seeing the zipper on the monster’s rubber suit (one of the only great period errors Goodwin didn’t recreate) and for hokey plots with feel-good resolutions, this film has something for you. If you’re a film buff and technique nerd, maybe you’ll marvel over lenses and dollies. If you’re looking for a metatextual statement about this era and genre, forget it. You ain’t getting Iron Man thrills or Dark Knight chills, either.
Therein lies the beauty, perhaps. A film like this might not get wide release—it’s not even listed, a few days before its debut, on Rotten Tomatoes’ “Upcoming” list, though you can find a page for it if you search the specific title—but it’s built for cult recognition, in an era when every cult and quirk has online support. Maybe the beauty is that Alien Trespass is so not built for the mainstream and it’s still here.
Which is exactly the sort of improbably optimistic conclusion that won’t surprise fans of this time-lost genre.