Close Encounter, by David Bax
When you’ve lived in a city long enough, the hundreds of people you pass by every day but with whom you never truly interact begin to no longer exist. Your own world is truly populated only by the people who are immediately known and consequential to you. Add to that the fixation that accompanies the development of a powerful crush and your view becomes even narrower. Nacho Vigalondo’s Extraterrestrial cleverly uses a science fiction backdrop to literalize and then explore these self-imposed isolations.
First we hear the sounds of loud dance music and a group of people partying at a club while the opening titles cycle through. Once we are able to see, though, we see only Julio (Julián Villagrán), waking up in a bed and a room that he clearly doesn’t recognize. He soon realizes he is in the apartment of Julia (Michelle Jenner) a woman with whom he apparently spent the night and then slept most of the day away. After awkward reintroductions, Julio prepares to leave but both quickly sense something is wrong. As it turns out, a four-mile-wide alien spacecraft has parked above the city of Madrid and they have both snoozed through the evacuation. They decide to stay put but their getting to know each other is hindered first by the fact that Julia’s neighbor, Angel (Carlos Areces) – who is essentially obsessed with her – has also decided to stay and later by the return of Julia’s longtime boyfriend, Carlos (Raúl Cimas).
Despite the fact that the alien invasions hangs (literally) over the entire film, its purpose is merely to raise everyone’s stress level and exaggerate their basic selves. The true focal point is the developing attraction between Julio and Julia and what it means for and to each of them. Fortunately, Villagrán and Jenner have a powerful but understated chemistry. We know how strongly they are drawn to each other not simply because they’ve had sex but because we can see the way they speak volumes to one another with glances and pauses.
Angel and Carlos are a touch more problematic, however. Since their purpose in the screenplay is essentially utilitarian – they are obstacles for our heroes – their existence is justified essentially through comic relief. While much of it is funny, it is also distractingly cartoonish. It’s hard to reconcile the carefully observed and deeply realistic emotions passing back and forth through Julio and Julia with the incredible dumbness these two display most of the time.
Still, the movie is about Julio and Julia. Yet it’s not just a riff on the standard movie romance. It will go places that you won’t see coming, inevitable though they may be. Furthermore, Vigalondo makes it wonderfully difficult at times to root for our heroes. They lie and do things that have devastating repercussions for others but, we come to realize, they are not really bad people. The situation they’re in – meaning both their inconvenient passion for one another and the fact that aliens may be threatening the world – has driven them to act selfishly. Anyone who’s ever been infatuated with someone and is halfway honest with themselves should be able to relate.
Ultimately, the problems with the supporting characters puncture the film a bit too much, tipping it over into inconsequentiality. When Extraterrestrial remains on topic, though, it’s quite good. And, at the very least, it’s confirmation that you can continue to ignore all those other people on the subway.