The romantic comedy is a genre represented most frequently by stale, generic films that follow a paint-by-numbers formula devoid of personality and charm. To be sure, even the best examples follow a well established structure, but they also manage to make their characters endearing and likeable in situations both entertaining and recognizable. That recognition factor is important, so it’s rare to find a rom-com willing to take chances with its setup and subvert expectations along the way.
Julio (Julián Villagrán) awakens in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar apartment with a vaguely familiar woman. He sees Julia (Michelle Jenner) walking about clad only in a t-shirt, but whatever magic worked the night before to earn him an invite back to her place is apparently in short supply the morning after. She hurries him along, hustling him on his way, but they’re interrupted by Julia’s nosy neighbor, Angel (Carlos Areces). Angel has a crush on his beautiful neighbor and is immediately jealous of Julio’s presence. Further complicating matters is the arrival of a man named Carlos (Raul Cimas)… Julia’s live-in boyfriend.
The remainder of writer/director Nacho Vigalondo‘s film, set mostly in and around the apartment, sees the quartet dodging and weaving with the best of their rom-com brethren. Julio and Julia flirt (and fornicate!) beneath Carlos’ nose while he occupies an odd amalgamated role that’s part cuckold and part catalyst for third act drama. Angel meanwhile becomes a thorn in the cheating lovers’ sides as he threatens to blow their secret at every opportunity. Wackiness, relationship drama and sexual hi-jinx ensue.
Oh, and it all takes place during an alien invasion.
Extraterrestrial exists almost as a forgotten, long deleted subplot excised from an Independence Day or Battle: Los Angeles-like alien invasion epic. Julio and Julia awaken to a (mostly) empty city after sleeping through what was at best a mass exodus and at worst wholesale abduction or disintegration. While soldiers presumably battle intergalactic invaders in the skies and hillsides outside the city this quartet is busy engaging in some very human activities. Jealousy, deception, self interest, genuine concern and love float between them like spores in search of a host, and the result is a sharply written romance with conflict, plot turns, laughs big and small and heart to spare.
Even without the outside “complications” the task of getting viewers to truly care about a couple of cheaters is fairly monumental. Carlos is a true baxter in the sense that while he’s clearly the unfortunate third wheel there’s nothing truly wrong with him. He’s a good guy caught up in a situation outside of his control that he’s not even aware of. It helps that both Julio and Julia are smartly written to be both realistic and fun. Those attributes extend to Villagrán and Jenner too as they both bring a charming humanity to their characters. And while Areces is stuck with the thankless role of Angel he turns in a comedic gem of a performance earning laughs with deadpan delivery and wry expressions.
Is humanity actually making its last stand against the aliens elsewhere in the world? Who knows. More importantly, who cares. Vigalondo’s interest in the invasion extends only so far as it works to isolate his characters and force them into interaction. Like the characters, we see only a small corner of what appears to be a gigantic flying saucer floating above the city, but we also know there are far more important things at stake here than the survival of humanity. Like love. And peaches.
Extraterrestrial hits VOD and limited theatrical release starting June 15th