Don’t you love it when a film actually sneaks up on you and genuinely surprises you? In this case, how many alien invasion movies have we had in the past couple of years? The past couple of months even? Nacho Vigalondo’s follow-up to his cult-sensation Timecrimes (sadly unseen by me) is a film that is nominally about a spaceship hovering over Madrid. Will it be an action movie, a thriller, something icky or something inquisitive (or all of the above, like in Prometheus)?
As it turns out, the alien invasion is somewhat of a cover, though not entirely, for what is really one of those often returned to tropes that I love when done right—an infidelity drama that spirals out of control. In this case, the film opens on a one-night stand couple, cutely named Julio (Julián Villagran) and Julia (Michelle Jenner). They awake a little disorientated, not sure of what happened the previous night, and they slowly notice the streets outside are abandoned, and then the giant spaceship in the sky. There is also a nosy neighbor, Angel (Carlos Areces), and the arrival a short time later of Julia’s boyfriend, Carlos (Carlos Cimas), a genuinely nice and clueless guy.
The first mistake Julio makes is to let slip to Angel about what happened the night before. After this, the mayhem starts: how to prevent Angel from revealing the truth to Carlos, which involves Julio convincing Carlos that Angel is “one of them,” the invading aliens. In what skates the line (like in a lot of the film) between comedy and suspense, Julio and Carlos bind and gag Angel in one of those scenes where none of the characters are sure what to do, but since they have set the pieces in motion, they have to follow them through. The paranoia continues with Carlos reaching out to confront other “extraterrestrials” that have landed. But this, in turn, leads to more sex between Julio and Julia while Carlos roams the streets. Lies spur on more lies. And then more craziness. And Angel returns. And why should I keep going on?
The fun in Extraterrestrial is seeing what these characters will do when someone withholds information that should be trivial in the scope of, say, possible imminent destruction. I’ve seen the film described in a couple of reviews as a romantic comedy, and it could be to an extent. But for me, its effectiveness is more as a kind of noirish story of a couple who shouldn’t be lovers yet are, and the comedy derives from their surprises and stumbles. However, the plot with Carlos isn’t so funny as he becomes a sort of one-man crusader against the invasion that isn’t really happening (or is it?).
Vigalondo leads the audience in different directions as to where the story might go, but far from being confused, I was totally engaged. He has a solid sense of direction. How he tracks in and out of rooms at certain moments is psychologically satisfying, and has a touch of Hitchcock to it. Just when you think something might finally give with the Julio/Julia’s conflict—to tell or hide the truth—the movie takes another turn altogether. And yet there is still some ambiguity by the end of it all as to what is really going on, who may or may not be an alien in human disguise.
Among a blockbuster summer overloaded with extraterrestrials and umpteenth special effects, Vigalondo makes a real sleeper, with unpredictable characters, wonderful performances, and a story that unfolds with real surprises and dramatic/comic consequences.