DIY Alien Invasion Comedy Fails to Land.
DIRECTED BY PATRICK READ JOHNSON/1990
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JULY 7, 2020/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Every movie is of a piece with its time and place. In the case of 1990’s Spaced Invaders, I guess you had to be there. Because, “cult classic” or no, catching up with this one (via this fine Blu-ray release) at age forty-six, thirty years removed from its original release did the film, nor I, any favors.
The initial premise is a clever one. A runaway shipload of five alien battle survivors from Mars decide to join up with an already in-progress Martian invasion. But, unbeknownst to them, the invasion transmission they intercepted was actually a rebroadcast of Orson Welles 1938 War of the Worlds radio adaptation. They bungle forward to the source of the transmission, the small town of Big Bean, Illinois… on Halloween night. Just their luck, it’s the one night out of the year when five little green watermelon-headed goofballs terrify no one. So inept are these aliens that they even fail to net any candy. Nor do their Jack Nicholson and Cary Grant-inspired vocal stylings net any laughs.
Within minutes, the perpetual outlandishness of Spaced Invaders becomes an invasion all its own. Everyone, particularly the aliens, are perpetually bumbling about, doing individual schtick. The inflated ticks and personalities of the small-town denizens is probably the fatal comedic flaw, as it unintentionally smothers the comedy of the fish-out-of-water invaders. It’s not enough for them to be mistaken for children on Halloween night and corralled by the antennas into a station wagon full of neighborhood trick or treaters; the mom driver has to be doing an Edie McClurg impression. The town high roller has to be sneering and barking out every line of dialogue. His girlfriend moves about like some kind of mute, shellshocked C-3PO. Even the intended hero and top billed star, Douglas Barr (TV’s The Fall Guy) comes across as an earnest straight man in a town that was already full of nut jobs before any aliens ever arrived. There are no “normal people” in this normal American town. The aliens never had a chance.
It’s very interesting to see young Ariana Richards at work here, fine tuning her looks of astonishment that she’d sell so well a few years later in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. It’s also fun to see the venerable character actor a Royal Dano playing a curmudgeon with a dog named Jim. (Not a great name for a dog, in this writer’s opinion). Likewise, the model and miniature work, as well as the aliens’ animatronic heads, are fun to behold. This being visual effects man Patrick Read Johnson’s first film as director (and also writer), and an independently made one at that, ambition is evident throughout. But my word, is it hard to get through. At what was surely the hour and ten mark, I checked to discover that I was only thirty-six minutes into this 100-minute gallivant. Shoring up the notion that nostalgia must be the main hook, my three children that were watching Spaced Invaders with me one-by-one bailed on it.
For me to believe that this consideration of Spaced Invaders as a failed comedy and subpar cinema can matter to the target audience of this Blu-ray, I’d have to be as deluded as the Martians. Thankfully, my point here is not to drag Spaced Invaders through the mud. Rather, I’m simply sharing my own thoughts and experience upon my encounter with this disc. And, shifting attention to said disc, this is where fans of this film should be very celebratory. Kino Lorber has not only wrangled a terrifically vibrant transfer of this very low-budget undertaking, but also amassed an enviable collection of brand-new interviews with many key participants. Most of these interviews run no longer than ten minutes, and are entirely rose-colored memories, even when discussing how difficult production could be. Here is the full list of disc features:
-NEW Audio Commentary with Co-Writer/Director Patrick Read Johnson, Co-Writer Scott Lawrence Alexander, Co-Editor Seth Gaven and Second Unit Director Scott Andrew Ressler. This roomful of people spends their shared screening pointing out the many miniature shots and calling out actors in between silently watching it. The Mandalorian reference reveals this to not be an older commentary, though the grouping of the director and various crew members has the feel of a commentary from the early days of DVD. Somehow, this is fitting.
-FAN ONE: NEW Interview with Co-Writer/Director Patrick Read Johnson, wherein he describes Spaced Invadersas a “not great, willfully cheesy movie”. Johnson is someone with a lot to say and boy does he say it. Thankfully, his caffeinated memories of making the film and being the first fan ever to see Star Wars and how much he loves Close Encounters and how Elvis Mitchell says Spaced Invaders is his favorite film and on and on and on, he says with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. This is a guy who’s lived the life and isn’t even that old yet.
-THE SHERIFF OF BIG BEAN: NEW Interview with Star Douglas Barr. All these years later, Barr remains a warm presence as he reflects on the experience of starring in the movie.
-SPIFF AND ME: NEW Interview with Star Ariana Richards. Richards all grown up is an absolutely radiant spirit. Why is this woman not in more movies??
-BLAZNEE SPEAKS!: NEW Interview with Actor Kevin Thompson. Thompson speaks candidly of the challenges of being a little person in the acting business, and how more often than not, it’s all about managing restrictive costumes and heavy animatronic heads. Sadly, most of his fellow alien co-stars have since passed. He gives them a nice mini-memorial.
-MODEL KITS FROM MARS: NEW Interview with Visual Effects Supervisor John Knoll. As far as I’m concerned, John Knoll turning up for a contemporary Spaced Invaders interview might just make it all worth it. This man is a visual effects legend, with groundbreaking credits spanning across the work of James Cameron, the Star Wars universe, and beyond. With that much big screen innovation, one wonders when he had the time to invent Adobe Photoshop. (No kidding. He and his brother Thomas co-created the initial version in 1988). But working as a favor to his pal and fellow model maker Johnson, the independently produced Spaced Invaders actually turned out to be a valuable steppingstone in Knoll’s career at Industrial Light and Magic. It’s great to hear him tell it.
-INVASION OF THE WATERMELON HEADS: NEW Interview with Alien Special Effects Supervisor and Creator John Criswell. Criswell has been in the animatronic heads game longer than most anyone and has the packed tool vest to prove it. Here he discusses how much his work has changed since 1990, and how the industry has rolled back around to embracing practical effects after a CGI- fueled dry spell.
-Newly Commissioned Art by Jacob Phillips. It’s cool.
-Reversible Art, which is always fun.
-Optional English Subtitles
Clearly, Spaced Invaders fans of any level will not want to miss this very special Blu-ray edition. As for the uninitiated, there’s probably little reason to abduct this release. Spaced Invaders functions today primarily as nostalgia, with its showcasing of the very early miniature and effects work of the great John Knoll and animatronics mainstay John Criswell making for a close secondary appeal. The very patina and aesthetic of the film screams “late ‘80s/early ‘90s”, embodying that post-Star Wars/post-E.T. DIY spark that ignited so many such spaceships & aliens-based projects. It’s very unfortunate that the exhaustingly rudderless shenanigans of Spaced Invaders overpower its period-centric charm.