Here’s how Barry Strugatz, writer and director of From Other Worlds, describes the genesis of that alleged comedy in the “Director’s Note” that comes with the film’s press materials: “There is a whole UFO contact subculture that exists. There are scores of gatherings around the country where alleged contactees meet in support groups. What if one person in one of these groups actually had a real experience?”
Answer: it wouldn’t be a comedy anymore.
For the comic potential of the “UFO contact subculture” depends on its nuttiness. If there were “a real experience” of aliens, the nuts would have in some degree to cease being nuts — and, therefore, to cease being funny.
Although the press materials go on to cite as influences Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Cat People and Rosemary’s Baby, I suspect Mr. Strugatz was really thinking of Dean Parisot’s Galaxy Quest (1999). There, a race of aliens at war with an evil, inter-galactic warlord come to earth to ask for help from the cast of a Star Trek-like TV show that they think is real. But Galaxy Quest was about heroism and pretense — and how the pretense of heroism can lead to the real thing. The film’s lightness of touch was its saving grace and was entirely owing to this anchor in the real world. In other words, it didn’t matter if the aliens were aliens or just any foreigners who didn’t understand what American TV culture was about. The point was that, out of their naivete, they took something seriously that the TV show didn’t — and so made it serious again.
There’s nothing like that in From Other Worlds. The movie depends on the aliens being aliens — though there is only one of them on screen and he provides the opposite of an exciting encounter with extra-terrestrial life-forms, since he adopts the form — naturally, he has shape-shifting powers — of TV and movie aliens so that we media-drugged earthlings will recognize him as what he claims to be. What an imaginative cop-out! Moreover, not only does the appearance of this Leonard Nimoy wannabe give a sudden quasi-legitimacy to the cranks and nut-jobs who had been believing in him or someone like him before there was any reason for them to believe, but it leaves the movie with nowhere to go but into a dull literalism.
Perhaps realizing that the contact group has so quickly exhausted its comic potential, Mr. Strugatz pretty much lets it fall by the wayside and concentrates instead on the feeble quest story involving his two main characters, bored housewife Joanne Schwartzbaum (Cara Buono) and an immigrant cab driver from the Ivory Coast called Abraham (Isaach De Bankole). The McGuffin here is the recently discovered and supposedly only surviving scroll from the famous library at Alexandria, Egypt, burnt with all its contents in AD 640. The scroll is supposed to be an alien artefact and is now in the possession of the Brooklyn Museum. When deciphered, the alien (Joel de la Fuente) informs them, its contents will “unlock the secrets of nature” and so create a destructive force that will “make the Dark Ages look like DisneyWorld.”
Sure it will! So, of course, Joanne and Abraham’s mission is to steal the scroll from the museum and substitute for it one that has “corrected our [that is, the aliens’] great error.” Instead of devastating us, the new information “will take the whole human race to the next evolutionary level.” Yeah, I’m afraid they really mean that too. Such adolescent portentousness out-Star-Treks Star Trek. It’s one thing to make fun of cheesy science fiction. It’s quite another to become cheesy science fiction.
So, you see, this handsome couple are really out to (yawn) save the planet. And the lameness of the plot is increased rather than diminished by sub-plots of ever more irritating irrelevancy having to do with keeping Joanne’s husband (David Lansbury) from finding out what they are doing and fending off an art thief posing as a federal agent (Robert Peters). Up until the time when, two-thirds of the way into the picture, the dubious alien appears, nothing requires us to believe in real aliens or a real mission. But from that point on, any chance for seriousness or comedy goes whooshing out of it like air out of a balloon.
Barry Strugatz must have been relying for that all-important lifeline to reality on the now-familiar story of female frustration with domesticity summed up Joanne’s telling her shrink that “there’s something missing” in her life and she feels she’s “just going through the motions.” She’s “feeling lonely, unconnected, like I don’t belong there…like life is a cruel hoax.” This, by the way, gives rise to the one sort-of funny line of the movie when the shrink prescribes some pills and says: “Don’t worry. Soon you will be happy. Or at least minimally functional.” Of course, what gets her out of her depression is not the pills but the excitement of the mission to save the human race with the new man in her life. Alas, real women who feel that “there’s something missing” are unlikely to feel much comforted by the hope of being contacted by aliens at all, let alone aliens like this wimpy specimen.