It is August 6, 2012, and it can really only be a coincidence that the Curiosity rover has landed on the surface of Mars today. A Chevron refinery in California catches on fire. Reality TV start Donald Trump tweets “An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud,” making him a laughinstock and guaranteeing him no future in the public eye. Or not. Whatever.
I gather there is some sort of sporting event going on in England involving James Bond or something. Not the US’s best showing today: we earn one gold medal today, for women’s pole vault. Russia takes home seven medals, three of them gold. Great Britain picks up two golds and a bronze. The US will finish the games with a commanding 103 total medals, with China coming second with 88. Stateside, the Orioles beat the Mariners.
In “The US is really fucked up” news, a white supremacist killed six people and wounded four in an attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Wednesday, the killer in the 2011 Tuscon mass shooting (an assassination attempt on US Representative Gabby Giffords) will plead guilty on all charges and be sentences to life without parole. That same day, Texas will execute Marvin Lee Wilson, in apparent violation of the SCOTUS in Atkins v. Virginia, forbidding the execution of the mentally handicapped. Wilson’s recorded IQ was 61.
Dylan had three bottles of milk, squash, and carrots at school, naps four times, and is on nystatin for a rash. Last week, he whacked his face on one of the toys in the mobile infant room and needed an ice pack and comforting.
Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but for the seventh week in a row, the Billboard Hot 100 is topped by Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”. She’d unseated Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” back in June. He’s down to number 5 this week. Katy Perry, Flo Rida, Ellie Goulding, Usher and Pink are also among the top ten, and I think we must be in that period when I started listening to top 40 music again between when I decided my commute was too short to listen to audiobooks and when I officially became Old and started listening to the news instead.
The reimagining of Total Recall is new in theaters this week. The Lorax is released on DVD and Blu-Ray. DreamWorks Dragons, a television series based on the How to Train Your Dragon film series, premieres tomorrow on Cartoon Network. Matthew Perry vehicle Go On will premiere Wednesday. Jon Stewart’s guest is Tim Gunn. Stephen Colbert’s is Pete Seeger, who plugs his new book, Pete Seeger In His Own Words, then sings “Quite Early Morning”. Thursday, the BBC will announce their upcoming docudrama on the origins of Doctor Who, An Adventure in Time and Space, which will air next November.
This is the point in the essay where I might say, “I do this for you, dear reader. I put myself through this for you.” But since hardly anyone reads these things, clearly I am doing this not for you but out of some kind of traumatic brain injury or something. Every time I think I’ve hit the bottom of the barrel, I come out the other side and it turns out that there’s just more barrel.
But I exaggerate. This movie is bad, but it’s not offensively bad. I didn’t really get anything out of this movie, but it didn’t hurt me or anything. Alien Dawn is a low-budget, direct-to-dvd movie sort of loosely based on The War of the Worlds. Sorta. It’s hard to really call it an adaptation as the narrative has almost nothing to do with the original. Or anything really. This movie doesn’t really have a “story” in the normal sense. There’s a general structure of progression, but there’s not what you’d call a “plot” until the final act, and even then, it’s less of a cause-and-effect sequence of events leading to a climax, and more of a “they set a goal and then mill around and then the goal gets accomplished.” So much nothing happens in this movie that there were times when I started to convince myself that it was actually some kind of hybrid War of the Worlds/Waiting for Godot adaptation.
You know what it’s like? Real weird to say it, but this movie is basically The Blair Witch Project with aliens. I don’t know if anyone actually likes found footage movies. On the one hand, there’s this sense of intimacy and unscriptedness and it’s like a Dogme movie only without competence. But on the other hand, nausea-inducing shakey-cam and implausible cameras and the knowledge that Hollywood is only making these things because of how cheap they are.
Alien Dawn isn’t a strict found footage movie, though something in the neighborhood of half the film is presented in the form of diagetic footage, either in the form of interference-distorted news reports from “BCC World” (A seemingly American station whose ident is shamelessly ripped off from the BBC) or scanline-distorted smartphone footage.
They never identify the aliens as Martian in dialog, but like the Asylum version, the opening titles give an establishing shot of Mars before joining the action on Earth. For a movie which spends so much of its runtime going nowhere, Alien Dawn gets started in a hurry: there’s no twenty minutes of people going to and fro over the globe about their little affairs, followed by a night of idle speculation over a large meteorite. We start smack-bang in the middle of the first big push of the attack, with tripods already stalking through the unnamed city. Possibly. We see them several minutes before any of the characters do, I think.
The only adaptation we’ve visited that’s rolled out the tripods this fast is Goliath. There are some parallels between the pair of 2012 films, mostly to Goliath‘s favor. Alien Dawn‘s tripods bear a passing resemblance to those in the animated film, though they’re closer in design to the alliance tripods than the Martian ones. There’s a bit of a steampunk vibe to them, especially since we first see one belching black smoke (Which doesn’t seem like it actually belongs at this point in the narrative, but whatever). They’re much more mechanical in form than either of the Asylum designs, with a barrel-shaped body and hints of the AT-ST in the design of the legs. There’s a cage in the front which can contain captured humans, which, I think, get vacuumed up through its legs. The aesthetic is decidedly less “alien” than most of what we’ve seen in these forays, enough that you could imagine them being man-made, if only on a Metal Gear “It’s not a giant mech; it’s a tank with legs” sort of way.
The tripods aren’t the only things in the invader arsenal. I think we also see some flying machines, but only briefly, and we don’t get a good look at them. And there’s large cylinder ships which fall to Earth like meteors. These are obviously the transport craft, though they don’t show anything emerging from them. The rendering is decent for the tripods. Not exactly fantastic, but about par for a made-for-TV movie. The cylinders are considerably worse. We don’t see the tripods move much: they spend large parts of the movie just standing around. When we do see them move, it’s usually a close-up of the legs.
The tripod armaments aren’t explained in detail and are inconsistent. Their visual representation is usually more “floodlight” than “heat ray”, though not always. Sometimes, they cause explosions. At least once, a person hit by the weapon literally explodes into gore. More often, people jerk around as though shot by gunfire and fall down dead. There is one scene where it seems like maybe they’ve got a teleport beam as in the second Asylum film, but it’s impossible to tell. What is consistent, though, is the sound. The sound effect for the alien weapon is lifted directly from the 1953 George Pal film. It’s a wonderful sound effect, and just a little disconcerting to hear it coming out of these weird, low-budget CGI warships.
Our lead female character identifies herself to her convenient pocket-camcorder (Not even a smartphone. She just happened to be carrying a cheap camcorder when an alien invasion broke out) as Marissa Jean McCallum, and gives us the helpful information that it’s six in the morning on November 28. Helpful, but almost certainly wrong, since it’s broad daylight out. “I was driving and then all of a sudden some things just started happening!” she explains to the camera, pleading with anyone who finds the camera to deliver it to her parents in Colorado. No address or anything, just names and a state. This is intercut with news footage. Not just of the alien invasion, but also some stock footage of President Obama from 2009 announcing troop deployments in Afghanistan, repurposed here as him saying generic things about perilous times and the need for the American people to stay strong and resolute.
The first ten minutes of the movie are a nigh-incoherent mess which tries to use contextless scenes, quick cutaways and lots of digital effects to hide the fact that the city under siege consists of about a half-dozen extras repeatedly running down the same eighth-mile of street. The city is vacant enough to feel at odds with the scene the narrative is trying to paint: these aren’t meant to be the last stragglers who didn’t make it out with the initial evacuation, it’s meant to be the thick of it.
The narrative very lazily zeroes in on six characters who are going to end up being our primary and secondary cast. Exactly what relation the characters are to each other is vague, even to them. Marissa is with a blonde woman named Joni Mitchell, possibly on purpose. She gets winged by some aggressive lens flare and spends the rest of her time in the movie slowly dying of Vague Movie Injury disease. No one in this movie is played by anyone in particular, but Joni’s actress had a bit part in an episode of Power Rangers back in ’99. Elsewhere, an adult woman named Sera and a teenage girl named Tiffany are trying to hot-wire a car along with two men, Anders and Roger. Sera seems to be in charge of Tiffany, though they’re not related. Anders and Roger are brothers, but don’t seem to know each other very well.
Also, Anders’s last name is Kaczynski. Anders Kaczynski. That is some holy-fuckballs-screaming-at-the-top-of-your-lungs symbolism right there. And yet I have no idea where the movie is going with it. I mean, there is an actual and deliberate implication built into this movie that Anders might be some sort of violent extremist — there’s multiple scenes where people are really troubled by his inexplicable bomb-making expertise. So okay, but… Anders is the hero of this movie. He is the action lead and also the romantic lead. He is also the effective mentor character to our point-of-view character Marissa. Why would you do that?
They have to abandon the car when the aliens show up and shoot a soldier directly in front of it. Sera loots his pockets, turning up a grenade which she waves around, insisting that they “won’t see it coming”, in a way that seems designed as foreshadowing, but never pays off. Anders is slowed down by what I think might be a ‘Nam flashback (There is exactly one line later that suggests Anders might have served in Iraq) and the guys get separated from Sera and Tiffany.
According to the news, “The people and the military are together,” now and troops are “handing out heavy weapons.” It’s hard to follow, but I think the gist is that the aliens are targeting military installations, so the military is abandoning their bases and going to ground, letting civilians appropriate whatever weapons they can carry. Anders’s gang had been planning to flee to nearby Paradise City, a “military stronghold”, which seems dumb under the circumstances.
Also, I’m not sure what it means for a city to be a “military stronghold.” There are sections of this movie — not the whole thing, just individual scenes — where the dialogue and world-building is so weird as to seem like maybe English isn’t its first language. It reminds me of clumsily translated video games: not outright wrong, but constructing phrases and even concepts that an American wouldn’t. Like Dingo only ever using the word “pals” to describe his comrades in Zone of the Enders 2, or people saying “New York City Police” instead of “NYPD” in David Cage games.
Oh, and they mention “Vice-President Clinton,” so there’s that.
But I don’t think this is necessarily accidental. It might actually be part of the movie’s confused symbolism. They waste very little time letting us know what we’re supposed to be comparing this invasion to. Roger refers to the invaders as “Muslims”. Anders immediately points out that they don’t know that (and adds, “It ain’t fucking terrorists” once they get a good look at a tripod), but unlike the Asylum version, they aren’t the least bit coy about the fact that any attack on America in the year 2012 would be presumed to be the work of a terrorist group affiliated with one of the middle eastern groups espousing radical religious ideologies — or rather, they’d assume it was the work of “Muslims” (with the caveat that they don’t actually mean that, since they’d consider Sikhs equally suspicious but not Indonesians). Later, the news footage will refer to the aliens as “terrorist invaders”, which makes the metaphor pretty explicit despite being flat-out wrong, since the aliens aren’t behaving like terrorists: they’re behaving like a traditionally-organized nation-state military force conducting an extremely traditional military invasion, but in modern news parlance “terrorist” is basically shorthand for “bad guy of non-European descent”, so I can’t fault it for mimesis.
Once night falls, the fighting dies down considerably, and Marissa chances leaving the shelter of the industrial building where she’s been sheltering in order to look for medical supplies for Joni. She runs into Anders and Roger pretty much instantly, and practices terrible personal security by inviting these strange men home with her, taking their word for it that they’re unarmed and mean them no harm, and letting them know up-front that her only backup is one woman too injured to move. Fortunately, they decide not to just overpower her and take all her stuff. Roger agrees to stay with Joni in the dark garage while Anders and Marissa loot a nearby grocery store.
The grocery store is another scene that feels like it’s had a stroke. It’s guarded by a man and a woman who claim the store is under military control, but get confused when Anders asks which regiment — not “they didn’t get their story straight” confused, but, “don’t even comprehend the question” confused. The man shouts that he’s been “doing this all day” and that, “People like you keep coming to me,” and it’s weird and feels unscripted, as though the actors were given the general outline of the premise, but had to improvise the dialogue. The defenders are armed and chase them away, but Anders circles around and disables them. We’ll see the woman again later in a confusingly out-of-context scene where she gets vacuumed up by a tripod and then eaten by an alien. I’d forgotten who she was by that point.
When they make it back to the garage, Joni is alternately vomiting up blood and vomiting up vomit. Turns out that in the dark, Roger had accidentally given her a glass of bleach instead of water. Now, that sounds hella suspect, but nothing follows that up: it seems to be a completely legit accident, meant to communicate only that Roger isn’t very smart.
Presumably neither is Joni, since, yeah, drinking bleach is dangerous, but you’d need to drink a whole lot of it to cause that kind of damage. How much? The LD50 of sodium hypochlorite is somewhere between 6 and 8 grams per kg. Joni is probably somewhere between 50 and 60 kg, so it’d take about 300 grams of the stuff to be more-likely-than-not lethal. But commercial bleach is mostly water. There’s only about 190 grams of sodium hypochlorite in a gallon of bleach. So even if she drank the whole bottle, the odds of it killing her are fairly low, though obviously, she’s already suffering from a vaguely defined shoulder injury. Not that you should take this as an incentive to drink bleach, since it will ruin your day even if it doesn’t kill you. You’d think she’d notice she was drinking bleach during the stages where it was causing superficial damage to her tongue and maybe esophagus, rather than continuing to swallow the stuff until it caused massive internal bleeding.
Roger blames the fact that it was dark and proceeds to get in the way while Marissa tries to save Joni.
After Anders and Roger shout at each other a bit, we skip ahead to Marissa’s next vlog, in which she explains that Joni’s dying (though apparently having her stomach pumped could save her), and she gives an anecdote about once having to have a horse with a broken leg put down. She indicates reluctance about having the men around, but concedes that she needs their help to murder Joni.
And then things get really uncomfortable, because Marissa unilaterally decides that Joni needs to be euthanized, but Joni does not agree with this. She initially solicits Roger to help with this, I guess since he’d almost done it accidentally earlier. He chickens out when Joni protests and begs for her life between fits of coughing up blood, so Anders does the deed. He’s very polite about it, talking gently and comforting her before he casually snaps her neck. Afterward, he and Marissa fight over the fact that he’s outwardly unaffected by what he’s done and uninterested in comforting her through her emotional trauma at having just made one of the strangers she’s just met murder another of the strangers she’s just met.
Perhaps this emotional detachment is meant to indicate that Anders is “off” in some way. You could certainly argue that Anders is meant to be a psychopath of some sort, and the name would certainly fit with that. But the movie just founders for a while instead. I think maybe there’s a stab at setting up a love triangle, with Anders reacting with clear jealousy when Roger moves to comfort Marissa, but they never follow it up.
Instead, they basically all take turns having the “broken hero” scene where they get despondent for a few scenes and seem to enter a fugue state that either persists until they get eaten by zombies, or that they snap out of because they see someone who looks like their dead sister. Anders downloads a copy of “The Terrorist’s Cookbook” and spends some time not talking to anyone and obsessively building homemade explosives and a bazooka that misfires.
Then Marissa goes stir-crazy and has her own freak-out episode, and now Anders is fine and he comforts her and becomes social again and they all bond over making bombs, and then they’re all lighthearted and joking over the “new skylight” formed when a section of the roof collapses after more cylinders fall nearby.
While this has been happening, news reports tell inform us of the destruction of the White House and the demise of the president. According to the chyron, one of his last acts was to declare a “worldwide state of emergency”, which I did not know the President could do. The ticker mentions other countries sending shipments of weapons to the US, though, which seems to hint that the invasion is local to the US.
Five days in, the gang decides it’s time to leave. Turns out the car they’d been trying to hot wire earlier is basically right outside. While they’re packing, though, the aliens roll out the black smoke, forcing our heroes to lock themselves in the rest room and argue over snacks.
The black smoke is a little underwhelming. Though newsreel footage warns people to stay inside and stuff towels under their doors and wear gas masks if you’ve got them, they seem to have a lot of stock footage of the stuff — including a shot that is clearly the exact same footage they just showed Marissa filming. Sera and Tiffany, who I am going to call “Eyebrows” from now on, because the character’s only noteworthy trait is having really prominent eyebrows, reappear and are able to survive the smoke by holding rags over their mouths and noses while they find a car in which to make their escape. The movie decides, for no good reason, to get silly for a bit. Once out of town, Eyebrows is forced to use a feminine hygiene product as toilet paper and is told to consider herself lucky it isn’t used. I hope I’m right and this movie didn’t actually have a script, because I do not like the idea of someone getting paid to write this dialogue.
The smoke attack only lasts a day, which is fortunate for Marissa when she gets tired of listening to Anders and Roger bicker and runs outside. For more comic relief, Roger suggests that “they” might nuke the city to get rid of the aliens. Given the complete destruction of the federal government at this point, I’m not sure who “they” are. Anders dismisses the possibility as ridiculous.
- Alien Dawn is gettable from amazon.