Cause of Death of 'Alien Autopsy'

Catastrophic Lack of Humor

by Michael Curtis Nelson

4 October 2010

Latent themes—the nature of credulity, viral marketing in the network broadcast era, and the gray area where film-making and confidence games become indistinguishable—could have given this film great cultural relevance.
cover art

Alien Autopsy

Director: Jonny Campbell
Cast: Declan Donnelley, Anthony McPartlin, Bill Pullman, Harry Dean Stanton, Nichole Hiltz

US DVD: 21 Sep 2010

Name of Decedent: Alien Autopsy

Summary of Clinical History
The patient is an unremarkable comedy that tells the true story behind a notorious 1995 film hoax: footage presented as authentic images of an autopsy performed on an extraterrestrial killed in a UFO crash near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. Two Londoners—a vendor of pirated videos, Ray Santilli (Declan “Dec” Donnelley), and his buddy, Gary Shoefield (Anthony “Ant” McPartlin)—broadcast the film worldwide, netting three-quarters of a million dollars.

When the pair travel to the US in search of Elvis memorabilia, Ray meets Harvey (Harry Dean Stanton), a retired Army photographer who shows him a film depicting the recovery and autopsy of an alien. Harvey claims to have shot the film himself, and gives Ray the details of how it came to be made. Ray is convinced of the film’s authenticity and, more importantly, its marketability. After successfully negotiating the purchase of the footage, Ray and Gary discover that the stock has deteriorated since Ray’s initial viewing, to the point where images are no longer visible. Ray and Gary decide to recreate the autopsy using Gary’s vacationing sister’s flat as the set, and a mannequin filled with various cuts of meat as the ET. Ray and Gary promote the finished film, then sell copies to television stations for simultaneous global broadcast. All goes well until people begin to suspect the film may be a hoax.

Non-Fatal Wounds; Distinguishing Features
Alien Autopsy displays lively direction, a painstakingly detailed recreation of the production of the fake autopsy film, and good casting for secondary parts, including the actors who portray the amateur film crew enlisted by Ray and Gary, and Bill Pullman as Morgan Banner, a documentary filmmaker driven by ego and an all-consuming desire for a scoop who interviews the hoax perpetrators.

Pullman’s brief screen time points to what the film hints at but fails to engage with any seriousness: an exploration of belief, of the ease with which audiences (but also producers and filmmakers) accept as fact the images presented to them. In a sequence late in the film, Banner can barely control himself after Ray and Gary admit that the “original” footage of the autopsy still exists, partially restored and buried for safe keeping. Here Alien Autopsy suggests that we believe when we want to believe, not because of the intrinsic authenticity of a contested idea or artifact.

The real Ray and Gary appear in brief clips at the end of Alien Autopsy, before and after the credits. Despite their fleeting presence, the two hucksters, even though (or perhaps because) they don’t deviate from the story they no doubt carefully negotiated with the filmmakers to tell, exude a repellent whiff of sociopathy absent from Dec and Ant’s sanitized acting.

Themes latent in Alien Autopsy—the nature of credulity, viral marketing in the network broadcast era, and the gray area where film-making and confidence games become indistinguishable—could have given the film great cultural relevance, given the unexamined notions that have gained currency in the US since the last presidential election. It’s a perennial concern; after all, thanks to gifted pitchmen through the ages, religions have been based on evidence as shaky as Ray and Gary’s story of original footage that deteriorated after the initial viewing.

Probable Cause of Death
These mitigating factors, while significant, could not overcome two afflictions that make the film’s demise inevitable: poor casting of the leads, and a catastrophic lack of humor.

Alien Autopsy is the first feature film for Dec and Ant, popular in Britain as television show hosts, and the two can’t move beyond their wholesome, inoffensive presenter personas. Surely the will to perpetrate a hoax at this level points to neuroses more complicated than Ray’s self-absorption and need to take risks, or his wish to save his best friend from a dull future a as lawyer, yet Ant and Dec’s performances point to no more complicated motives than these.

The duo host “The Making of Ant and Dec’s Alien Autopsy”, a featurette included among the DVD extras that places the duo in their element, presiding over their feature debut, yet the comic presenter schtick is even more tiresome in the documentary than in the film, as is the attempt to present the making of Alien Autospsy fit the contours of the making of hoax autopsy film itself, complete with intertitles saying, “Footage Intentionally Omitted by Warner Home Video”.

Facile humor and hackneyed sight gags also hobble the film, and make character development or the deepening of plot impossible. The interplay between Gary as straight man and Ray as manic comic persona grows tiresome by the end of the first reel, while Ray’s narcissistic, obsessive behavior, in the absence of any insights into his personality, rankles rather than entertains. Ray’s nan, like a character snatched from an episode of the Benny Hill Show, is made to provide daft senior comic relief. She blunders onto the set of the autopsy filming to offer the cast snacks not once, but twice.

DVD extras provide still more evidence in support of the probable cause of death. Deleted scenes, many of them given over to glossing the relationship between Ray and Gary, flesh out the characters, but do so without furthering the plot or addressing the theme of credulity. They were wisely cut from the final film. An outtakes reel provides no more laughs than the feature itself.

All facts in this report are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief.

Alien Autopsy


Extras rating:

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