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Extraterrestrial: Dilluted Excellence

By Matt Meier · June 20, 2012

You know that old adage about quality over quantity? Well that’s kind of a tricky subject when it comes to writing a screenplay. It’s one thing to have brilliant script that runs over 160 pages, as was the case of Quentin Tarantino’s Django: Unchained or Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network—of course only people like Tarantino and Sorkin can get those kind of screenplays green-lit. But what about the stories that stem from a truly great premise but simply do not have the substance to last for a whole 90 minutes? Of course there have been some exceptional shorts that clock in at around 30 minutes, a bit longer than the standard less-than-20-minute short. But what happens to those stories that should really fall somewhere in between the two?

What ever happened to the 45-to-60-minute featurette?

This is sadly the case for Nacho Vigalondo’s quirky Spanish sci-fi/rom-com, Extraterrestrial. Despite an outstanding premise and enjoyable cast, the handful of truly gratifying moments are stretched like a rubber band over 90 generally underwhelming minutes. The story itself works as a whole and unfolds with a tone that often amusingly meshes elements of farce and naturalism, but it’s ultimately not much different than a glass of Macallan 12-year Scotch on the rocks: a delicious drink in theory, but one that realistically need be consumed quickly lest it digress into a watery disappointment.

The story centers around Julio (Julián Villagrán) and Julia (Michelle Jenner), who awaken from their one-night stand to discover that while they were sleeping (or “sleeping”), about 30 or more alien spacecrafts (flying saucers, specifically, each 4 miles in diameter) came to a stationary hover all across Spain. With all phone, internet, and TV signals down, their only knowledge of the situation comes in the form of a repeating radio transmission ordering all persons to remain in their homes through this national state of emergency. Consequently, Julia begrudgingly permits Julio to extend his stay at her apartment, though she makes clear her total disinterest in revisiting the sexual escapades of yester-eve in any and all capacities.

As it turns out, the reason for Julia’s coldness toward Julio arrives the very next morning in the form of her boyfriend, Carlos (Raúl Cimas), whom we find out she has been with since she was 19 years old. Julia’s pudgy and dweebish neighbor/stalker, Ángel (Carlos Areces), also joins in to thwart Julio and Julia’s attempt to hide the one-night affair from Carlos, solidifying the love-rhombus dynamic that carries through the film.

Some would perhaps call it far-fetched that Julio and Julia would be so concerned with concealing their affair while managing their growing attraction to one another with a potential alien-led apocalypse on the horizon. But you know what, if on the eve of the Earth’s demise I were to find myself with a woman like Michelle Jenner, whose unequivocal beauty makes a persuasive case for the validity of intelligent design, I assure you that my mindset would be relatively one-track as well.

The sci-fi backdrop of the film is wholly secondary to the rom-com elements—we never do find out any valid information regarding the spaceships, though this in itself is by no means disappointing since it’s unessential to the narrative and themes. However, given the often farcical and absurd nature of the story, the romantic storyline lacks that authenticity to pull you in for the entirety of the narrative. There seems a general lack of obstacles that stand between Julio and Julio pursuing their growing romantic yearnings for one another as things progress. Thankfully Vigalondo’s ending works quite well in wrapping things up, and the last third of the film is probably the most entertaining as he allows himself to divulge toward the sillier side of things with less concern over creating real and relatable characters, which he does only adequately through the first half of the film despite his efforts to do more. But given that Vigalondo’s greatest strength is his ability to maintain sympathetic characters through farcical plot points, it would have behooved him to keep things short and sweet. So despite its failings, these strengths are what keep Extraterrestrial so compelling.

The film released on all VOD platforms last weekend and will follow a rolling release through limited theaters starting this weekend (June 22). It’s quite exciting to see films like Extraterrestrial hit VOD on or before their theatrical release dates. It grants people outside of LA and NYC the opportunity to see these small independent films. And as VOD technology is becoming more and more mainstream, it would seem to be the perfect opportunity to revive the featurette.

The cost of ticket prices makes it rather difficult to make a 45-to-60-minute film and expect people to still see it in theaters. But what if Vigalondo had kept the film at about 60 minutes or less, cutting out the slower parts while keeping the meat of his story, and released it to VOD as is already the case of his full-length feature? I would certainly rather pay $3 to watch an exceptional featurette at home than pay $16 to see an average film at the ArcLight.

Of course the studios probably don’t like that idea; featurettes and shorts don’t make money—but then again, neither do most low-budget indie features like Extraterrestrial (notwithstanding its relatively prestigious Spanish cast). We’re probably a long way away from seeing this kind of thing come to fruition, but sometimes less truly is more—no one should have to pay extra for watered down Scotch.