SXSW Review: Earthling

By  · Published on March 16th, 2010

SXSW is a prestigious festival, of that we can be sure, but it is not highly regarded for its celebration of genre. That’s not a mark against the festival whatsoever, it’s got its own priorities and frankly, if all fests were the same there would be no reason to sample them all. My agenda for SXSW, as should be pretty apparent by now, is to hit as many of the genre offerings as possible as that is my principal interest. We’ve covered foreign horror, cult horror, and documentaries focusing on exploitation cinema and the war-crimes against Sci-Fi perpetrated by George Lucas. Earthling marks the first narrative Sci-Fi film I’ve seen at the festival. It also marks the first film so far that I have disliked.

Earthling is the story of Judith, nicknamed Jude, a school teacher with a troubled life. She is growing increasingly distant from her husband, suffering from seizures, and recovering from a recent car accident. Meanwhile, orbiting the Earth, tragedy strikes the international space station and all but one crew member perish. The surviving astronaut returns to Earth and falls into a coma. But what he may have brought with him could be catastrophic for our planet. Jude begins to have menacing nightmares involving people she’s never met and, during her waking hours, finds herself pursued by a bizarre group of people who are all clearly hiding sinister secrets.

That plot synopsis is vague, and that is intentional for two reasons. First, I hate spoiler reviews with a fiery passion. But more to the point with this film, if I actually tried to break down the plot I would never be able to no matter how many times I watched it or how closely I was paying attention. I had been told it was stingy with details, so I sharpened my gaze and strove to mine every nuance until I understood each plot point and how it fit into the greater story structure. But thanks to a series of missing dialogue and pretentious editing, Earthling seems bent on making it impossible for us to understand the story.

I completely understood what the film was trying to do, but the execution is nothing short of sloppy. Basically this is a David Cronenberg body horror/Sci-Fi film if Cronenberg had suffered a massive head wound and forgot how to create a cohesive storyline. There are clear references to both Scanners, The Fly and The Brood in the film; they are eerily similar if not intentional. I really enjoyed those elements but they were unsystematic pieces of larger puzzle that, even when assembled, fails to create a unified image. In the moments where the writer deigns to grant us a hint as to how the various elements connect, they are often coupled with distracting, superfluous imagery that typifies the problem most people have with Indie films or are completed drowned out by the terrible score. The characters will all make references to points of exposition but the truths discovered are almost always negated by something else that happens so it feels like an exercise in futility.

The performances are solid and, other than the fragments of pretentious imagery, the cinematography is actually quite beautiful. But while the heart of the concept is decent, it’s constructed of things we’ve seen before and not at all refined. It’s an undisciplined mess that fails miserably in its execution.

More from SXSW 2010

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.