If movies were just for fun — as, admittedly, an awful lot of people think they are, Alien Trespass, directed by R.W. Goodwin to a script by James Swift and Steven P. Fisher, would be a barrel of monkeys. Or at least you would think so. There are some wonderfully funny moments in it, too, most of them related to the venerable Cartesian premise of the classic s-f flick that an unimaginable alien presence, this one named Urp, has had to take over a human body, that of Professor Ted Lewis (Eric McCormack), in order to accomplish its purpose on earth — in this case a benign one. One of my favorite such moments comes when Ted’s wife Lana (Jody Thompson), who is way more blatantly sexual than any actual 1950s movie wife could have been, first meets the alien Ted on the morning after he has returned from the mysterious space-ship and remembers “something mother said” — that she would wake up one morning and there would be a stranger sitting across from her at breakfast.
Yet somehow the movie has turned out to be a spectacular flopperoo. Almost no one has been to see it. Already, two-plus weeks after its opening, it is gone from the only place it was still playing near me after its first, disastrous week. You’ll be lucky — so to speak — if you can find it anywhere before it comes out on DVD. There would hardly be any point in reviewing it now, but for the fact that it provides an illustrative example of what is wrong with the prevailing mode or style of movie-making in Hollywood at the moment, which is what is often called, in spite of the confusing nature of the term, postmodern. The po-mo master figure is the critic-as-hero, a brainiac whose highly trained intelligence takes a look back at the movies of 50 or 60 or 80 or 90 years ago and explains to his wised up contemporaries what they were really about.
Nothing, of course, offers a more target-rich environment for this sort of criticism than the 1950s science fiction flick, and Alien Trespass is an attempt to make a latter-day version of one but with the real, critic-supplied meanings filled in for us. The characters in this pastiche, of course, must remain as clueless as ever. It’s still part of their charm. But we have seen enough of those now-aging s-f classics to catch on immediately to what they, and now their imitators, were really about — namely sex and the forms of social tyranny (as by the 1950s they were beginning to seem) by which it was so often denied to those who were hormonally most ready for it. There is a kind of shame, I find, in looking into what these people took such pains to keep private. We feel a trespass of our own in watching what we are not supposed to watch — and what is supposed to be invisible to the people themselves. Some people find this titillating. I find it embarrassing. So, apparently, do a lot of other people.
The Quentinsensial postmodern director is, of course, one Q. Tarantino who has not himself been box office Death Proof — for example in the film of that name which was paired with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror in the mock double-feature, Grindhouse, of 2007. But in those of his movies that still manage to sell a ticket or two, the postmodern, self-referential movie-about-the-movies quality is modified by a tenuous umbilical to reality. Ironic self-reference is trumped by ironies of a more universal sort that don’t look as if they’ve been lifted from some comic book merely for humorous purposes. For instance, the conversation about fast food between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction — now itself often imitated, as in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges — has a certain horrifying originality to it. Yes, we think, schooled as we are by decades of black comedy and Hannah Arendt’s banality-of-evil hypothesis, reality is like that.
There is no comparable moment in Alien Trespass. Reality has been checked at the door. The smart-alec has it all his own way over the shrewd observer. His fun at the expense of our parents’ and grandparents’ innocence — or our own, if we are old enough — really is fun, too. Everybody is in on the joke. But that’s just the problem with it. This is hardly the first movie — or book or TV show or comedy skit — to send up the science fiction movies of the 1950s. They have already been milked for most of the laughs they are ever going to supply to our more knowing generation, which makes it quite an accomplishment that Alien Trespass elicits any chuckles at all, let alone the number that it does.
But we can’t help asking, what is the point of it? We already know that our ancestors were hopeless if sometimes lovable boobs who took this stuff (sort of) seriously, just as they thought repression was good for you. Maybe we did ourselves, once upon a time, and we enjoy laughing at our own childish innocence from the vantage point of our 21st-century sophistication. Like Mr. Tarantino, Mr. Goodwin and company just love that whole ’50s ambiance, and have provided mock trailers and newsreels along with the movie itself to prove it. But in the end it has nothing more to say than the eternal pronouncement of the smug progressive: “We know better now.” Well, maybe we do. But when the movie has nothing to offer beyond such condescension to the past, audiences seem not to like it. Go figure!
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