#46: Strange Invaders


1983

Director:  Michael Laughlin

Cast:  Paul LeMat, Nancy Allen, Diana Scarwid, Michael Lerner, Louise Fletcher, Wallace Shawn

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class K (6/7, orange star).  Maybe it was the company.  Maybe it was the alignment of the stars.  Maybe it was that the film is steeped in the ’80s.  For whatever reason, I didn’t like it and didn’t see the appeal, and neither did my guests.

Introduction

I actually found myself going back to the Parallel Universe entry for this film to make sure it belonged on the Top 50 List, and they seem to think it does.  Aside from one scene, two of the three of us couldn’t figure out why this was on the list at all, and the third didn’t even really care for the flashy scene.

There’s nothing wrong with the setup.  As the movie poster says, they came from another galaxy twenty-five years ago, and they’re still here.  In fact, they’re ready to go home now, only some humans who got too nosy might wind up going with them…

Some people have referred to this film as “subtly humorous” or as a spoof of 1950s SF.  It was originally planned as the second film in a Strange Trilogy, but did so poorly at the box office that the third film was scrapped.

On the other hand, it has garnered a cult following over the years, so someone thinks it’s a good movie.

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Short summary:  Boy’s Ex-wife (and the mother of his daughter) disappears.  Boy goes to Ex-wife’s hometown and gets attacked by Aliens.  Boy meets Girl (she’s a reporter).  Boy figures out that Ex-wife’s hometown is full of Aliens.  Daughter gets kidnapped by Aliens.  Boy and Girl go to Ex-wife’s hometown to find her.  Boy discovers Ex is an alien.  Aliens decide to take hybrid Daughter back to their homeworld with them.  Daughter uses her powers as the Ex taught her and frees herself.  Boy, Girl and Daughter live happily ever after.

More details:  At the outset of the film, we see the beginning of the invasion of Centerville, at least in the sense that we see the people of the town doing their thing.  A UFO appears in the sky, and it is clear that something is causing the people to vanish, but we don’t see what it is or how it is happening.

Then the film moves twenty-five years into the future.  We see a professor living in New York, moving through a fairly prosaic life.  It is only when our hero Charles Bigelow, a professor of entymology, goes to the strange town of Centerville that things start happening.  The town seems trapped in the ’50s, and no one will admit to knowing Charles’ ex-wife or her family.  Charles’ dog disappears under strange circumstances, and then when he’s leaving, convinced something is really wrong, a figure with a non-human head fires a laser from his finger, blowing up Charles’ car.  Charles escapes and makes it back to New York.

Once back in New York, he talks to a government agency in charge of UFOs and stuff.  There he meets Mrs. Benjamin (Louise Fletcher), who tells him that all the stories are just bunk.  Later, he notices a picture in a newspaper that looks a bit like the alien, so he goes to meet the reporter, Betty, who did the piece.  She doesn’t believe there’s anything to Charles’ story (even though she wrote the article).  So Charles is stymied, but at least he’s met an attractive lady, right?

To make a long story short, the aliens come to New York to get Charles’ daughter, and they also unsuccessfully try to eliminate Betty.  The government is trying to keep Charles from doing anything, and actually impedes him from returning to Centerville to rescue his daughter.  But Charles and Betty do something unexpected when they go to a sanitarium to talk to one of the witnesses to the strangeness, something Betty knows about from writing the original article.

The crazy guy—not so crazy, actually—is Willie Collins; in a flashback, he tells of spending the night in Centerville and how his family was taken and killed.  It’s actually a gruesome scene, because his wife and two children are literally dehydrated alive, right in front of his eyes, before turning into balls of light which drift away.  Willie helps Charles and Betty make a plan to get into Centerville in spite of the government and the aliens, and all three return to Centerville for the final showdown.

It turns out that the aliens have been here studying the Earth, and now they’re ready to go home.  That’s why they went to New York and took Charles’ daughter; as a hybrid, she’ll be important to their continuing studies on their homeworld.  And while our heroes’ plan gets Charles into the spaceship, and he even reaches his daughter, he can’t get back out.

Folks, it looks like Charles may be taking a long trip…

But the aliens have a little surprise coming.  Charles’ ex left her daughter behind on purpose, and when the little girl was brought back to her, she taught her what to do:  when Mommy tells her daughter to do what she showed her, the little girl demonstrates that she can also shoot lasers from her fingers, and she and Charles escape.

As the ship prepares for liftoff, it releases blue energy balls, which return to their points of origin and turn back into people.  Even Charles’ dog is returned, and Willie gets his family back.

Impressions

There’s one scene in this movie that really impressed me, and it did so on account of the striking visuals:  the flashback in which Willie’s family is taken.  Other than that, really, this movie did nothing for me.

It felt a bit slow, taking inordinately long to get moving.  Most of the alien invasion films—be they overt attacks, like The War of the Worlds, or subversive infiltrations, like Invaders from Mars—open with the spaceship landing.  We do get that here, but somehow it’s flat.  It’s clear that the people in the town have vanished, but we don’t know what happened.  And then the film shifts forward in time twenty-five years and halfway across the continent.  Any momentum the film might have built up is gone.  Instead, we get to see a fairly boring professor moving through his life in New York: talking to his daughter, calling people on the phone…standard stuff.

The town of Centerville should probably have been unnerving, but I just found Charles’ efforts to find his ex-wife or her family boring and, to be honest, a little silly.  When we finally get the alien attack, it’s so bizarre—an alien who shoots lasers or lighting out of his fingers, and blows up cars—that I really didn’t know what to think.

Most of the film was like that for me, provoking any number of “what’s going on?” questions.  These moments aren’t full-fledged plot holes, but there were a whole lot of things that just seemed bizarre or silly.  Most of these moments weren’t sufficiently bad to be comical.  In no particular order, some of those questions are:  why didn’t Charles’ ex work out a better plan for returning home without her daughter, like, say, telling her people the little girl was dead?  Why did the aliens take Charles’ dog?  Why did the aliens feel the need to attack Charles when he hadn’t found out anything?  Why did the aliens feel the need to attack Betty, the very thing that convinced her that something was going on?  Why did the aliens take Willie’s family, but not Willie?  You get the picture, I think…

There are two bright spots in the film beyond the Willie flashback.  The first is Nancy Allen as reporter Betty Walker.  She brings a certain sexy, almost dirty quality to the screen.  That may be because of the ’80s style clothing combined with the lack of a bra.  Her character is likeable, too, which is a significant change from her role in Carrie where she played a very, very mean girl.  The other bright spot is also a woman, Fiona Lewis, who plays a waitress in Centerville.  When she comes to New York with the other aliens-disguised-as-townsfolk, she dresses up in full ’80s style clothing complete with kick-ass shoulder pads.  She infiltrates Betty’s apartment by claiming to be an Avon Lady, kills Wallace Shawn (the supervisor), and goes after Betty only to be shot and killed in an elevator.  Her demeanor during the city phase is absolutely amazing…she really projects an aura of menace.

When the aliens return all the townspeople to their original positions and conditions, including Charles’ dog and Willie’s family, I was disgusted.  In terms of the story, the aliens have just handed the United States government (a tacit conspirator in the entire sequence of affairs) a nasty problem in terms of hiding their presence on our planet, something the aliens went out of their way to hide up to that point.  That’s neither nice nor fair; these people haven’t aged a day in twenty-five years, for starters, and are probably going to have a very difficult time adjusting.  So the reason doesn’t seem to be humanitarian, but the aliens didn’t have any compunctions against killing before this (being in a car when it blows up is probably fatal, you know).  It just didn’t make any sense.

In terms of narrative, the aliens’ “benevolence” robbed the entire sequence of events of any consequences whatsoever (well, aside from the twenty-five years that have gone by; Willie’s wife is now a lot younger than he is, but since he’s an escaped mental patient I doubt that particular reunion is going to have a happy ending anyway).  In a wierd way the ending also denies the viewer their investment in the film.

Wrap-up

If this film was an homage to 1950s science fiction movies, updated for the ’80s, the narrative had some problems.  If it was intended to be a comedy, the humor is very subtle and I missed it all.  If the film was intended to be a spoof or a parody…where’s the spoofing?  It feels like a bad but updated version of 1950s SF.  I don’t recommend this film at all; its few good qualities are significantly outweighed by its tedium, plot holes and silly story, and I don’t understand what it’s doing on the Top 50 Films list.

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