Body Snatchers (1993)

It turns out not every movie adaptation of the 1958 novel The Body Snatchers is Great; some are just Okay. The 1956 and the 1978 adaptations—both titled The Invasion of the Body Snatchers—are reputable sci-fi horror classics, but that streak apparently ended when the material was imported into the 1990s. Body Snatchers ’93 had ample talent behind it to match the reputation of its looming predecessors, including the same producer as Invasion ’78 (Robert H. Solo) and creative contributions from genre film legends Abel Ferrara (director), Stuart Gordon (co-writer), and Larry Cohen (story). Unfortunately, that deep talent pool doesn’t amount to much onscreen. This particular Body Snatchers is serviceable but forgettable, something that might be easier to overlook if there weren’t so many superior realizations of the same material to compare it to.

Whereas the first two Body Snatchers adaptations explored themes of Conservatism, conformity, and paranoia in American cities & suburbs, this 90s Kids™ update moves its action to a military base. A moody teen brat who’d rather listen to her Walkman than her parents is horrified when her family moves to the rigid, regimented confinement of a military base to accommodate her dad’s career. That horror over militarized conformity only worsens when alien pod people start replacing the humans among the macho brutes in her midst, eventually including the few burnout friends she’s made on the base and members of her own immediate family. The manifestations of that horror are familiar: alien tendrils invading sleeping victims’ orifices and already-converted pod people snitching on still-human holdouts with hideous shrieks. They’re just updated with a new backdrop location & updated 90s era effects.

Weirdly, the film that most makes Body Snatchers ’93 feel obsolete is not any of the preceding direct adaptations of its source material but rather a loosely-inspired work that arrived to theaters five years later. Between the film’s 90s grunge sensibilities and its moody teen girl POV, it recalls a lot of what Robert Rodriguez later achieved to greater success in The Faculty. Body Snatchers is dourer & less fun than Rodriguez’s film, though, which I suppose is the Abel Ferrara touch. As a result, it’s difficult to find much in this film worth recommending that hasn’t been bested elsewhere, except maybe in a few standalone scares: a deflated goo-filled skull here, an alien-infested bathtub there, etc. Still, it’s a moderately serviceable sci-fi horror that sneaks in a few effective chills & practical gore showcases in a tight 87min window – even if they aren’t in service of something spectacularly unique.

-Brandon Ledet

Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon (2020)

I remember being thoroughly charmed by Aardman Animations’ Shaun the Sheep movie five years ago, but I don’t remember much of anything about the movie or what happens in it. I suspect that’s because not much of anything happens in it at all. Adapting the Wallace & Gromit spin-off series for the big screen meant having to upscale the adorable sheep’s stop-motion farmland hijinks with a trip to The Big City to mark the occasion. Aardman did a great job of downplaying that necessity, though, keeping Shaun’s fish-out-of-water antics amongst urban chaos as low-key & pleasantly charming as possible. Unfortunately, it seems that the sequel had to go even bigger in scale to justify its own existence and lost some of that low-key charm in the process. You can even feel the sequel’s mood-deflating excess in its Michael Bay flavored title, Farmageddon, which is maybe the exact opposite of what you’d want from a low-stakes animated comedy about a cute sheep.

In theory, I’m all for a War of the Worlds inspired sci-fi throwback within the Shaun the Sheep universe. The eerie theremin soundtrack cues, spooky green lights, and 1950s throwback UFOs that differentiate Farmageddon from the first Shaun the Sheep movie land it squarely in my aesthetic wheelhouse. It’s the cutesy, impish alien creature that toddles out of those UFOs that killed the mood for me. In a slightly altered repeat of the first film, Shaun has to travel into town to help an alien creature that crash landed near his farm find her spaceship so she can travel home. This prompts a very familiar series of gags where Shaun has to hide the fact that he’s a sheep operating undercover in People Places, except this time he’s also covering for a purple, childlike space alien who’s constantly hyperactive from guzzling too much candy & soda. I know I shouldn’t fault a kids’ movie for featuring an obnoxious, brightly colored alien mascot character with magical powers and a bottomless love for sugar; she’s not designed for my entertainment. Still, it’s an impossible fault to ignore, considering that all of the funniest gags in the film involve the sheep on the farm and not the sci-fi add-ons referenced in the title.

There’s no reason to be too harsh here. Although Farmageddon is nowhere near as successful as the first Shaun the Sheep movie, it’s still cute & charming enough to be worthy of a lazy-afternoon watch. Its space alien Poochie character and godawful Top 40s pop music soundtrack threaten to tank the entire enterprise, but the Aardman brand is too strong to allow that to happen. This is still an adorably animated stop-motion love letter to silent comedy greats of the past like Chaplin, Keaton, and Tati – one with winking Film Geek references to movies like Modern Times & 2001: A Space Odyssey. If it can use the brightly colored sugar rush of its alien mascot to hook younger children into that Antique Cinema nerdom (and sci-fi genre nerdom to boot), who am I to complain? I missed the low-key charms of the first film while tagging along behind that purple, sugar-addled beast, but Farmageddon still occasionally gave me something to smile about elsewhere.

-Brandon Ledet

The Vast of Night (2019)

There’s a classy, old-fashioned patina to the UFO thriller The Vast of Night, one the movie actively cultivates. Its retro title card frames its contained, single-night story as an episode of a fictional Twilight Zone-style anthology show titled Paradox Theater. Its 1950s Space Race setting & surf-guitar soundtrack cues recall a time when speculation about the scope & nature of extraterrestrial life was in the forefront of many people’s minds. Its preference for spoken dialogue over the traditional visual thrills of sci-fi cinema makes its story play out more like radio drama than a movie; the call letters of the radio station where most of its story is staged are even WOTW, a winking reference to War of the Worlds. That reliance on traditional, old-fashioned storytelling puts a lot of pressure on its writing & performances to deliver something memorable, where all-out visual spectacles or over-the-top B-pictures could find much easier cheap thrills elsewhere. It’s shocking how successful the film is, then, considering the risk of that gamble.

Practically told in real time, The Vast of Night is largely a two-hander about a New Mexico radio DJ and his high school-age switchboard operator protégée. They initially share a geeky appreciation for analog audio gear like reel-to-reel tape recorders & broadcast radio towers over a long series of walk & talks. Once they’re both isolated at their respective workstations while the rest of the town gathers at a high school basketball game, however, they share something much more unsettling. Reports of strange sounds heard over the telephone & radio and strange lights spotted erratically traveling across the night sky scare them both into abandoning their posts to investigate a possible UFO invasion – whether extraterrestrial or Communist. Dragging their heavy recording equipment around town to preserve their findings for future broadcast, the unprepared nerdy pair find themselves digging closer & closer to a governmental space-alien-coverup conspiracy that’s just out of reach. With time, they find they may even be stumbling into a direct extraterrestrial discovery themselves.

Because there is such a wealth of UFO conspiracy sci-fi in this same vein dating back at least to 1950s radio plays, magazine-published short stories, and televised anthologies, there isn’t much room left for The Vast of Night to surprise you with what its two gearhead nerds uncover. It arguably doesn’t even attempt to do so. When it comes time for the film to stage its inevitable moment of First Contact, it aims for more quiet majesty than shock or awe. The film chooses a very difficult path in distinguishing itself, relying more on the strength of its performances & written dialogue than its sci-fi chills & scares. It’s more akin to intimate walk & talk dramas like Dogfight, Before Sunrise, or My Dinner with Andre than the sci-fi horror tones you’d usually expect from an alien invasion story template. It may not be able to surprise you with the trajectory of this narrative, but the way it manages to cover a wide range of timeless political topics, an even wider range of external location shooting, and decades of conspiratorial history in what feels like one long conversation between two unknown actors (Jake Horowitz & Sierra McCormick) is impressive all the same. It makes sense that the film earned the Jury Award for the best entry at this year’s Overlook Film Festival, despite not being the best or scariest title on the schedule. It makes a familiar story feel newly exciting purely on the merits of tis execution & craft, which is what genre filmmaking is all about.

-Brandon Ledet

The Arrival (1980)

Lately, I’ve been finding myself increasingly fascinated with self-published outsider art. Discovering the insular communities of Matt Farley, Doris Wishman, Justin Decloux, and Don Dohler – each with their own endless back catalogs & stables of recurring players – is a thrilling alternative to the franchise filmmaking behemoths of modern mainstream cinema, where months of publicity & advertising can often make a film feel overly familiar before it even arrives to theaters. Finding something new that hasn’t already been talked to death in your online social circle takes a little obsessive crate-digging but can be intensely rewarding when you unearth something far out & exceptional. I daresay The Unarius Academy of Science is the most niche filmmaking community I’ve tapped into so far in this pursuit, something that worries me that I may have wandered off the ledge of our Flat Earth and fallen into the deep end of cult cinema. That’s not to say that I’ve personally discovered anything previously unseen or unexplored in Unarius. The Californian UFO cult has been publicly broadcasting their films to the world at large for nearly four decades solid now, something I discovered myself through one of many online articles detailing the history of their self-published propagandist cinema. Even if it was well-charted territory, though, something many Californians discovered themselves through public access broadcasts, there was something truly perverse & transgressive about ordering a Blu-ray copy of the cult’s most popular title directly from them that made me question whether this crate-digging impulse of hunting down niche outsider art was ultimately a healthy one. I feel like I’ve finally crossed a line here, not least of all because I was genuinely pleased by the product that arrived at my doorstep (accompanied by propaganda literature attempting to recruit me into the cult, naturally).

The first and most widely discussed film in the Unarius canon, The Arrival, is a brief hour-long religious manifesto that feels as if it lasts for a thousand past lives. As the film operates more as a meditative religious indoctrination piece than a traditional narrative entertainment, its sense of pacing is cosmically glacial – to the point where it almost triggers a genuinely psychedelic response. According to the Blu-ray cover, “A true story of the first contact with another world is reenacted by individuals reliving their past lives on the continent of Lemuria, 162,000 years ago.” We get no introductory establishment of what life in the fabled Lemuria was like before space alien contact the way we would in a more traditional narrative feature; instead we meet our caveman protagonist in the exact moment he confronts the crew of a UFO that lands before him in 160,000 B.C. It’s like the space alien equivalent of a Christian Passion play in that way, assuming the backstory & context of the event is well-known mythology for anyone who would be watching. The Arrival also subverts typical alien invasion narratives we’re used to in science fiction by making the alien force a calm, consciousness-raising source of enlightenment for the Lumerian caveman rather than evil, Earth-conquering warmongers. Dressed in bald caps & colorful religious robes, they trigger a spiritual epiphany within the caveman that allows him to recall “the past lives recorded in his spiritual body” that he cannot normally access in his physical form. From there, he confronts humanity’s follies of “ego, lust, and materialism” in a backwards trip through his soul’s thousands of years’ journey in various past lives. A brief detour into a past life where the caveman was a militaristic combatant on a Star Wars-type spaceship feels like a glimpse at more narratively traditional sci-fi story, but for the most part The Arrival is a meditative search for philosophical “truths.” It places much more emphasis on its walk & talk conversations with cult-leader Archangel Uriel than the caveman’s deep space laser battles, for instance, and it’s all the more fascinating for it.

If you’re not a member of the Unarius Academy of Science (and perhaps even if you are), the most immediately rewarding aspect of The Arrival is going to be the visual splendor of its handmade costumes & sets. The 2D-animated patchwork of the UFO, the regal space alien garb of Archangel Uriel, and the psychedelic screensaver flashes of its visualized spiritual awakening are the exact kind of high-ambition D.I.Y. effects work you’d most want to see from a sci-fi oddity on this scale & budget. Just don’t go into the film expecting to laugh at its camp value or to recoil in horror at its cult indoctrination tactics. This is an overall calming, meditative piece from what appears to be a relatively harmless UFO cult who claim to have achieved a supernatural level of spiritual enlightenment and have accidentally stumbled into making primo outsider cinema as a result. The serene, enlightened tone of the piece is alarmingly convincing; I could easily see myself being lured into its extratextual philosophy if I were stoned & lonely enough in the early 80s and caught this picture on late-night public access. As is, I already feel like I’m allowing The Uranius Academy of Science too much space in my head & wallet, as I’m tempted to order more of their films from their online store to get a better sense of their far-out filmmaking niche. I doubt one of these propaganda films will trigger a genuine trip into a spiritually recorded past life for me, but I took enough pleasure in its D.I.Y. microbudget craft & meditative energy that I’d like to further explore their back catalog anyway. Rarely does being lured into a hidden corner of “cult cinema” feel so literal & potentially unhealthy. It’s an impulse that’s making me question past decisions & current gluttony in my pop culture consumption, which in a roundabout way was The Arrival’s exact stated intent, so I suppose it’s a total success.

-Brandon Ledet

Captive State (2019)

I don’t know what the production or distribution history of the mid-budget alien invasion thriller Captive State indicates, but this seems to be a movie that no one really wants. Director Rupert Wyatt’s only major credit is a Planet of the Apes reboot released nearly a decade ago. The film itself feels like it wrapped production so long ago that it missed an opportunity to boost the screentime of single-scene actors who’ve blown up in the years since – Madeline Brewer (Cam) & KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) to be specific. Most damningly, it’s a film that’s near-impossible to market, as it’s an alien invasion thriller that’s more interested in the political machinations of humans surviving under intergalactic rule than it is in exploiting the commercial potential of its creature-feature payoffs. A smarter, artier movie like Arrival can get away with that kind of obfuscation, but cheap nerd-ass sci-fi like this generally needs to be more accommodating to wide audiences in its minute-to-minute payoffs. As a result, both pro-critic reviews and box office numbers have been tepid for this underdog sci-fi pic, which has essentially been orphaned by its marketing & distributor. It’s a shame too, since Captive Sate is actually a solid little sci-fi thriller for anyone with an enthusiastic interest in the alien invasion genre.

The reason I say a little sci-fi nerd cred is required to fully engage with the film is that Captive Sate is much more adept at action set pieces & world-building lore than it is at dialogue or meaningful pathos. Set nearly a decade after first contact with invading alien species, the film is set in a post-apocalypse Chicago that’s politically torn between acceptance & resistance. Few characters are allowed any nuance as the film sketches out the two warring factions: a marshal law surveillance state government (represented mostly through John Goodman as a fascist brute) and an underground resistance aiming to topple it (represented by Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders as a low-level street hustler). The movie isn’t especially interested in the emotions or political maneuvers of their personal struggle, though, despite their unlikely social bond that bridges the gap between both sides of the civil war. It’s much more interested in establishing a larger “off-the-grid” future defined by analog equipment like wiretaps, reel to reel recorders, vinyl records, polaroid cameras, in-print newspapers, and carrier pigeons. Nothing typifies this old-world future better than the bird-swarm murmurations of surveillance drones that flutter throughout the city, keeping citizens in line with the threat of facial recognition tech. So much thought went into that establishment of a lived-in world and the political clash & chase scenes staged within it that very little time was left for establishing fleshed-out characters, which is something you just have to be okay with to get on its wavelength,

So what, exactly, is Captive State trying to say with all of this world-building & freshman-year Poli Sci pontification? Its major theme seems to be a contrast between active political resistance & mindless cooperation. Although the roach-like alien beasts (who feel like cousins to the space-bugs of Starship Troopers) are largely off-screen, their presence is felt in the submission & cooperation of a human government that cows to their intergalactic authority. As the film focuses on real-world issues like facial recognition software and exponential wealth disparity over defining the players in that conflict, it does appear to have a “Silence is complicity” ethos when it comes to living under the fascist rule of modern ills like The Trump Administration. It establishes a world where “You must pick a side,” having no patience for the cowardice of political apathy. More practically, the world it establishes is essentially just a playground where it can execute carefully-considered thriller sequences: the surgical body horror of tracking device removal, the heist-planning rhythms of a political assassination, a few spare moments of creature-feature confrontation, endless police chases, etc. I may have a few minor quibbles with its paper-thin characterizations (mainly, how it manages to have immensely talented women like KiKi Layne, Madeline Brewer, and Vera Farmiga on staff, but for some reason affords much more dialogue & screentime to dudes as lowly & uninteresting as Machine Gun Heckin’ Kelly than all of them combined), but I was mostly on board with the picture as a nerd-ass, overly serious sci-fi thriller. It’s just a shame it couldn’t also inspire that enthusiasm in its own distributor.

-Brandon Ledet