This is a movie that at one point was the hot alien visiting Earth property which had a lot of directors attached to it., Of course the other story about an alien visiting Earth got made and released first and that worked out well for Steven Spielberg. John Carpenter made this, his most mainstream film, after “The Thing” failed at the box office and he needed to show he could do a commercial picture. While it did not have the box office success of “E.T.”, it is an artistic achievement and contains one of the most interesting performances by an actor in this, or any other year. Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen lend a sweetness to the film that is totally different than the other film, and a lot more mature in some ways.
The premise of the movie is that we have invited a visit from Extra-terrestrial beings, but are clearly not prepared to handle such a visit. The alien visitor is detected by the military and SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), but before they get to the site of a space ship crash, the visitor has taken on the form of a recently deceased house painter by cloning a body from DNA found in the widow’s home. He than hijacks the widow to take him to a rendezvous site on the other side of the country, “Arizona Maybe”. Jenny Hayden is confused as hell that her dead husband has come to life, but she recognizes almost immediately that something is wrong. The visitor has a rudimentary understanding of language but not much else and he learns by watching and copying the actions and behaviors of the humans he encounters.
More than Thirty years later, we are still getting films based on the characters created by James Cameron in this essential 1984 classic. This film is so influential on modern cinema and culture that it is the equivalent of an earthquake. The ground moved and the world took notice. This was a mostly unheralded film at the time. It was done on a relatively low budget, it’s star was not yet the household name that he would become, and it was the first real film directed by future “King of the World” James Cameron. This movie laid the groundwork for Cameron’s later career and creative freedom, but here he had to fight to keep control of the project and to try and get it the promotion that it deserved. It came in behind “Red Dawn” on the box office totals for 1984 and barely edged out “City Heat” to be the number 21 film that year with just over $38 million domestically. Modest financial beginnings but big creative ones.
When you have no budget, a cast of unknowns, and a weird idea, how do you turn it into a movie? Writer/Director John Sayles gives us some guidelines for doing just that with this way off center look at cross cultural science fiction.
It is hard to imagine the creativity that is required to work within the limitations that this movie seems to have had. In 1984, this was indie movie twice removed. The info I found says that Sayles payed for the film partially with funds from the MacArthur Genius grant he received. He was most known for scriptwriting for Roger Corman films and being an ace script doctor. Oh, and he made the influential “Return of the Secaucus 7”. I’ve only seen four of his movies and this was the first one I saw in a theater.
A Science Fiction film that predates “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, “The Matrix” and “Inception” yet has key ideas that each of those films exploit as their main plot devices. This is a thriller with horror elements and a good dose of 70s conspiracy thinking behind it. It also stars several notables who are recognizable in other more well known films. The special effects are dated but they worked well at the time and the story does make you do a little thinking as you go along.
The film has some dark aspects to it and those might have been explored in more depth with greater meaning if this was an attempt to make an artistic statement. With the pulp marketing of the poster and an August release, you can tell it was really designed to make money not art. There is however a lot to admire in what is accomplished here. It was not successful at making much money but it is successful at being entertaining.