Monday, December 05, 2011

Spanish Cinema Now ’11: Extraterrestrial

The aliens came and they saw, so now what? That is the question in the back of the minds of the few Madrid residents who did not flee the city. However, they will be mostly preoccupied with their own issues in Extraterrestrial (trailer here), Nacho Vigalondo’s enormously clever take on the alien invasion blockbuster, which opens this year’s Spanish Cinema Now, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s longest running film series.

Of all the nights Julia could a strange man, she picks the eve of the alien invasion. Understandably, she and Julio are a bit slow rousing themselves in the morning, which is how they missed the military evacuation. Initially, she is only worried about her possessive boyfriend, Carlos. However, as soon as they spy the huge spinning discs in the sky, she lets smitten Julio stay, settling on a cover story to explain his presence. Before long, they are sharing a wickedly uncomfortable dinner with Carlos the madman (but not necessarily an abusive one) and Ángel, the creepy torch-bearing neighbor.

The inevitable conflicts of this soiree are obvious, regardless of the alien invasion apparently underway. However, the not-as-dumb-as-he-looks Julio takes advantage of the resulting paranoia. Indeed, what transpires is sheer gleeful lunacy, powered by jealousy, resentment, and all possible shades of love, most certainly including lust.

Granted, Extraterrestrial is not as wildly inventive as Vigalondo’s instant classic Timecrimes (stream it now, thank me later), but it is still toys with and subverts genre conventions in a richly idiosyncratic manner. This is hardly your typical sci-fi programmer. Frankly, Julio, Carlos, and a rogue band of UHF broadcasters do far more damage to the city of Madrid than the armada of aliens. Yet, Vigalondo nurses our V and X-Files honed fear and uncertainty, creating suspense out of whole cloth. The entire film is quite a nifty trick, but not without a heart. Indeed, Extraterrestrial is surprisingly bright and upbeat compared to the seriously noir Timecrimes.

Despite the outlandish premise, Michelle Jenner, Julián Villagrán, and Raúl Cimas play their respective sides of the love triangle with absolute conviction. Villagrán is particularly effective as Julio, smoothly pulling off each surprise from Julio, the ostensive everyman. Though more broadly comic than his ferocious star turn in The Last Circus, Carlos Areces also still finds some pathos and madness in poor perennially frustrated Ángel.

As his sophomore feature, Extraterrestrial should firmly establish Vigalondo as an international genre film cult-superstar. It is a truly original way to address some of the oldest themes in recorded storytelling. Highly recommended, it screens this Friday (opening night, 12/9) and the following Thursday (12/15) at the Walter Reade Theater during the 2011 edition of Spanish Cinema Now.