40×40: Alien Apocalypse (2005)

Written and directed by Josh Becker

“Your stupidity is terminal… and now you’re cured.”

Why Did I Get This?

I picked this up out of equal parts necessity and curiosity, really. Necessity because I needed a UK disc of Bubba Ho-Tep as my current player won’t run my US disc, and curiosity because… well, it’s a Bruce Campbell film I haven’t seen.

It was one of four Campbell films packaged together in a box set which I bought from a charity shop for less than the price of a second-hand copy of the film I actually wanted, so all in all, I figure it was a bargain. Even if I already owned a copy of another of the films included, which was one of the very first Late Reviews.

Possibly just me, but I was amused to find the disc listed the special features as having a runtime of 91 minutes, while the film itself runs for 88. So aside from the commentary, a near-silent three-minute behind the scenes feature is pretty much all you get. Mind you, it’s always fun to hear Campbell jawing about his movies.

But is it any good?

Late Review

As always, the Late Review will include details from throughout the film which could be considered spoilers. If you want to avoid them, scroll down to the next heading.

Alien Apocalypse is the story of four astronauts who return to Earth after a 40-year trip to find huge insect-like aliens have invaded with an aim to harvest the planet’s trees. The surviving humans have either been enslaved to work in sawmills outside the devastated cities, or have turned bounty hunters, working for the aliens to keep their fellow humans in check.

Right then, where to start with this one?

Firstly, the four astronauts who return to Earth (Bruce Campbell, Renee O’Connor, Michael Cory Davis and Neda Sokolovska), manage to crash land their ship in the middle of the desert with no visible ailment or injury save a sprained leg, and without getting a speck of dirt on their pristine white space suits.

The suits, not to mention the general idea behind the astronauts returning to an Earth they don’t recognise, are a not-too-subtle ‘homage’ to Planet Of The Apes. Actually, much of the film is set up as a PotA clone, if it had been filmed in Bulgaria, Charlton Heston hadn’t stopped wisecracking and the antagonists looked less realistic.

But I digress.

Sokolovska’s character is there solely to complain about her injury then get shot by bounty hunters for slowing down their journey to the chain gang, while Davis lasts a little longer before disrespecting the alien leader and getting his head bitten off.

Next up, we are told the crew have been gone 40 years. The aliens invaded 20 years previously, and put the population to work, but in that short a span of time, almost every human has forgotten what a doctor is, what television and basketball are, and what a handshake is, while only two of them know how to read or write.

Would 40 years have that much of a negative effect on the collective memories of humanity?

Anyway, Campbell and O’Connor are put to work at one of many alien sawmills, because the aliens love eating trees as well as heads and fingers. There, they shift lumber from one pile to another by day and dig escape tunnels with wooden spoons (while leaving their spacesuits unblemished), by night, while becoming increasingly enamoured with each other.

An attempt to rally the slaves into fleeing sees Campbell and O’Connor kill one of the aliens before fleeing with just one willing accomplice – Alex, later revealed to be the narrator.

There’s a really nice gag here where Campbell raises his weapon and cries “FREEDOM!” expecting others to join in, only to be met with complete silence and a look of weary exasperation. He’s very good at that.

While I’m on his character, it’s worth noting Campbell’s Dr Ivan Hood is a Navy-trained osteopath because he didn’t get the grades to be able to become a surgeon or fly planes. But as well as correcting the spines of a couple of characters along their adventure, he still manages to successfully extract a bullet from a stranger in a field with nothing more than a knife and some home brew.

That’s something osteopaths do, right?

He’s a talented guy, if immodest, and continually talks about how he wants to be known as The Great Healer which is paid off with the final words of the film (but I won’t spoil that for you). It’s classic lantern-jawed wisecrackery from Campbell, which continues as he decides to head into the mountains where it’s rumoured the President of the USA has been holed up for 20 years to build an army to overthrow the invaders.

It’s a journey begins by throwing out a homophobic slur (oh, Bruce), and one he seems to make in just a few days, picking up new, badly-wigged, dubbed and bearded companions along the way and even getting a cheeky Fellowship Of The Ring style shot of the group walking over a hillside.

Turns out the director of photography was David Worth, who shot Bronco Billy and Any Which Way You Can for Clint Eastwood, and while it’s a long time since I’ve seen the orangutan movie, this doesn’t seem like an obvious fit, but I suppose he was available and up for a trip to Bulgaria.

You can probably guess how the rest of the story goes – the hero finds the President who doesn’t want to help, decides to lead the resistance himself, successful opening attack, things start to look bleak, then the reluctant warriors arrive and turn the tide of battle just in time to prevent the hero’s sacrificial execution.

In fairness, scenes from the final battle look pretty good, and the limited cast members and locations are used well, with some genuinely inventive explosions throwing huge piles of lumber into the air around stunt performers. You also get some nice high falls throughout the movie, and a couple of falls from horses which can’t have been easy, cheap or comfortable, but look great in context.

Of course, this being made for TV in 2005 means some of the effects shots have dated, but really only where humans and aliens are interacting directly. Writer-director Josh Becker wisely keeps them out of the same shot wherever possible, and this does help.

It’s also worth noting the practical alien effects are genuinely impressive, particularly when the nimble-clawed villains are selecting severed fingers for a snack or taking a drill bit to the thorax and spewing bright green blood.

Becker wrote an interesting blog about the movie and its development, which is still available online. In it, he discusses falling out with Tarantino’s pal and uber-producer Lawrence Bender, getting rewrite advice from longtime Sam Raimi collaborator Robert Tapert, and crashing in Raimi’s garage at various stages of development.

For a script that was written and rewritten several times before being filmed, there are elements of it which still feel a little off, and for me the tone never quite landed.

That being said, it’s a fun, silly romp with giant bug aliens and Bruce Campbell, and it’s only 88 minutes. Everyone looks to be having a great time wandering around quarries, forests and sawmills, the creature design is solid, the practical effects look good, and the physical stunts are cool too.

Oh, and you do get to hear Bruce Campbell scream “CHARGE” while racing into battle carrying a cutlass – all criticisms aside, I’d follow him.

He also gets to deliver this line with a completely straight face before firing a crossbow at an alien…

“You like wood so much? Eat this!”

… which, frankly, made me chuckle.

If you accept Alien Apocalypse for what it is, you could have a good time with it.

It won’t change your life, but it’s not trying to.

Verdict

On the one hand, you get a wisecracking Bruce Campbell rallying primitive humans to overthrow their alien invaders, so y’know… that’s good.

But on the other, it sometimes feels a little cheap and first draft-y. By the time we get to the Spartacus moment during the final showdown, you feel it’s being played for laughs, but not necessarily by the cast – yes, funny played straight is often the best kind of comedy, but in this case, it feels too earnest to raise a laugh, and I’m not entirely sure how tongue in cheek it’s intended to be.

A quote on the cover of the disc calls it “Army Of Darkness meets Starship Troopers”, and while I’m not sure I can quite get behind that, I can sort of see the common elements.

Becker notes that the film’s first screening on the SciFi Channel was “the highest-rated stand-alone movie (meaning not the first of a series or a mini-series) for SciFi Channel ever”, which is not to be sniffed at. You’d imagine the majority of the audience were lured in by Campbell’s presence, but whatever the reason, it’s something to be proud of.

Am I glad to have watched it? Yeah, of course. Even more so after reading Becker’s blog about the development of the film.

Do I think it’s the best of the Bruce Campbell films which have been Late Reviewed? No.

Would I watch it again? Probably not.

Was it an entertaining way to pass 88 minutes after a bad day at work? Yeah, sure.

Take from that what you will.

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