The thinking person’s loopy sci-fi movie, “Earthbound” is the story of a young man convinced he’s a space alien, as well as a story about how he couldn’t possibly be a space alien. As such, it’s likely to have the viewer questioning his or her own sense of reality before ending in an explosion of intergalactic mirth. Though ripe for an American remake, this Irish romp can also stand on its own, thanks to standout performances by Rafe Spall and Jenn Murray, and a smart, pretzel-shaped script by helmer Alan Brennan.
Fifteen years after his father’s death, Joe (Spall) is still waiting for the other shoe to drop: Just before Dad (David Morrissey) died, he told Joe they were both aliens, members of a race that inhabited the faraway planet Zalaxon. Until the rebellion there is successful, Dad said, Joe must hide out, work in a comicbook store and somehow perpetuate their race, but only if he can find a girl with whom he’s at least 90% genetically compatible.
Dad continues to advise Joe from the other side; his hologram appears and speaks sagely whenever Joe runs the family’s homemovies on his old 16mm projector (shades of Marlon Brando’s Jor-El). Joe also believes that intergalactic bounty hunters are after him, and that his toy gun is capable of producing a death ray.
Spall is terrifically deadpan, his Joe a true believer and budding paranoid, but not immune to love; when he discovers the lovely Maria (Murray), who appears to be that elusive genetic match, he confides everything to her, at which point she thinks he’s nuts. She brings in her old psychology teacher, Dr. Webb (Stephen Hogan), to counsel Joe, and his entire worldview begins to collapse.
It does for the audience, at any rate. Brennan’s tour de force is the way he dismantles Joe’s elaborate Zalaxon scenario, to the point that even the character has doubts. Everything suddenly makes rational sense, and “Earthbound” acquires a pathos that places it outside the realm of comedy or sci-fi, turning it into a psychological drama that probes self-delusion and even psychosis. And then, the movie makes another expertly navigated left turn.
Murray and Spall play this all with wonderfully straight faces, allowing the comedy to arise from circumstances that might well evolve around any stranger in a strange land, or even one who just thinks he is. The increasingly dangerous world around Joe is inhabited by characters who justify his sense of impending doom, including Hogan’s Dr. Webb; Vera Ellis (the piquant Carrie Crowley), reputedly an old friend of his father’s; and Mr. Kilson (Ned Dennehy), who gives new meaning to the term “corporate headhunter.”As Maria’s beatnik sister Liz, Aiofe Duffin is her own comedic force field.
The pseudo-high-tech space equipment and faux-cosmic effects are of a piece with the blithe tone generated by Joe’s mission, or delusion. Liam Bates’ music rounds out the topnotch tech package.