Review: Alien Trespass

Alien Trespass tries very hard to look like some discovered lost classic from 1957.

Alien Trespass

It may seem a little churlish to chide Alien Trespass, a pastiche of ‘50s sci-fi cheapies whose ambitions seem limited to providing some light entertainment for genre geeks, for not offering more. And judging by the criteria that it sets for itself (skillful reproduction of the conventions of the genre; the amusement of its prospective audience), R. W. Goodwin’s film is at least moderately successful. But when we consider that the Cold War alien film was one of the means by which an edgy nation made manifest its anxieties over nuclear warfare and ideological contamination, often in highly reactionary ways, and that in recreating these films, the director has nothing to say about the genre except that, from the vantage point of 50 years, it’s quaint but amusing, suddenly his project seems less a bit of good natured fun and more a depoliticized misunderstanding of what made these films resonate in the first place.

Billed in both the film’s press campaign and in a fake newsreel that opens the picture as a recently discovered “lost” classic from 1957, Alien Trespass tries very hard to look like one. Invoking the Technicolor hues of the period, Goodwin gets down that process’s eye-popping sheen, but in his imperfect reproduction, there’s an added silkiness to the palette absent from the historical model. The result is an image that doesn’t seem at home in either 1957 or 2009, but grounded in some odd timelessness in between. And while this lack of temporal grounding may not have been exactly what Goodwin was going for, it nonetheless adds a welcome note of instability to an otherwise straightforward project. For the rest, the director has fun using rear projections, matte paintings, wipes, and bargain-basement special effects to point up the technical inferiority of the 1950s film, but it amounts to little more than the questionable use of ironic distance for a certain self-satisfied amusement. Although Goodwin may feel a genuine affinity for the films he draws on, there’s no question that he presents these works principally as objects of fun for his supposedly more enlightened viewer.

This last principle extends as well to both the plotting and the presentation of specific detail. The narrative, something about a good alien coming to Earth to combat evil alien creatures, is spiked with a score of B-movie clichés (the cop drawn into the biggest case of his career just days before retirement) while the characters fall comfortably into stock types (the James Dean hipster, the jock). Which is, given Goodwin’s project of uncritical recreation, absolutely necessary, but there’s only so many times we can be amused by the time-lapse ironies of a character waxing rhapsodic about “one of those new Polaroid cameras” or that same character using the expression “suck eggs.” And the film’s one perfunctory mention of commies is presented as hopelessly quaint, as if the presence of an alien other (and the corresponding reactionary government response) were something we once worried about in the 1950s, but, thank God, no longer. Showing no understanding of what made classic sci-fi pictures so culturally significant nor any awareness that they might have contemporary relevance, Goodwin consigns them safely to the realm of the historical. His models thus rendered harmless relics of the past, the director is free to reduce an ideologically loaded genre to the stuff of empty fetishizing.

 Cast: Eric McCormack, Jenni Baird, Dan Lauria, Robert Patrick, Jody Thompson, Aaron Brooks, Sarah Smyth, Andrew Dunbar, Tom McBeath, Vincent Gale, Jerry Wasserman, Jonathan Young, Michael Roberds  Director: R. W. Goodwin  Screenwriter: Steven Fisher  Distributor: Roadside Attractions  Running Time: 88 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2008  Buy: Video

Andrew Schenker

Andrew Schenker is an essayist and critic living in upstate New York. His writing has appeared in The Baffler, The Village Voice, Artforum, Bookforum, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and others.

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