By Michael T. Dennis
The 1950s were a formative decade for popular filmmaking and pop culture. Post-war America was a unique environment in its politics and ideology and, as much as during any other era, the movies reflected the spirit of the times. “Alien Trespass,” an homage to1950s sci-fi B-movies, offers both a look back at the attitudes of a bygone age and a peculiar suggestion that in the span of fifty years relatively little has changed.
In many ways, the movie-going experience we know today traces its roots to the 1950s. With televisions appearing in more and more living rooms, Hollywood introduced Widescreen and color to make its fare appear unique and spectacular. The vast majority of films were truly for the masses, including, for the first time, the burgeoning youth audience. Along with the Western, the science fiction genre ranked high on the popularity charts, spawning countless iterations with varying degrees of quality.
This is where “Alien Trespass” comes from, literally, if the conceit is to be believed. The film comes packaged as a lost masterpiece, produced in 1957 by the fictitious Hollywood amalgam Louis Q. Goldstone. After a lawsuit forced the studio to cancel the film's premiere and destroy the negative, it was promptly forgotten and remained unseen—until today.
Systemic jokes like this seldom pay off, but this movie may be the exception. “Alien Trespass” is a joy to experience in a way few films are. Director R.W. Goodwin knows a thing or two about making entertaining science fiction, having served as producer, writer, and director on “The X-Files”. Goodwin's feature debut is a tribute in the truest sense of the term, blending modern production technique with an established genre, though not by poking fun but with a recreation of the viewing pleasure that those old movies offered.
A classic image opens the story as a pie tin flying saucer wobbles along on a crash course toward Earth. Down below, several residents of a rural California town catch sight of something unusual in the night sky; some pass it off as a mega-meteoroid, some phone the police, and others decide to investigate. Among those who can't resist a closer look is Ted Lewis (Eric McCormack of TV's “Will & Grace”). Before long, a dangerous alien (the Ghota) is on the loose and a friendly alien (Urp) has inhabited Ted's body to try and save the planet from his escaped cargo.
It's a plot right out of the pictures that it emulates, and in “Alien Trespass” it is worked well. As Urp gets used to his new human body and learns to communicate his mission (and as more and more people are turned into puddles of goo by the Ghota), the citizens finally catch on to what's happening in their town.
In this context, a happy ending for all doesn't come as much of a surprise, but if predicting what will happen next isn't the source of enjoyment in “Alien Trespass,” getting to know the townspeople is. McCormack, recognizable as Will from the NBC sitcom “Will & Grace”, brings a gentle comic style to what is essentially a two-part role: Ted before and after being inhabited by Urp. Not only is the transition from man to alien believably absurd, he even manages to bring humor to the old routine of referring to himself in the third person.
Ted's wife Lana (Jody Thompson) may be the most obvious bow to 1950s nostalgia. The oversexed housewife, dolled up like an office girl from “Mad Men,” is delightfully naïve right up until the end. Standing by her man, it is clear that her world is far less cynical than most of us could imagine. Her feminist counterpart is Tammy (Jenni Baird), a waitress at the local diner who dreams big, doesn't need a man, and is the first one to listen to Urp and understand the truth.
Placing a female in the traditionally male role of a savior may be the film's singular instance of tipping its hand as to its contemporary origins, but after a century of heroic men in the movies, it is nice to see the scales balanced, even retroactively.
Rounding out the cast of characters are local teens Dick and Penny (Andrew Dunbar, Sarah Smyth), who set up the requisite kids vs. adults conflict, when everyone over 30 refuses to believe their story about a monster roaming the hills. Representing the stubborn establishment is the ill-tempered Police Chief Dawson, played in a brilliant piece of casting by Dan Lauria (memorable as patriarch Jack Arnold on TV's “The Wonder Years”).
“Alien Trespass” is fun to watch in part because of the time it affords with these protagonists. Even at their funniest, the characters never become the butt of the joke. By not crossing over into the overt farce or parody of Tim Burton's “Mars Attacks!” (1996) and “Matinee” (1993), “Alien Trespass” is instead about the fun of confronting silly fears. To watch and enjoy it is to experience something like the enjoyment felt by audiences in the 1950s, unaware of whatever social implications their movie-going habits might someday be said to reveal. The entertainment value of a movie that channels our anxieties, whether they are caused by Communism or terrorism, is apparently not a condition of the specific decade we live in.