The world premiere of aliens-among-us movie Earthling happened this past weekend at South By Southwest, and we got a chance to preview the movie and interview filmmaker Clay Liford. And we've got six clips from this instant cult classic.
Oh, and there are major spoilers here...
In Earthling, a weird spiky object from space strikes the International Space Station, and one astronaut murders the two others and ejects himself into space, miraculously surviving.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, a teacher named Jude has an epileptic seizure and crashes her car — and this is just the beginning of Jude's realization that she may not be human. Soon, Jude is being stalked by one of her students, the creepy lesbian Abby, and encountering more and more weirdness.
The film is very slow and moody, with lots of arty shots of what could be a lake's surface or could be stars. Jude sits in the bathtub and stares at her own feet, and people have slow, halting conversations with artsy dialogue. It works pretty well, at times, because we feel the alienation (so to speak) and dissociation of Jude's growing awareness that she's not really a human being — she's actually one of a group of aliens who came down to Earth and grew human bodies around their slug selves. (They can build human bodies by impregnating humans, or each other's human-bred bodies.)
Where the film really shines is when it transforms, from a Sundance-esque drama about someone who's not sure who/what she really, into a horror movie about alien slugs coming out of people's mouths and stunning Jude with their telepathic shrieks:
The film also has a clever ending, which pulls together a lot of the narrative strands and goes a long way towards redeeming the whole thing.
The thing that's really unsettling about Earthling, though, is the weird overtones of pedophilia and intergenerational love that permeate it. You've got the stalkery relationship between the teacher, Jude, and her student, Abby, which eventually turns mutually stalkery and then evolves into the two of them kissing naked in the bathtub. And also, at one point, Jude hides in the reeds and watches Abby seduce another female student (whom she's hoping to impregnate with an alien slug baby):
But that's not all — there's also a pregnant ten-year-old, whose father drugged her and imprisoned her in the basement. At one point, the pregnant ten-year-old spoons in bed with Jude and says, "I was born after you, but we're really the same age." (Because they're both really the alien slugs in human form.)
Also, Jude goes out drinking, several times, with a group of other female teachers, and literally their only topic of conversation is how much they want to have sex with their underage students, and all their fantasies about how they would seduce their students, and so on. It's sort of hilarious at first, but after a bunch of these conversations, you start to wonder if that's really all these teachers ever talk about. Occasionally, they have a sober moment and agree that it's not worth ruining your life just for one fun night with a hot underage boy. (Or, as the principal tells Jude in another scene, these days it just takes one mistake to destroy your career.)
It seemed a bit odd, honestly, that there's so much about sex between adults and children in this movie — it makes the central relationship between Jude and Abby — which could have been a sort of Let The Right One In-esque relationship involving someone who appears to be a teenage girl but is actually something older and stranger — seem like part of a whole world of intergenerational sex.
So we had to ask writer/director Clay Liford exactly what he was thinking putting so much pedophilia/hebephilia into one movie. He explained that it was a way to dramatize the fact that these people are not what they appear to be. Jude persists in seeing the pregnant ten-year-old as a little girl, but in fact she's an ageless alien slug, just like she is. And so it helps lead us to Jude's central choice: Whether she should embrace her alien nature, or try to keep living on Earth as a human. Liford added:
The idea was, they all came out of the same spaceship [at the same time]. Of course, we don't know the life cycle of the alien slug. Those things could live for two years, or two thousand hears... we have no idea how many lifetimes they have lived, how many different paths they've taken... theoretically, whatever lives inside of the girl could be even older than what lives inside of the main character.
So when Jude sees "a little girl who is pregnant, and dies or has horrible things happen to her," Jude projects her own issues about wanting to have children onto this girl. Jude persists in seeing the human aspect of the little girl, but she's actually reaching for something that's not there, says Liford. "She can't see that little girl as anything more than a little girl."
The film's central lesbian relationship was originally heterosexual, adds Liford. The character of Abby was meant to be a boy named Harry, but "we just never found a guy we liked, and we even went out of the city to do some casting." Finally, after tons of auditions, they met Amelia Turner, who was perfect for "Harry" except for her gender. So they called up the star, Rebecca Spence, and asked if she was game for a lesbian affair instead of a straight one. "I'm in if you're in," she responded.
Liford was very keen to show that "yyou can have a main character who can make possibly unsympathetic choices and make mistakes," but still be a sympathetic character in the end. Jude's relationship with Abby is just one of her questionable choices in the film, including ruining her marriage to a man who's shown to be quite decent and supportive. "I wanted to show that she had a sympathetic husband, who was not a jerk," says Liford. Usually, "when someone cheats on her husband in a movie, he's a patsy or a shlub." But "she's clearly the jerk in this situation."
Liford says it feels like there's a resurgence of low-budget science fiction movies, because the technology just keeps getting cheaper and cheaper. He watched the season premiere of Lost, and noticed the big under-the-ocean shot "was kind of crummy. Our stuff is as good as that, and I guarantee theirs cost way more than ours." Even just in terms of storage space, "What you can put on a hard drive is insane." But he hates it when people compare Earthling to Moon — a film whose $6 million budget was astronomical compared to Earthling's.
Liford says he "nerded out," coming up with tons of details about the alien life form in the movie, many of which didn't make it into the final two-hour cut. He wanted a believable life form that could traverse the cosmos and survive the voyage — even if it took 30 million years to get from Point A to Point B, or Earth. He came up with the idea of a space seed, a "freeze-dried" version of the alien life form, which needs other life to survive, and which has "psychic flanges" that are drawn to other psychic energy, as if by gravity.
Earthling's aliens were so overwhelmed by our capacity for love, which they'd never experienced before, that they wanted it for themselves. "There was a much longer version of the script that overexplained these things," says Liford. "The human body is basically grown around the slug. The slug represents the lowest brain, the instinctual part of the human brain." Thus, the slug replaces our lizard brains, and has no capacity for memory or ego. "The neocortex doesn't exist in the slug, so every time the human form of it dies, they basically die again, they get back to a lake and then get inside another human" to gestate a new body.