Earthling opens with a bizarre event taking place on an international space station which, in turn, causes an atmospheric event that leads to a handful of people, as the press blurb puts it, “wak[ing] up to realize that their entire lives have been a lie.” What they come to learn, and it’s not a particularly major spoiler, is that they’re actually aliens. The film is smartly kept small in scope, as the aliens are not publicly outted, nor are they hunted down by scientists or the military. Rather, this self-discovery ostensibly leads the characters to both come to grips with what this means in terms of who they are, and to figure out whether they want to remain on Earth or go back home.
Writer/director Clay Liford, in talking about his first feature-length film, makes it clear that he’s coming from the right place, as he speaks about being more interested in offering a science-fiction film that was small in scope, but dealing with “big ideas.” And while the movie certainly focuses on the question of what it means to be human — a sort of mental versus biological debate — it falls unfortunately short in the execution. The film largely centers on Judith (Rebecca Spence), a teacher who used to suffer from epilepsy and who takes a cocktail of psychotropic drugs. During the “event,” Judith crashes her car. The doctors decide she crashed because of a seizure, but after a new student, Abby (Amelia Turner), joins one of Judith’s classes, Judith begins to realize that it wasn’t a seizure, but was her “waking up” moment. The first act of the film, as Judith begins to uncover this truth about herself, is the strongest, in large part because Spence, who looks strikingly like an un-Photoshopped Angelina Jolie (and I don’t mean that as a derogatory descriptor at all), is quite good. Much of the first part of the film focuses on her growing isolation, often with little to no dialogue, and Turner commendably carries it.
I wanted to like the film, but even in this stronger first act, I began to get worried by the way the new memories Judith was experiencing were portrayed. It’s unclear whether Liford chose this approach out of the simple necessity, given the insanely small budget, or because it was simply the way he wanted to do it. Nevertheless, the effect of quick flashes of brightly lit yet slightly washed-out imagery felt a bit too “art school-y” for my tastes. But again, as with the underlying idea itself, it’s clear that Liford is coming from a place of good intentions, trying to figure out a way to engage the viewer with Judith’s burgeoning memories.
Beyond Spence’s performance as Judith, most of the cast is unfortunately exactly what you would expect out of a low-budget indie. The only real exceptions are Peter Greene (a recognizable character actor who I most readily identify as Redfoot from The Usual Suspects) — although his performance is pretty one-note as well, it’s a note Greene is particularly good at — and newcomer Amelia Turner, who plays Abby. Turner probably has the hardest role in the film, even tougher than the lead, because her character has the most complexity to her. And although I found myself critical of her performance for a lack of nuance, which made it a little harder to really get the character, I also thought her attempt was admirable (doubly so when I looked her up later and learned that this was only her second screen performance). A more refined performance would have helped to ground the character. Actually, that’s a relatively accurate statement for the film as a whole.
The plot is relatively simple and straightforward, but the ultimate product is just a bit too inconsistent and uneven in its approach and delivery. It touches on some interesting ideas, but fails to explore them as much as I would have liked to see (and the one time it did try to dig a bit deeper, it delivered the one truly cheesy line of dialogue in the film). It’s unfortunate, because a film that could have been intriguing and gripping winds up being a bit of a distraction to itself more than anything else. While sci-fi completists will probably want to see it anyway, I suspect many would find the pacing too slow and the performance of Spence and the bits that work insufficient to carry the flick. That being said, Liford clearly has some potential, and I’m intrigued to see what he does next.