A man slowly wakes up in an apartment. He is confused, groggy. The apartment is not his. He hears movement in an adjacent room. He gets dressed and goes to look for answers.
So begins the 2011 Spanish movie, Extraterrestrial (Extraterrestre). Written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo—the very same Vigalondo responsible for bringing the just-released Anne Hathaway vehicle, Colossal, to the screen; as well as the wonderfully taut sci-fi, Timecrimes (Los cronocrímenes)—Extraterrestrial is a low-key gem of a movie; a story with a fantastical premise that nevertheless stays rooted firmly to the ground.
As we find out shortly after he gains consciousness, the man is Julio (Julián Villagrán), and he has woken up in the apartment of Julia (Michelle Jenner). They talk. Julio is relaxed and affable; Julia seems anxious. It’s pretty obvious that she wants him to leave, though she is not being unfriendly. The two had only met for the first time the night before. The movie—and the characters—will at times attempt to play coy with whether the two actually slept together or not.
While they mill around getting dressed and making coffee, it slowly becomes apparent that something is amiss. A casual glance out the window reveals mid-morning city streets bizarrely deserted. Apart from the odd piece of trash floating along listlessly in the breeze and a lazy cloud here and there in the sky there seems to be no movement whatsoever. Julio soon spots something that may be at the root of the riddle of the empty city, of the mystery of the TV and radio stations gone silent: There, in the thin slice of sky visible between the apartment buildings, a colossal saucer floats over the city, rotating ever so slowly.
Yes, by strict definition, this is an ‘alien movie’, though it is concerned with the visitors from outer space only in as much as they provide a catalyst for the very earthbound story that unfolds in and around that apartment. In most movies about an extraterrestrial visitation, threatening or otherwise, we would have our hero or heroes running towards ground zero. Here it would be a stretch to even call our two protagonists heroes. The story of another movie has already happened while they slept. The army has probably evacuated the city. Instead, Julia and Julio find themselves, alone and disoriented, unable to dismiss the awkwardness of their situation even though an alien spaceship hangs over their city.
Rather than the mechanics of alien invasion, Vigalondo and his players in Extraterrestrial are interested in the nitty gritty of things like love, passion, jealousy, and communication. Because, as it turns out: They are not actually quite that alone, and we soon see why Julia was so anxious to get rid of Julio in the first place when her boyfriend Carlos (Raúl Cimas ) arrives home. Carlos knows what’s going on—outside, that is; about the infidelity unfolding slowly before his eyes he remains blissfully and remarkably oblivious. Extraterrestrial is a very funny movie, and it’s out of this disconnect that it mines a good deal of its greatest laughs. As Julia and Julio try various combinations of fighting—or at least understanding—their feelings for each other, trying to get Julio to leave, and just making sure that Carlos doesn’t cotton onto what’s happened, Carlos himself assumes the role of macho champion. Large and imposing, though in a slightly clumsy and friendly sort of way, he seeks to protect Julia—and Julio, who he takes a hilarious instant liking to—in this new, post-invasion world. There are supplies to be gathered, terrains to be surveyed, and questions about possible alien plots to be answered. This is a movie built on glances and sly turns of phrase, and the cast work ther way through the playful script with grace and wit. When the slightly sleazy and obsessive neighbor, Ángel (Carlos Areces), is thrown into the mix relatively early on, sparks really do start to fly. The film manages to sneak in a fair few resonant emotional notes too, teh details of which are best left to each person’s own viewing.
It’s the rhythm by which this all unfolds that makes Extraterrestrial such a pleasure to watch. Barring a few larger moments set outside of the apartment it could well be a play. It is certainly written as such, with moments of mania and stretches of calm; characters sometimes buried deep in a conversation or monologue while situations play out behind them, nearby but out of their cone of awareness. That’s not to say that the movie is flat or boring visually. Vigalondo takes us into this apartment and strands us there with the characters, and he shoots it all with a bleary-eyed, evocative morning hue that really puts the audience in mind of where most of us have been once in a while: Waking up in a strange place, the light streaming in and hurting our eyes, trying to figure out the hows and whys, making an effort to calibrate our emotional compass in the wake of an eventful night.
Only, you know: there’s a city-sized spaceship floating outside the window this time.
Here, look, a great spoiler-free trailer for a great little movie. Watch it, then watch it.