Editor's note: With Oscar season upon us, there are plenty of writers pontificating on "great films" and their importance. Thankfully, local author and filmmaker Mike Watt is not one of those writers. He concentrates on what he calls "underseen cinema." He's been chronicling such films for years on his blog, Movie Outlaw, and last year he self-published a book of the same name: Movie Outlaw. Below is an essay from the book on the 1999 sci-fi film Invasion. Watt plans to publish a second volume of the book this spring.
"You're Dr. Karel Lamont, the Atomic Scientist from the Atomic Academy?"
"Uh, I, uh ..."
"I'm Sandy Fawkes, I run the Fawkes Den Inn. Where you're staying. But of course, you know that. Perhaps we could head back there now together?"
"Fine, I'll follow you in my car."
"I'm on foot."
"I'll drive slow."
There are few movie genres as ripe for parody as the '50s alien-invasion film. Extremely serious and pompous scientist, disbelieving townies, shoot-first authorities, mysterious outsiders who could be aliens in disguise, odd goings-on and gruesome off-screen deaths. All enduring parts of our collective unconsciousness to this day. One or more of these elements pop up on every other episode of The Simpsons, so what more evidence do you need that even the tiniest tot recognizes these chestnuts upon sight? When played straight in parody, you get comedy gold (The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra). When you wink at the camera and point at your gags, you get the opposite of gold (Scary Movie). When you play your cards extremely close to the vest, you get the magic of Invasion! — or, as it's better-known in the Great White North, Top of the Food Chain.
Aliens have come to the sleepy fishing village of Exceptional Vista, its down but still-plucky citizens still plugging along ever since the Nut Factory closed down. The first indication of the extraterrestrials among them: All the TVs are out. The second hint: People are being eaten. But Dr. Karel Lamont (Campbell Scott) from the Atomic Academy has arrived to save the day. Aided by Sandy Fawkes (Fiona Loewi), her inappropriately close brother, Guy (Tom Everett Scott), Deputy Dana (James Allodi), Officer Gale (Hardee T. Lineham) and a whole host of folks with sexually ambiguous names. Possible opposition: Lilith Sternin-lookalike Chris Marlowe ("I sell ban-jos") and the sinister Michel O'Shea: "[M]y territory includes Bladdertown, Left Hemisphere, Dunk, Right Hemisphere, Walkadogathon, New Imbroglio and Fetus. I specialize in vacuums."
The script was written by two TV writers and producers, Phil Bedard and Larry Lalonde. "When they asked me what I thought of it on first reading, I said it was like Twin Peaks meets Petticoat Junction meets The Naked Gun," said director John Paizs. "Later, I took to describing it as a platypus, which they thought was also pretty accurate."
Paizs unleashes the driest of humor, and Invasion keeps the gags and jokes flowing from start to finish, but delivered completely straight. These characters completely inhabit this bizarre world without a hint of self-awareness, which is what makes the humor work. When Dr. Karel Lamont announces that a body was found in the "lumpy, bumpy part of town outside of town" or that a man is suffering from a "post cranial bang syndrome," it sounds exactly like the dry diagnosis it's supposed to be.
"[Campbell Scott] just got what we were trying to do. His performance was pitch-perfect and he served as a ‘how to' to some of the other actors, whose first instinct was to overplay it, to go big for the laugh, which of course went against the whole idea. Having said that, some of the overplaying still managed to slip through and stayed there at the distributor's behest," Paizs told Notcoming.com in 2010. "He [Scott] also contributed some of the dialogue. There's a whole routine around having found a body in ‘the lumpy, bumpy part of town,' for example. That came about from an improvisation of Campbell's, which the other actors picked up on, adding to it until it became this long, ridiculous spiel, which was hilarious."
Shot in a easygoing and lowish-budgeted manner, Invasion is substance over style, so the special effects are less than dazzling (though the mountain scenery is nice) and the kills not-so gory. But with lines like, "I am the alpha and the omega, and I also play the trumpet," who needs 'em? Funnier and shorter than Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Invasion is a home run for the wacky. The truth may or may not be out there, but the DVD definitely is.