Extraterrestrial Dir. The Vicious Brothers

[IFC; 2014]

Styles: teen horror, alien horror, science fiction, boring tradition
Others: Fire in The Sky, Alien Abduction, Dark Skies, Communion

The arrival of another UFO movie is always a cause for disturbance in my life. There is a stupid hope in me that this film, finally, will be the one to deal with the question the way it deserves; that the writers, directors, producers, and everyone else will have actually done their research as they would for any other large investment, taking into account the millions of facets and variables making up the reservoir of inspiration and conjecture which boils in the core of the human-ET Q & A:

Are we alone? No.
Have they been here? Yes.
What have they done here? [Answer not forthcoming]

To adhere to honesty, I should confess: I am, among other things, a UFOlogist, or, maybe more acceptably, more accurately, a collector of texts on the subject and a self-styled student of its greatest theorists. An occult researcher. Like anyone with an interest, I am not the most conventional critic of that interest’s popular representation. Hence, I wonder: why can’t there be any contemporary films at least willing to attempt to step out of the safety of the horror & sci-fi genres and into the serious consideration — I’m thinking Solaris, but in the UFOlogical tradition — which this topic deserves? The literature is all there, the source material is ripe, has been waiting since before the 1970s; why not take it?

Thus, when it comes to alien films, I take what I can get. But there are no illusions here: they are all, almost invariably, shitty films. Sometimes the camp is self-aware and self-mythologizing, as it is here in the Vicious Brothers’ Extraterrestrial, but does this make up for what is, to put it bluntly, the perpetuation of a xenophobic and failed trope sourced from an essentially metaphysical realm of thought? The ways in which ET-centric narratives are a priori linked to the horror genre — or (maybe more comfortably) the science fiction genre — might explain some of the built-to-suck nature of this perennial (but certainly stagnant) plot-type. In our contemporary culture, it seems that the fear of the Other — the fear of something not only more intellectually (read: technologically) advanced but also essentially different from ourselves — must be either a source of horror or of action-packed whimsy. We need to box it in somewhere safe, somewhere predictable.

Again, I take what I can get. And Extraterrestrial is, as I said, at least aware of its position in a dead genre, a codified tradition. References (copious and sometimes actually clever) to The X-Files or Fire in The Sky are little more than sci-fi in-jokes, and are forgotten at the next boring jump-scare or gross-out scene. As if anyone didn’t already erroneously conflate alien contact with rape, the Vicious Brothers saw it necessary to devote a huge portion of the film’s advertisements to the embarrassing slogan #getprobed.

The aliens themselves, here a Grave Encounters-style perversion of the Grey archetype, are surprisingly well-designed and unique, if just a little too close to generic ghouls. The film wastes more than 80% of its duration on painfully cliché character development, so it is a saving grace that the Greys are introduced and revealed relatively early in the plot. So many films (I’m thinking in particular of the recent flops Dark Skies and Alien Abduction) save their aliens until close to the very end, spending just about an entire film on vaguely creepy effects and skittering shadows, so it is to Extraterrestrial’s comparative advantage that the insufferable, college-age victims come across the first alien on the early side of the halfway mark, and begin to die off, as if fulfilling some equation, just as Cabin in The Woods dictates they must.

But maybe I’m reading too much into this film’s failure, into the tradition of failure behind it. It’s really just a genre film, supplying audiences with thrills and camp. Why should I feel hurt that it lacks substantial implications, that it picks liberally from the diverse history of ufology and Frankensteins bits together? Because I’m so personally interested in the subject? Yeah.

In the TV miniseries adaptation of Budd Hopkins’s book Intruders, the faithful adherence to the narrative structures, true accounts and tonal creepiness inherent in the tradition of UFO and abduction literature transcends the limitations of early 90s special effects, and the result is a campy-but-serious translation of something as abstract as memories of nonhuman communications recalled during hypnotic regression. Why should this 4-hour exercise in sensationalized rumor be so much more engaging than every UFO film released in the last two decades?

With the technologies so blatantly flaunted in Extraterrestrial available to aid in the visualization of the unexplainable and the bizarre, I begin to feel hopeful that the subject of UFOs can be adequately filmed and represented, that it is just waiting for the right director and team to raise it from the genre-nostalgia in which it currently flounders.

Yeah, that’s an open challenge.

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