[7 May 2007]
What ever became of the heartwarming sci-fi dramedy? It seems like in the mid-‘80s, throwing a robot, an alien, or an alien-robot into a romantic comedy was a surefire way to make a box office smash. Who can forget Hollywood’s biggest octogenarians going swimming and screwing each other, accompanied by Steve Guttenberg, in Cocoon? What about the loveable rapid-fire banter of Short Circuit’s Johnny 5, or those weird flying robot-alien hybrids in Steven Spielberg’s *batteries not included?
There was a time not so long ago when it wasn’t strange for a family film to revolve around an alien or robot-centric storyline, yet still basically focus on the interactions between human characters; their lives, their loves, etc. This erstwhile cinematic phenomenon’s significance and the cause of its demise are probably part of some broader issue that deserves exploration.
Suffice it to say, though, that From Other Worlds would feel at home in this bygone era, had it been made on a big budget. For sci-fi fans expecting something raunchy, bawdy, or otherwise extreme, this film would be an epic disappointment, but it could have something to offer, say, an elementary school audience.
It’s probably no coincidence that this film, the tale of a banal life of a Brooklynite housewife that is interrupted by alien intervention, was written and directed by Barry Strugatz (Married to the Mob, She Devil.) Though his previous screenwriting gigs never contained a loveable alien or robot, his (relative) successes came out in at a time when such films were possible.
Regardless of any subconscious motivation to bring back the spirit of 1989 blockbusters, Strugatz’s film has that feel; despite dealing with interracial relationships, extramarital affairs, and married ennui, From Other Worlds is a comedy with absolutely no edges, it’s incredibly safe, innocent, and homely. It doesn’t have the kind of edge you’d expect from a low budget production, or the kind of intriguing twists and turns you’d expect from a sci-fi film. What it does have going for it, though, is a cast comprised of about 50 of your favorite fun-to-spot character actors from cable television.
Joanne Schwartzbaum (Cara Buono), a Jewish housewife from Brooklyn, is first seen grocery shopping, zombie-like. She picks up her kids from school, serves dinner, all the while becoming preoccupied, for lack of anything else interesting in her life, with the orientation of the black-and-white cookies. Her well-meaning husband, Brian (David Lansbury) is about as unaware of the root causes of his wife’s extreme wedded boredom as the husband in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Joanne is rescued from her cookie-scrutinizing existential funk by an alien abduction, depicted with special effects familiar to anyone who remembers those commercials for Time-Life’s “Mysteries of the Unknown” books.
From Other Worlds’ title sounds like a ’50 b-sci fi throwback, but it’s actually that title that explains both the relationship between Joanna and her family, and the one that emerges between Joanna and her cohort in the search for the truth. Treated like an unreasonable hysteric by medical professionals who promise to make her “minimally functional”, she turns to exploring, and taking seriously, her experience as an abductee.
At a self-help meeting for survivors of alien abduction, most of whom are nuts (played as a familiar brand of kooky, bickering, goofballs by a few character actors who excel in that area) Joanna meets Abraham (Isaach De Bankole), an immigrant from the Ivory Coast who bares the same post-abduction insignia burnt onto his body as Joanna. The two legitimate abductees, though they hail from entirely different worlds (get it?) join together to find out the meaning behind their chance extra-terrestrial dalliances,
After a fair amount of research on the library at Alexandria and a few setbacks, the unlikely duo end up making contact with an alien, wearing a campy Lost in Space-style costume. The alien leaps willy-nilly from one assumed accent to another and breaks the news to them; they really do have a hand in the fate of the human race. Joanna and Abraham’s relationship starts looking like an affair to their respective, traditionalist communities. Abraham’s friends and Joanna’s in-laws each chime in with some expectedly prejudicial commentary. Meanwhile, Steve (Peter Bartlett), an art thief masquerading alternately as an NYU student and a secret agent, tails the duo in an attempt to frustrate their alien-appointed universe saving mission.
For Other Worlds offers an ever-so-simple story. Its jokes are uniformly cutesy and seem targeted at eight-year-olds. The visual metaphors, from the black and white cookie onward, are constantly being you over the head, driving the point home: Other worlds, two different kinds of people, two different ethnic backgrounds, saving the world together, ad nauseam. You realize, after watching For Other Worlds seeking sci-fi satisfaction, that despite its low budget aesthetic and not-ready-for-theaters special effects, it’s a family film, in that mid-‘80s sense. It has a clear, easily accessible moral outlook and jokes that’ll make a little kid laugh and an adult groan.
If kids these days are even open to watching movies that aren’t full of flashy CG, From Other Worlds could very well be something that they enjoy, at least for a while. It feels like one of those films that you could watch as a child and years later wonder if you’d actually seen it, or if it had somehow been fabricated by your youthful imagination. From Other Worlds doesn’t do much to satisfy any of the audiences to which it would ostensibly appeal. It does, however, raise an interesting question; in the world of Direct-to-DVD movies, can a family film succeed with such a low budget look?