The feature portion of Alien Trespass (following some period-setting faux-newsreels) opens in traditional B-movie fashion as an image of a flying saucer hurtles ominously towards earth. Computer animated against a similarly composed interstellar background, the ship holds awkwardly in the center of the frame, occasionally swinging back and forth in a small, jerky arc. Suddenly, you remember where you’ve seen movement like this before, and the inspiration for the shot dawns on you: Director R.W. Goodwin is actually using 21st-century graphics technology to simulate a crappy model hanging on a string. Such a sight gag is what, at heart, Alien Trespass is all about: a playful homage clever enough to acknowledge that it lacks genre authenticity despite going all-out to replicate it.
While a newcomer to the big screen, Goodwin makes up for any lack of feature film experience with some serious sci-fi cred. He is best known for executive producing over half the run of cult sci-fi hit The X-Files, a role that endeared his name to countless obsessive fans. Since pulling out of that series 11 years ago, Goodwin has mostly kicked around the television landscape unsuccessfully, producing a smattering of episodes for failed series such as Pasadena and Tru Calling. With Alien Trespass, Goodwin seizes his opportunity to play the fanboy, crafting a loving tribute to the lost age of B-level sci-fi films that shaped his creative outlook.
The simulated newsreel that begins the film bemoans the loss of Alien Trespass, the last great science fiction film of the 1950s, to a contract dispute in 1957. From there, Goodwin’s film attempts to situate itself as that lost relic of the 1950s, rather than a tribute to that era made in 2009. When a flying saucer crashes in the California desert and releases the Ghota, an indiscriminate alien killer, local residents wonder (with period-correct anxiety) if the impact was a “secret Commie rocket.” Yet humorous references to lost cultural icons like the Edsel and RC Cola keep the film firmly planted in the 21st century, acknowledging that things have turned out differently than people thought they might in the time of This Island Earth and The Day the Earth Stood Still.
The greatest crime that Goodwin’s film could have committed would have been to hold itself superior to its notable predecessors. Yet it mostly sidesteps this potential pitfall with myriad nods to genre archetypes and references to the actual 1950s culture of sci-fi fandom. Will and Grace’s Eric McCormack hams it up admirably as Ted Lewis, the small town astronomer with an inexplicably gorgeous wife (Jody Thompson). McCormack switches deftly from serenely studious to stiltedly spaced-out when Ted is bodily possessed by an "intergalactic federal park ranger" named Urp who is charged with capturing the Ghota. Goodwin includes other standards such as the drunken loner residing in the hills who encounters the monster first but is doubted by the townspeople and the gruff local police officer who refuses to believe in an alien invasion until it is too late. We also catch glimpses of retro sci-fi's cultural impact: A young child obsessed with B movies confronts the Ghota in his own home, and, most notably, the film's final showdown is set in a movie theater screening The Blob. The presence of one of the undisputed classics of the genre at once describes the cinematic company that Goodwin would like his film to keep and acknowledges that Alien Trespass is about nostalgia rather than authenticity.
At times, the film tries a bit too hard to mimic the formal eccentricities of B-list production values. Only the most serious connoisseurs of kitsch will appreciate the driving sequences shot in a stationary vehicle with moving scenery projected in the background. And the intentionally low resolution and slightly out-of-sync backgrounds that practically scream to be taken as badges of authenticity eventually come to distract from the more thoughtful charms of the film’s dialogue and visual design. Yet not all of Goodwin’s visual primitivisms are for naught. The preposterous rubber puppet used to represent the Ghota (an obvious doppelganger of The Simpsons’ Kang and Kodos) is magnificently unconvincing, and Goodwin’s deadpan presentation of the creature as a serious sci-fi/horror monster never fails to elicit laughs.
Alien Trespass is mostly entertaining in its goofy lightness, and at a brisk 84 minutes, it never drags. It tries valiantly to capture the innocent energy of those early films and still manages a chuckle when it ultimately fails to go out with a bang. Of course, there is more to be gained intellectually and culturally from watching the originals, films that stretched their meager budgets to the limit in order to explain some of the frightening tensions that arose at the dawn of the Cold War, than from viewing the work of a contemporary director intentionally slumming amidst cheesy and archaic props and special effects. But it is refreshing to see the genre treated with such obvious love and respect after years of being ridiculed with (admittedly hilarious) Mystery Science Theater 3000-style smugness.