Nacho Vigalondo is a director to watch. His Timecrimes (2007) was one of the best films of that year, and an American remake is inevitable. I also really love his short film 7:35 in the Morning (2003), which I frequently use in my screenwriting classes.
There are three reasons I really like Vigalondo. First, he’s funny. Second, his scripts are well-constructed but not obvious. And third, he takes genre concepts and subverts expectations.
While Vigolondo himself doesn’t appear in Extraterrestrial, the cast is still excellent. As is the premise: Julio (Julian Villagran) wakes up in Julia’s (Michelle Jenner) (name similarities a coincidence? I don’t think so) apartment after a heavy night of drinking. They don’t know each other. But when he goes to leave he finds the streets completely empty. They’ve slept through the start of an alien invasion. But there are two other problems. One is Julia’s infatuated, nosy neighbor, and the other is her boyfriend.
What seems set up to be your run of the mill ‘fight the aliens’ narrative is anything but. Not as dark as Timecrimes, Extraterrestrial is very human, pretty poignant, and aware enough of its alien-predecessors to set an audience up for a cliche and then avoid it.
But what I really like about Extraterrestrial is how Vigalondo directs our eye (more on that below). There are so many opportunities in this film to just put us on the street or out the window and play the alien forces into what’s interesting for the viewer. Maybe it’s a budgetary concern, but he never sinks to this level, instead preferring to keep us tightly confined with the leads in small spaces, and seeing only what each individual in the moment needs to see.
There’s a beautiful moment in Timecrimes where, when he plays it back for us, Vigalondo reveals that he hid a huge piece of information right in the middle of a frame. He’s so confident that movement, color, and dialogue/sound will draw our eye that he’s not afraid to make bold choices (I’d like to be more specific, but it’s a huge spoiler).
Vigalondo does some of the same things here. There’s a great moment (no stills unfortunately…bummer), where Julio is in the kitchen about to make a major decision. The camera dollies left to right with him from the kitchen and into the dining room where he attacks another character. This is a simple withholding of information (what’s going on in the dining room is given less importance than Julio’s decision process in the kitchen), but it’s not a simple directorial decision. It’s emblematic of many of Vigalondo’s choices: the human moments – meaning usually those moments right before and after – are far more important than action set-pieces.
Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Most people probably know Vittorio De Sica from The Bicycle Thieves (1948), a major player in Italian Neorealism. De Sica, alongside Visconti, Rossellini, and Zavattini was at the forefront of this postwar movement, stressing duration, real time, location shooting, and an aversion to the “White Telephone” films of the Italian studios.
But De Sica’s comedy sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow won him an Oscar (with the help of Mastroianni and Loren, who performs perhaps the best striptease in film history in the last section), and is an impressive three-part comedy that plays, at times, like parody of neorealism and White Telephone.
De Sica uses the wide 2:35 aspect ratio expertly-
-showing off the Italian locations and frequently stressing (at least in the first section) the poverty-stricken locales. But this isn’t an Umberto D poverty/loneliness. With a Otto Preminger-like dexterity, De Sica stresses the communal nature and, more importantly, the speed of information via two impressively designed sequence shots.
Here’s the first. The camera starts at ground level as word of Adelina’s (Loren) pregnancy starts to spread around town:
The camera tilts up with the news, revealing the listener in the window:
The camera pans right as she moves through the house and to the window on the opposite side, calling down to the street:
And the camera tilts back down, revealing a new receiver of information on the street:
The jokes here are plenty. Of course the news could just travel at street level, but its up and down pattern is both humorous and stresses how one simple fact blankets the community. De Sica’s wide frames, capturing passersby listening or completely oblivious keeps the receiver and purveyor’s of the news small in the frame. They’re swallowed by their surroundings, but the news will still march forward. The sequence (continuous) shot emphasizes speed and immediacy.
This is followed almost immediately by another sequence shot. The camera starts at street level and this time pans with a group of kids who overhear the news-
The camera cranes up with them as they chant the news and more kids join:
The camera move hits the grandiosity of it all – small news in a crowded place is still big news. The children as mechanism of information isn’t far from neorealism, and it’s also quite an Italian technique (I’m thinking of Olmi’s films). But perhaps most importantly here is the movement and bustle of it all. De Sica’s camera moves, the characters move, the news moves. This is not a place that sits still.
Here’s a quick look at the middle segment, which features the two stars in a car for nearly the entire time:
I love this still. First, it’s a drastically different aesthetic than that above, though it’s contained within the same film. This is Mastroianni hopelessly chasing the wealthy, beautiful Loren. Those White Telephone films I keep referring to were 30s-40s melodramas with an upper-class set of characters and milieu. This is an ironic reference, where Loren’s character is so detached from any actual relation to a middle or lower-class ideal that she simply runs off with the first guy that comes along post-Mastroianni.
The still itself, featuring deep focus and a nice divide between foreground and background (lending itself to some easy “literal divide” interpretations) is really just a gorgeous shot as lensed by Giuseppe Rotunno (whose impressive resume also includes Amarcord for Fellini and Carnal Knowledge for Nichols).