Who out there hasn’t been entertained – or even a little scared – watching classic sci-fi films like “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, “War of the Worlds” or “It Came From Outer Space” – be it in the theater or years later when the films made their way to tv, often UHF? I remember watching all of these films with my dad and being mesmerized by them, particularly the effects and how they were done – by hand – not CGI as today. Viewing those films today (many of which were “A” films with big premieres and Oscar winners in the cast and not the “camp” so many today believe them to be), not only do you still see the hallmarks of creative filmmaking excellence but a different style of acting and technology. Enter former “X-Files Executive Producer, R.W. Goodwin and the 21st Century and his desire to do an “authentic” 1950’s sci-fi flick. With a philosophy to “seriously and in earnest make the best sci fi movie that we can make” and “the only condition is that we are living in 1957 and we have to stay within the style and the technology of what we have available at that time”, the result is the ridiculously fun ALIEN TRESPASS.
The time is 1957. The place, a beautiful starlit night in the Mojave desert. Noted astronomer Professor Ted Lewis is home cooking a romantic anniversary dinner for his loving wife Lana. Ironically, the Perseid Meteors are showering that night. Handy with the barbecue, Ted suddenly stops in his tracks when he sees a flaming object in the sky erratically hurtling towards the nearby mountains. Certain it’s not a meteor, he is anxious to investigate, but puts his scientific desires on the back burner while he satisfies another desire with Lana. Across town, Tammy, a waitress in a local diner who has aspirations of being a great artist, falls under the spell of the meteor shower, and one particularly erratic shooting star which she takes as a good omen and makes a wish upon it. Local town teens, Dick and Penny, who are up at Lover’s Lane for a make-out fest, are the only ones, however, that see what this star really is – a spaceship from outer space.
In the morning, curiosity gets the best of everyone as Dr. Lewis hightails it up to the mountains to investigate, as do Dick and Penny, and Officer Vernon and his partner Officer Stu after being tipped off at the diner by Dick and Penny. In the meantime, we are privy to witness the emergence from the spaceship of a silver suited alien named Urp and another not so friendly looking creature who we later learn is the evil Ghota; a 4 foot high one-eyed monster who devours everything in its path as it slithers along on tickler-type feet leaving nothing but a mud puddle of residue. The problem with the Ghota is that it duplicates very quickly and if not stopped, will take over the Earth.
As Lewis approaches the spaceship he is suddenly yanked inside. Emerging a few minutes later, although seemingly unharmed, appears a bit disheveled and looking “not quite right.” It seems Urp has taken over Lewis’ body in order to search, recover and stop the Ghota without being noticed! Tracking the Ghota, Urp soon enlists the help of Tammy who, although initially a skeptic to beings from outer space, is open minded enough to believe Urp, particularly when mud puddles of human remains start popping up all over town and after she herself is attacked by the Ghota. Summoning all her strength and relying on her smarts, and the help of Urp, Dick and Penny, the group must not only fight to save civilization but stand against a non-believing police chief and panicked town.
The performances are terrificly fun and in the case of Eric McCormack, doubly so, as he plays not only Professor Lewis, but the alien Urp inhabiting Dr. Lewis’ body. Each persona is distinctly different; Lewis is trying to be suave and debonair in his houndstooth jacket and distinctive pipe, while as Urp, his movements or halting and stilted as is his speech which has computerized enunciation, deliberate pacing and monotone inflection. According to McCormack, “The image I used is, because I was an alien in another person’s body, I said I should drive that body the way an alien would drive a stolen car. That was the fun of the walk and the talk and the hands and discovering. The most fun was that whenever [Urp] was around [Tammy], he keeps getting a hard on which he calls ‘a polarity. It’s funny. Those are funny moments.” For McCormack, “I loved Bob Goodwin’s enthusiasm. I did this with no expectation of it being seen by anyone. I said to him, I love the script.. .I’m just going to enjoy myself.” And he clearly does. Think Data of “Star Trek” with an emotion chip.
Jenni Baird may be new to American audiences but I expect that to change very quickly. Not only is she a flawless beauty, but she is luminous on screen. She also knows and works her character of Tammy with exacting measure reproducing the 50’s genre and styling perfectly. As Tammy, Baird is actually the heroine of the film, something which Baird sees as “a relief to not play the damsel in distress.” Surprisingly, this was Baird’s first film audition in America. On reading the script she “thought it was really cute and would be a lot of fun.” Unfamiliar with the genre, Baird “had to do a whole re-education. Bob, when he cast me, sent me about six films and said ‘You need to watch this. You need to emulate the acting style. You need to really absorb what the genre is so you can fit right in.’ They wanted our acting style to be authentic.” Baird just nails it. Take a look at the performances of Patricia Neal or Barbara Rush or even Steve McQueen in any of the 50’s classics and Baird’s performance is right on. And as described by McCormack, Baird “is the Ripley” in this film.
The wonderful Dan Lauria (whom I will watch in anything on stage and on screen) turns in another solid performance as Police Chief Dawson. He does low key, and often put-upon, cops so well and here is no exception. With an Andy Taylor attitude, and a man just two days from retirement, the last thing Dawson wants is trouble in this little Mayberryesque town of his. Lauria’s performance captures not only the head-in-the-sand naivete of the character and the town, but also provides a caring, paternal quality that is endearing. As for Robert Patrick, he always brings a “snideliness” to his characters and does so here as Officer Vernon with great aplomb. And talk about funny! Check out the scene with him scene with him in the doctor’s house pretended to be choked by the “monster.” Not played for camp but merely as a smart ass, he will have you rolling. For Patrick this was also a chance to “step back in time and do a film the way they used to do it.”
The genesis of ALIEN TRESPASS comes from James Swift and started 20 years ago. Ultimately he hooked up with co-writer Steven Fisher and finally, director Bob Goodwin, who fell in love with the sci-fi “recreation” concept created by Swift and Fisher. All three are clearly fans of the genre and the original classics. Great with the double entendres, they play with wry, dry irony and wit which when compounded with the reproduction-styled acting and dialogue creates this subtle humor that stays with you long after the film ends. Great attention is paid to the development of each character, even those with minimal screen time, which of course is enhanced by the period perfect costuming and production design. A real “twist” to what is a 1950’s story, is having a female as the heroine. Little subtleties celebrate the role reversals such as Tammy not knowing that vacuum cleaners require bags and Lewis doing the cooking in his family.
With a film titled ALIEN TRESPASS, I initially expected to see campy balls-out humor going for slapstick at every turn, however that is not what Goodwin gives us….and considering his work with “The X-Files”, I should have known better. He plays the story straight. As in the 50’s when these films were popping out a dime a dozen, the acting, timing, pacing, story, dialogue – here all is very 1950’s appropriate. And rather than do a parody, Goodwin has the actors play their roles straight as if in the 1950’s with each taking the character “seriously”. Then Goodwin zings us by tactfully weaving in the humor with skilled subtlety and meticulous execution.
Bob Goodwin clearly had a vision in mind when he agreed to helm ALIEN TRESPASS. “I wanted to do a 1957 film exactly as it was done in 1957. I knew that if we struck it right and got it exactly right, it would be funny. It wasn’t being funny by trying to be funny. That’s why the cast is so brilliant. Because they did that.” As a whole, the project was “challenging because nothing existed. We had to build everything.” A surprise was Goodwin’s use of Super 16mm film. “It had to be film. That was definite. I would have shot in 35 mm but we were trying to save money. Kodak has this new Vision stock which is great with the new Arriflex 416 camera and there’s a company in Canada where they do what they call “degraining” and they pull all the grain out of the 16mm. When we first screened it on tests on a big screen, it was just beautiful.” For his styling, Goodwin looked to “War of the Worlds”. “It was that lush 50’s color and beautiful sets and beautiful lighting.” ASC winner David Moxness really celebrates the vibrancy of the 1950’s color palette and showcases it beautifully with cinematographic excellence capturing the entire Technicolor feel. Another great touch is the insertion of archival 1957 film footages celebrating science fiction and aliens in the opening montage.
Goodwin also believed in thorough prep and kept his entire crew involved in each and every aspect of the film. Everyone was given genre specific films to watch so they would know what to look for, how to design and what to do to stay in the period. Even camera lensing was restricted to that available in the 50’s – the 25, 50 and 75mm lenses.
Ian Thomas, who I believe can design for any period, genre and effect, does a masterful job here as production designer which is enhanced by Louise Roper’s set decoration. The meticulous attention to detail with the various sets; appliances, furniture, cabinetry, colors, even the styling of dishware and eggs and milk in glass containers in the refrigerator – perfect – and all built for this film, right down to a star canopy. As Goodwin said, “There is nothing that is not 1950’s.” As for costuming, Jenni Gullet is pallette and pattern perfection. Interestingly, a large portion of the costuming had to be made with great searches undertaken to find period perfect fabrics. Vintage clothing appropriate to the period and the story couldn’t be found.
Lost on many may be the perfection in the simplicity of Urp’s design and costume as well as the space ship. Again, sticking with the technology and the capabilities of the craft in the 50’s, rather than add anything high tech, these “effects” are true to that created in the 50’s, including using fishing line to pull creatures across the screen. And the Ghota! Again, simplistic and in keeping with filmmaking of the era, the Ghota is actually a rubber suit. This is so heartwarming and refreshing. At every little turn there really is great homage paid to the classic space/alien thrillers of days gone by.
A fun, fun movie that is chock full of so much appreciation for the genre, the era and the art of filmmaking that for Lauria, he would like to see the audience go back and look and see where this film came from. His other hope, to see “A grandfather with a 10 year old grandson both laughing their heads off together.” For Goodwin, he wants the audience to have fun. ALIEN TRESPASS – these aliens can trespass on a movie screen near me anytime!
Urp/Ted Lewis – Eric McCormack
Tammy – Jenni Baird
Chief Dawson – Dan Lauria
Officer Vernon – Robert Patrick
Directed by R.W. Goodwin. Written by James Swift and Steven Fisher. Rated PG. (90 min)