After hearing a 50th anniversary radio broadcast of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds (oddly misdated as 1940 instead of 1938), a group of green-skinned Martians head to Earth so that they can join in on the attacks. 1990’s pop culture curio Spaced Invaders is a Halloween alien invasion movie not unlike E.T., except here the aliens start out actually trying to wage war with Earth before befriending a little girl and trying to get back home.

The young girl, Kathy, is played by Ariana Richards three years prior to her breakout in Jurassic Park. Kathy’s father is Sam Hoxly (Douglas Barr), the brand new sheriff of the fictional Big Bean, Illinois. Since no crime existed in the small rural town before, they apparently saw no need for any law enforcement.

The aliens are each given a unique characterization. One sounds and dresses like Jack Nicholson, another like Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, another a US military general—idiosyncrasies that add to the oddity of the film more than they do our enjoyment of watching it.

Once the aliens discover that there really is no such attack on Earth, they give up their plans and set course back to Mars. But when their tyrannical enforcer droid won’t let them leave, they realize that their own lives are at risk as the hyperdrive malfunction on their ship threatens to create a black hole which would destroy Earth and everything on it.

We get to see the bumbling aliens face the wrath of a small town who are very capable of stopping them, and then give up because of it. This unique spin on the all-powerful aliens stereotype makes Space Invaders worth its existence, but the plot points that emerge because of it never become quite as interesting or entertaining.

Unapologetically silly, the film seems to be more invested in stringing together mildly humorous gags rather than understanding that an investment is crucial to retaining an audience. The biggest crime committed by director and co-writer Patrick Read Johnson (along with Scott Lawrence Alexander) is the failure to create any sort of authentic emotion throughout the film. Kathy apparently has some sort of empathy for the aliens, but we never learn why. She says things like, “Please, Dad! They need our help!” However, there’s no actual plot points to back up these sentiments. If Spaced Invaders had focused more on developing a bond between the child and the aliens, then this could have been a much better movie—or at least an interesting one. But instead, their friendship is merely implied, and so is our attention.

After about an hour, the stakes almost diminish entirely as the human conflict dwindles and the focus shifts to the aliens trying to get their ship to leave the planet. However, this transition is not smooth and the attempted investment that Johnson tries to provide for these creatures early on proves to not be quite enough as we struggle ourselves to care in the last half of the film.

The intended investment also renders the entire first half of the film pointless as the audience has no reason to find these aliens threatening. We’re simultaneously meant to be rooting for both the town of Big Bean and the extraterrestrials. As important as the second half is to the overall goal, the lofty Spielbergian objectives ensure that this film will never have the focus to obtain any succinct vision. With neither the breadth of Spielberg nor the edginess of Joe Dante, Spaced Invaders just seems to sit there as a nearly-empty amalgamation of other, much better projects.

Despite the poor execution, there’s a good deal of inherent charm that still seeps out every now and then: the characterization of the aliens, the small-town vibe, the autumnal setting. The Halloween zeitgeist is showcased a bit early on with Kathy going trick-or-treating (to one house) with her friends, a costume party, various adults dressing up in costumes, and even the aliens themselves donning different outfits.

Both intentionally and unintentionally dumb, the film has just as much trouble getting off the ground as the aliens’ ship does, even if there are some valuable, albeit empty, quirks sprinkled in here and there, such as a local gas attendant, Vern (Wayne Alexander), who’s dressed up as Zorro and gets put under the control of the aliens. Alexander’s skills as a ranged comedic character actor are one of the few bright spots here.

Another is the memorable makeup and costume design of the aliens themselves, which very much fits into the look of similar films from that era, drawing comparisons to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and even Howard the Duck, garnering the enigma of the latter.

Alas, the idea of Spaced Invaders is far more fun than the movie itself. And it’s more frustrating that a movie with this much potential is this boring. Completely undeveloped characters and a convoluted script prevent any such imagination to flourish in the minds of the adults watching this hoping for at least something edgy. At least kids will be sure to enjoy it, providing years of vivid memories in a way that Killer Klowns from Outer Space will do for them in their teenage years.

Perhaps with the same spirit for both nostalgia and quality effects, this film could be remade nowadays in a way that would correct the wrongs of the original. Neither taking any risks nor playing it safe, Spaced Invaders just seems to float there with utterly incompetent storytelling covering up a fun idea that just never gets realized.

About the Author: Ethan Brehm

Ethan Brehm

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