Monday, October 10, 2016

HubrisWeen 2016, Day 5: Extraterrestrial (2014)

The first shot of a movie sometimes tell you absolutely nothing about the movie you are about to watch. Hell, some directors intentionally try to mislead you with their opening shots so that you have no idea what to expect.

And then there are movies where the opening shot is a statement of intent. The opening shot tells you right away what you are in for, whether for good or ill.

Extraterrestrial opens with footage of space--planets, asteroids, and a galaxy. The camera gradually pulls back from the galaxy and it takes on a recognizable shape. That shape? A condom. See, we were just looking at a standee for "Galaxy Condoms" inside a gas station. The tagline for which is "Shoot for the stars."

I immediately began to understand the one star average rating on Netflix, but for you dear reader I girded my loins and decided to acknowledge the movie's warning to me that I was about to dislike it and soldier onward.

Inside the gas station, a long-haired clerk (Mike Kovac) is rocking out to music on his headphones while cleaning up. So at first he doesn't hear the frantic woman (Emily Perkins) outside when she runs out of the rain and bangs on the locked door. Seems the clerk forgot to turn off the open sign, and his reaction to seeing a clearly panicked and disheveled woman begging to be let in is to turn the sign off and rudely tell her they just closed.

The desperate woman goes to the outside phone booth and dials 911, but as she frantically tells the operator that something took her friends the call suddenly cuts off, the lights inside the booth go out--and then a bright light envelopes the phone booth. When the asshole clerk comes outside to investigate, the phone booth is simply gone: only a smoking square of concrete is left behind. And then the empty phone booth suddenly falls out of the sky and smashes to pieces.

Well, when Sheriff Murphy (Gil Bellows) comes by the crime scene the next morning, Deputy Mitchell (Sean Rogerson) lets the clerk tell him what happened. Since the clerk presages his description of the event by saying he's done a lot of hallucinogens in his life, his story doesn't exactly inspire confidence. However, Murphy can't ignore the wallet belonging to one Nancy McPherson in the wreckage of the phone booth.

The credits that follow, filled with imagery familiar to anyone who has ever encountered a UFO conspiracy cliche before, don't fill me with confidence. Certainly not when I see that the film purports to have been written, edited, and directed by "The Vicious Brothers." Filmmaker credits with obviously made up names and/or names that reference siblings in genre films? Traditionally a terrible combination.

My expectations plummet even further when the film introduces its heroine literally ass-first. The panty-clad ass the camera has practically wedged itself into belongs to April (Brittany Allen), who is busy packing for a trip to an old cabin that belonged to her parents. In fact she's on the phone with her mother at the moment, clarifying what her mother wants her to photograph for the upcoming sale of the estate. April's boyfriend, Kyle (Freddie Stroma), wanders in at the end of the conversation. She asks him if he's sure he wants to come along on such a potentially dull trip but he assures her he does.

Just then her father (Fred Keating) Skypes her in order to tell her she shouldn't be putting herself out for her mother, especially since he believes the house is only being sold to spite him. He's already having a drink despite it being early morning, so we can get a pretty clear idea of why her mother divorced him in the first place. At any rate, April agrees to make sure she recovers his shotgun and fishing equipment before the sale happens.

Of course, then an obnoxious noise from outside their apartment clues April into the fact that Kyle decided to invite their friends along. April is understandably annoyed, given that--as usual in this kind of horror film--they are inexplicably friends with a truly obnoxious tool. In this case that tool is named Seth (Jesse Moss, better known to me from Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, whose appearance here quickly made me wish this movie was following that format but with an alien instead of hillbillies). Seth is accompanied by his girlfriend, Lex (Anja Savcic) and April's best friend, Melanie (Melanie Papalia).

"Hello! We'll be your cast of unlikable assholes for the evening!"
The group has barely made it to the outskirts of the town April's cabin is located in when Seth decides to set off a roman candle while sticking himself out of the sunroof. This gets them pulled over by Murphy, who lets them off with a warning after admonishing Seth for being an idiot--and also referencing the animal mutilations, vandalism, and break-ins the town has been experiencing recently. Murphy seems to believe this is the work of city kids because that seems likely.

After settling in at the cabin we see a montage of the group taking many, many photos. Now, one would think if April's mom wants her daughter to take professional photos of the property to entice buyers, then the pool in the backyard should not be both filthy and empty except for a small puddle of stagnant water. It may still be a pool, but anyone with any taste will see that and interpret it as a mosquito incubator instead.

April decides to then go for a walk in the woods with Melanie and Melanie's dog, Rusty. They discuss the fact that April has taken a job in New York and is not sure if she wants Kyle to come along. She's not only a child of divorce, but she's not entirely sure she wants to be with her high school sweetheart for the rest of her life and possibly miss something...more. Melanie splits the difference between sympathy for her friend and sympathy for Kyle, until Rusty decides to start growling and barking at something in the woods. Melanie chides Rusty to "stop being aggro" but the dog ignores that request and goes full Leroy Jenkins.

Chasing after the dog, they find to their dismay that he has gone under a gate festooned with warnings to trespassers and guarded by a scarecrow in a Nixon mask. Melanie decides to trespass after her dog and April is forced to follow. When they find a shed full of marijuana plants, Melanie is delighted while April points out that people who secretly grow pot on their country property tend not to be understanding when they find strangers poking at their crop. Indeed, a man in a gas mask appears with a pick-axe and is about to ventilate them...

...until April mentions her family property and the man recognizes her. He removes his mask to reveal he is Travis (Michael Ironside!), an old family friend who hasn't seen April since she was too little to remember him. Well, he's all too happy to welcome the girls and Rusty into his home and share his crop with them. Travis, a Vietnam vet, also reveals that he has seen--and photographed--a lot of weird things in the sky over his property. He blames it on the government testing special aircraft.

"Hi! I'm Michael Ironside and I'm here to be the best part of this movie. Enjoy!"
Meanwhile, Murphy has just investigated a dead pig found on a farm that has been losing livestock lately. The farmer (Ian Brown) at first suspected coyotes, but he doesn't know how they could have gotten through his new fence--and as Murphy points out, coyotes aren't known for smoothly slicing off a hunk of a pig's hindquarters. Later, at the station, Murphy reviews the security footage of Nancy's disappearance. The footage cuts out after a bright light appears, so it doesn't show how the booth vanished--except Murphy notices that, going frame-by-frame, the phone booth can briefly be seen rocketing into the sky.

Well, we're about to find out that Kyle had a reason for foisting their friends upon April for this trip. He takes her into a side room and proposes to her. April is speechless--unfortunately for Kyle, it's because she doesn't know if she can say yes. In fact, she now reveals the job offer she took which starts in less than a month--and the fact that she doesn't know if she wants him to come with. Kyle storms out into the other three waiting with a "Congratulations!" banner. Seth can't believe April said no, while Melanie comforts her friend.

Suddenly the movie becomes found footage as Seth records everything on his phone as he and Kyle get drunk, and then go out on the porch to berate April and Melanie. This pleasantness is interrupted when a fireball streaks across the sky and crashes into the woods, going up in a massive explosion. The group eagerly piles into the car to go investigate, but when they arrive they discover that what crashed was not a meteorite or a plane--it's a flying saucer.

"Goddamn it, Gleegark and Phil were hotrodding again."
Mercifully, the found footage gimmick is now dropped again as suddenly as it started in the first place.

For some reason, Lex and Seth freak the fuck out at finding a crashed UFO instead of being curious or excited. Kyle is fascinated by the metal of the craft, which feels as light as tin foil. And then Seth discovers something that terrifies him and calls the others over: there are inhuman footprints in the mud leading away from the crash.

Despite the fact that they really have no reason to assume that the alien would be hostile at this point, they all panic and head back to the cabin as a storm blows in. As they argue over whether they should stay in the cabin or leave, April points out that the prints were headed toward the house--and then the lights go out.

April blames it on merely the fuses blowing as they often do in storms, but checking them means going into the basement. The group decides to all go down together, except for Rusty, so they're only alerted to someone being in the house by Rusty barking--and then footsteps on the floorboards above. Naturally, April remembers the shotgun in the basement just too late for Rusty, whose pained yelps distress Melanie greatly,

Well, there's no intruder when they go back upstairs, but no Rusty, either. The front door is open but after Kyle shuts it and sees nothing through the peephole, he realizes that the creature might still be inside. Well, he turns out to be wrong--because it's standing right outside the sliding glass doors behind April.

"Take me to your sandwich--er, leader. I mean...look, just please feed me: I'm so hungry."
April whirls and shoots the spindly creature. This means obliterating the back door, but the group also discovers a trail of viscous, inhuman blood and follows it to find the dead alien floating in the pool. Well, that tears it: time to leave.

Unfortunately, the road away from the cabin is blocked by a tree that has been neatly cut down--the stump still smoking. April, Kyle, and Seth get out to investigate, but they conclude it's pretty hopeless since it's the only road out--this will seemingly turn out to be untrue later--and they can't possibly move it. And then, in a bit I swear the filmmakers lifted from Dark Horse Comics' Godzilla Color Special, Kyle observes that at least the rain has stopped: only for Seth to notice that, actually, the rain is still pouring everywhere but where they are standing...

Instead of indicating they're about to be stomped flat by Godzilla, this actually indicates a saucer is above them and it patiently waited for them to realize it was there before revealing all its bright lights. Fleeing to the car does no good, because the saucer fries the engine. Then Lex, transfixed, steps out of the car over the others' objections and stands in the open until a white light strikes her and she floats off the ground--and then is sucked right up into the saucer.

That's the others' cue to run into the woods, and April suggests they go to Travis. Well, they apparently wake the old man up because we next see him about to cut Seth's throat. Once he realizes who they are and they tell him what happened--and show him the video of the crashed vessel--he accepts it quickly, In fact, he explains that the government knows about the aliens and has a treaty with them that essentially boils down to "hey, you guys can kidnap all the people you want to experiment on and mutilate as many cattle as you feel like, so long as you don't kill all of us."

That just seems like the only option, not some "deal with the devil."

At any rate, Travis explains that part of the deal is that humans don't retaliate and it sounds like the group did, which means that the aliens must be pissed. Well, Travis is apparently right on the money because he has a radar screen in his house and it starts pinging as a saucer approaches. When the signal vanishes, he tells the others that it means the aliens landed and they need to leave. He leads them to a path that will take them back to the cabin, and then he waits for the aliens with an assault rifle to hold them off. After the alien dodges about the pot plants, Travis rolls under a table and manages to shoot the alien when it lands on the table, splattering himself with blood.

His victory is short-lived, however, because the alien was apparently only wounded and grabs him by the face when he comes out of hiding.

Meanwhile, while driving around, Murphy comes across an RV at a campsite that appears to be deserted. He finds a camera on the floor and replays it to see footage of a couple and their young son enjoying fishing, campfire songs, and then filming a strange object in the sky--before their son is yanked away by a bright light. The tape cuts out and then Murphy hears a noise in the RV--and barely avoids being struck by the mother as she lunges out of a closet with a baseball bat and we see that she is Nancy.

And here is where the movie first truly earns my ire, because Nancy is covered in abrasions and spends the rest of the scene cowering in a corner, pulling her dress down gingerly over her tightly clapped knees as she recounts what she saw when she was taken aboard the alien craft to be experimented on and later released--unlike her family and the many, many others trapped there--and she tearfully talks about how she was held down by them while they did things to her. The reason it earns my ire is that this plays exactly like a woman who has just survived a sexual assault and the film recreates this feeling incredibly accurately, but also does not treat it with the gravity it deserves at all.

It's also the first point at which I began to realize that the movie's adherence to UFO conspiracy tropes meant that its aliens' motivations were never going to make sense. I mean, what, aliens have been abducting humans to experiment on supposedly in order to learn all they can about us for decades--and they're still doing so by using the exact same methods? What's the point of the animal killings? And what's with running around naked on our planet and attacking things with claws and teeth, especially given what we'll later see they are capable of?

I'm sorry, but if you're going to make your horror movie about aliens being sadistic assholes you can at least bother to make them logical sadistic assholes.

Nancy's story makes Murphy pull an old missing person poster out of his glovebox after he sees the traumatized woman safely onto an ambulance--the missing person being his wife, who vanished in 2002. Nancy said there were people still up there before the aliens sent her back, and now Murphy is forced to wonder if his wife is one of them. We leave him to ponder that, alone in his squad car, which makes the following scene all the more nonsensical.

Back at the cabin, the remaining protagonists have boarded up all the windows, locked all the doors, and armed themselves as best they can. As they try and figure out what the hell they can do to survive the night, something bangs on the front door. Seth can't see anything through the peephole, so April shoves him aside and looks for herself-only to discover, in an actually neat bit, that Seth couldn't see anything because an alien had its big black eye up to the other side. Bright lights shine through the windows and then the front door is bashed open--and Seth, who was oddly allowed to hold the shotgun despite being a twitchy bastard, fires through the open door.

Naturally, he just missed Deputy Mitchell, who charges in with Murphy. Why Murphy is suddenly with Mitchell when we last saw him alone, I have no idea. Mitchell aggressively restrains Seth while Murphy demands to know why there vehicle was sitting, abandoned, down the road and why the hell they shot at him. April and the others try to explain that they were attacked, and further explain the whole story--but both Mitchell and Murphy are incredulous. However, April says that they have proof, by which she means the dead alien in the pool instead of the video on Seth's phone.

Shame, then, that the alien isn't there any more when the group leads Murphy to the pool. Kyle deduces it means that the alien wasn't dead, and the sound of something in the nearby barn makes Murphy order the kids back inside--except for Seth, who has been loaded into the back of the squad car by Mitchell--while he goes to investigate. On the second floor of the barn, Murphy find's Rusty's disemboweled carcass. He then catches a brief glimpse of the alien when it dashes past him and dives out the barn window, roaring as it disappears into the woods.

Mitchell, for his part is prioving to be an even bigger asshole than anoyone else thus far in the film by asking Seth if he was anal probed by the aliens. When Seth angrily points out that it was his girlfriend who was abducted and not him, Mitchell jokes that Seth will definitely be getting anal probed in the county lockup. I'd say the rape jokes are meant to make us hate Mitchell, but you'll soon be left to wonder if the filmmakers don't find the just just as funny as he does.

When Murphy gets back in the squad car, he surprises Mitchell by saying he believes the kids' story. When Murphy's wife comes up, Mitchell points out that everyone else has accepted that she ran off to find someone else--but Murphy remembers how suddenly she vanished from their bedroom, without taking any of her belongings, not even her keys. And how could she have locked the door on her way out of their house without her keys?

Well, the alien helpfully appears in Murphy's headlights just then, so Mitchell is forced to accept the truth. However, before the significance of that can be fully appreciated the alien then holds its arm out ahead of it, which hits Muprhy with that bright light. This is apparently the alien using its mind powers (?!) to make Murphy pick up the service shotgun and turn it on Mitchell. Murphy shoots Mitchell dead, and then turns the shotgun on himself. Seth begs him not to do it, but Murphy blows his own head off.

"For my next trick, I'll make a working class American vote against their best interests!"
"But they already do that!"
Okay, so if the alien has psychic powers that can make humans kill themselves or others, why the hell is it running around engaging us in hand-to-hand combat?! It could stand at a distance and kill a person with zero risk to itself.

At any rate, the alien then buggers off for some reason so that April can show up and get Seth out of the back of the squad car. They grab Mitchell's side arm--but not any of the other guns in the car--and head back to the cabin, where Seth is freed from his handcuffs. Seth has decided that they need to make a break for town, though, because he refuses to let the aliens get inside his head. he takes the sidearm, points it at the others and then at his own head. He decides this is all April's fault and then when nobody wants to join him, he charges into the woods on his own.

He has not been gone more than a few seconds before the cabin is shaking, red light is streaming in the windows, and a high-pitched sound is smashing glass bottles and making April, Kyle, and Melanie clutch their bleeding ears in pain. For some reason, after the floorboards ripple as if struck from beneath, Kyle tells the women that they need to go to the basement--and then slams the door behind April and Melanie before moving a shelf in front of the door to barricade them in. As April begs him to join her in the cellar, he tells her that he is going to sacrifice himself so she can make it.

He makes good on that by grabbing a kitchen knife and when an alien comes in the front door, he hollers at it to follow him as he rushes upstairs and...hides in the bathtub with the knife. April and Melanie aren't doing so great in the basement, as it turns out, because somehow Melanie has managed to secretly swallow an entire bottle of sleeping pills so the aliens can't take her, April's attempts to keep her friend conscious don't take.

Meanwhile, Seth has gotten pretty deep into the woods before his flashlight suddenly gives out. he breaks out one of the glow sticks the group got from Travis, but then hears something approaching. He then proceeds to wildly empty the gun's clip into the woods and then throws the empty gun. Really? We're still doing that trope?

No matter, because the alien is there when Seth turns around and it leaps at him, its previously invisible mouth opening into a big dark oval. For some reason, after clawing up Seth's face the alien then decides to summon the saucer to hit him with its abduction light. Seth, in desperation, handcuffs himself to a tree. As you might expect, this just means he goes up to the alien spaceship minus one arm.

"I knew I shouldn't have said I would give my left arm to travel to Jupiter..."
Back at the cabin, Kyle decides to investigate why the alien hasn't found him yet and discovers it's because it had pulled a Phantasm and hid behind a mirror to smash out and grab him dramatically. Apparently, having gotten their prize, the aliens depart. April makes her way upstairs and then the lights and electricity all suddenly return in the cabin. She sees a huge trail of blood leading out the door, with Kyle's engagement ring sitting in the blood. So she recovers the ring and runs outside to see the saucer disappearing into the sky. She begs it to come back, not to leave her alone without Kyle--and then she gets the idea to set off another Roman candle to signal the craft.

It works. When April comes to, she is cocooned in some kind of dark gooey webbing. She tears herself free and finds herself in an enormous tunnel, the walls of which are covered in others who were also cocooned up the same way. She comes to the end of the tunnel and finds it looks out onto an enormous chamber where saucers fly about and go into strange hangars. And, again, I'm left to wonder why the creatures that built all this stuff spend most of their days running around naked on Earth and fucking with humans. What, are they a race of torture porn villains?

"Look, the only way we can maintain all this infrastructure is by enabling those sadists from Betelgeuse, okay?"
Speaking of, Seth wakes up to find himself strapped, naked, to a slab of some kind. He barely has time to process the stump of his left arm before a mechanical device appears before him and opens up like a torture flower. It first sprays him with goo, and then a small insectoid robot in the goo crawls into his belly button. Then the device carves an alien symbol into his stomach with a laser, before the table rotates around to reveal a hole where Seth's bare ass is exposed. We're given loving close-ups of the drill-like probe that the torture device extrudes now as it moves slowly towards Seth's vulnerable posterior. And then Seth dies by being anal probed to death.

Seriously, fuck this movie. Seth is a dick, but the film seems to take great delight in the staging of his death by, again, a nonconsensual sodomy drill. This makes me feel like they thought anal probes and prison rape jokes are hilarious, seeing as how they specifically set this character up to die this way.

And yet, this is not the moment that truly turned me against the movie, as tasteless as it is. What could be worse, you might ask? Oh, let me tell you.

April stumbles through the corridors of the alien ship, eventually finding a woman with a face that is half human and half alien stuck to one wall. After recoiling, she finds Kyle but he seems to be dead when she tears him out of the cocoon, even though he seems awfully intact given all the blood he left behind. She desperately does CPR on him, trying to get him to wake up, and tells him how much she loves him. Eventually he coughs up black ichor and turns out to be alive and relatively fine. They romantically embrace.

Except they then see three aliens regarding them coldly. The couple clings to each other, accepting their fate. However, when one alien raises its arm and bathes them in white light--the two find themselves safe and unharmed in the woods. And this is what pissed me off. Are you seriously telling me that a bunch of extraterrestrial serial killers were moved by these two yahoos hugging and decided to put them back? I didn't even care if they made it out okay and I hadn't just spent all night trying to deliberately do them harm!

Well, the movie then decides to go in a direction that makes me think the filmmakers saw [REC] 3: Genesis and only decided to steal one of its many good ideas. See, walking through the woods, the couple comes across a bunch of soldiers and promptly runs towards them, trying to signal them--and then the soldiers shoot them both. However, this didn't actually make me hate the movie less at this point.

As the couple lies dying, April uses the last of her strength to give Kyle the ring so he can slip it on to her finger. They have one last embrace--and then the movie briefly wins me back over when a soldier walks up and shoots them both repeatedly to make sure they're dead. A cigarette smoking man (Mackenzie Gray) watches as their bodies are carried off and discusses the incident with a soldier (Reese Alexander). They blame the crash on bad weather and assure him that there were a minimum of casualties and they already have the cover story locked down. And then the soldier asks what they should do with the bodies, and the smoking man says to follow the usual procedure.

And so, as a cover of "Spirit in the Sky" plays because this movie thinks it's clever, we see a mobile command base where men in hazmat suits are examining an alien corpse and then Alex and Kyle's bodies are dumped in a pit and incinerated with flamethrowers. The End.

"Dear Penthouse: I am a silicon-based life form from Planet X and I never thought this would happen to me..."
So, I suppose you want me to tell you how I really feel about the movie at this point.

It's tempting to say that Extraterrestrial is garbage, but that isn't truly fair or accurate. Sure, this is a film that both trades on rape imagery to illicit horror and also seems to play it for dark comedy, which I find horribly tasteless. (And I realize that it's maybe a bit hypocritical to say this as someone who will admit to enjoying the irredeemably sleazy Breeders, which we will discuss further one day) However, a movie can still have objectionable content in it and be good enough to overlook it--and the trouble with Extraterrestrial is that it just simply isn't.

As I previously indicated, probably my biggest problem with this movie is that it just throws out a bunch of alien abduction tropes without doing anything more with them. Sure, we don't actually need to know why the aliens do what they do or even anything about them in order to make them scary--and indeed we probably shouldn't know too much--but their actions should at least indicate some level of internal logic. Compare this film's aliens to the excellent Attack The Block--we don't really know much more about those aliens than these, but we know enough to feel like their biology and behavior makes sense. These aliens? They're just spindly assholes.

Sadly, despite the attempts at character building, our characters aren't any better defined. They're just the kind of walking archetypes that Cabin in The Woods lampooned so well, and despite the actors' best efforts they cannot make us care about them. Sure, I'm sad to see Michael Ironside go, but that's because Ironside is always a welcome presence in a film. I couldn't care what happens to any of the other characters, aside from being annoyed at the way Seth's death is played as a sick joke and being pissed at the aliens suddenly deciding to believe in Twue Wuv.

The film also doesn't actually deliver on scares or truly effective horror, simply settling for the easy route of tossing out jump scares. It doesn't help that the "gray alien" design is no longer compelling after decades of being the standard alien design in popular culture. It's like a werewolf movie where the werewolves are just actors with fake fangs and colored contact lenses: it's boring and, regardless of the actual budget, it feels cheap. The thematically similar but overall better Altered based its alien on a similar design, but shifted it enough to make it actually look cool, ferocious, and even scary at times. Certainly it was a much more compelling monster.

While I have certainly seen worse movies than this one, it's still never anything more than a generic mess at its best moments. If a good horror movie is a cake from a bakery, this is the store brand answer to Little Debbie. If you're a horror fan, you've basically already seen this movie at least ten other times--hell, you can see serious parallels to Zombeavers if you stop and think about it for a moment--and this isn't any better than the other times you watched it.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go write that screenplay about an innocent crashed alien that runs afoul of some college kids who think it wants to kill them. Gory hijinks ensue!

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  1. Not to defend the indefensible, but there is a logical explanation for the aliens' decision to let the humans go. Its not improbable that they knew a human clean-up crew was securing the area, and the sick bastards would definitely think it was funny for the lovers to believe they had escaped, only to be gunned down by their own species.

  2. FFS, film criticism is about analysis not setting out the entire plot in relentless detail. Ask a child what it thought of a movie and it will tell you the "story". Don't be a child. Learn from people like Roger Ebert about economical writing.

  3. FFS, professional film critics use selective analysis to build an argument, they don't set out the entire plot in relentless detail. Ask a child what it thought of a movie and it will tell you the "story". Don't be a child. Learn from people like Roger Ebert about economical writing.