Disgruntled fantasy fans who found “The Witch” or “It Follows” too slow, talky and slim on conventional payoff will be apoplectic over the purported sci-fier “Alienated,” which advertises itself as being an alien-invasion tale. Imagine their emotions upon discovering they’ve actually signed on for 80 minutes of sniping between two ill-matched spouses, with just a blip of bookending genre material. The bait-and-switch might be excusable if Brian Ackley’s feature were a good marital relationship drama, but the divorce-ready characters prove as irksome for viewers as they are for each other. The movie is bravely playing a few U.S. theaters (it opened March 19 in New York, then added Boston, with Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles to come), but will likely make less noise than its argumentative protags. More entertaining than anything on screen will be the eventual responses of average VOD renters lured by the promised theme — particularly in contrast to the dozen or more early IMBd “user comment” raves, all suspiciously from first-time posters.
The sole f/x shot is sprung right at the start here, as Nate (George Katt) stands outside his rural New Jersey home staring at an apparent UFO that hovers briefly above him in the sky, then vanishes. When his wife, Paige (Jen Burry), gets home, he takes his time mentioning he has something to show her — videotape of that sighting — and is vague about just what it is, then angry when she says she’ll look at it after her bath. But then Nate, a painter who apparently only does self-portraits (which we never see) that he insists “aren’t about me,” is the kind of guy who snaps, “I don’t like you to get inside my head” when asked questions, then fumes over his wife’s supposed disinterest when she doesn’t ask. Perhaps he’s meant to be a tortured artist. But mostly, he just seems like torture to be around: petty, sulky and secretive, not to mention obsessed with 9/11 conspiracy theories and other fringe errata.
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While occasional overheard news reports suggest odd phenomena going on elsewhere, Nate curiously stays focused not on the evidence of alien arrival he may possess, but on picking fights with his “simple, narrow-minded” wife. For her part, she remains surprisingly conciliatory, until he pushes her to a couple points of hurtful argument that suggest these two are overdue for a split. The problem — beyond all this being quite grating and tedious — is that Ackley’s screenplay doesn’t give us the faintest idea why they would have gotten together in the first place, let alone stayed together six years. There’s no rooting value whatsoever, rendering laughable a conclusion that assumes a deep love between them.
Burry may well lend more openness and warmth to her character than the script intends (it makes a point of granting her no personal interests beyond Eddie Murphy movies and a TV sitcom), while Katt may render Nate even more off-putting than necessary. Still, it’s a bit of a jaw-dropper to realize we’re apparently meant to have been on the husband’s side all along, as the ending affords him a giant finger-waggling “I told you so!” Lest one get too excited, the sci-fi angle that briefly resurges at this point remains basically off screen.
“Alienated” is entirely confined to the protags’ home, apart from a couple of sequences featuring the late Taylor Negron (to whom the film is dedicated) as a surly older neighbor. He’s presumably meant to be an enigmatic, provoking figure, but as he hands the suddenly passive Nate very personal insults when they’ve barely met, their interactions make no sense save as a failed stab at writerly flamboyance.
Science fiction can be realized in the tightest human quarters (as the admittedly much more generously financed “10 Cloverdale Lane” just proved), but “Alienated” simply isn’t very interesting on the human level — and not at all on its basically superfluous fantasy one. It’s the precise equivalent of that stereotypical, unloved Off Off Broadway play in which a scribe appears to be working out unflattering problems that really called for a therapist’s couch.
Within its very modest bounds, the feature is competently assembled in tech/design terms.