That they’ve seen “John Carpenter’s The Thing”
Seriously, that’s the only piece of information that they would like you to have. Based on the film I just watched, it may be the only piece of information that they actually possess. How do I know this?
Let me remind you of something – You know that scene from The Thing where Kurt Russell ties everyone up in the rec room so he can prove, through his blood test, who’s an alien and who isn’t?
Cool scene, right? Yeah, I know.
So why am I reminding you of that scene? To save you the 90 minutes it would take to watch Alien Raiders. Because the film only exists to remind you of how great that scene was.
Man, do I wish I was exaggerating, because Alien Raiders has a dynamite premise. It’s closing time at a rural supermarket, and the staff are patiently waiting for the last few stragglers to clear out the aisles before they can clean and lock the place up.
Suddenly a group of tough dudes roll up outside and rush into the supermarket, taking everyone hostage. They kill some, let others go, but then everything goes to hell when an off-duty cop shoots a couple of the toughs, including the one who was telling the rest who to kill, and who to let go. Now the toughs are in a siege situation, but more importantly, they don’t know who among the surviving customers and staff need to be killed!
Okay, I’m going to pause for a second, and admit that yes, that’s a pretty good premise for a movie. The film’s problems aren’t with the premise, though, they’re with the fact that, after the setup, the filmmakers have no idea where to go next. So what do they do?
Well, if you read the first line of this review, you know. They rip off The Thing. But not well. You see, in The Thing, we had a large group of well-developed characters, and a story in which a lot of things happened. The key scene, the ‘test’, while incredibly watchable and almost freakishly compelling, is only 9 minutes long, from ‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding me’ all the way to ‘I’d rather not spend the rest of the winter tied to this fucking couch!’
Yeah, I just watched that scene again to get the timing, and man, is that a great scene. Perfect, even.
It seems that the makers of Alien Raiders felt that the scene wasn’t quite perfect, though. No, they found a fatal flaw – it wasn’t long enough. As a result, their version of the scene, from everyone getting tied to chairs to everyone getting out of them, lasts 31 minutes.
Their version of the scene is called ‘Act 2’.
Which might have even been forgivable, had it been handled with any intelligence at all. But all of the characters are idiots, as the filmmakers must suspect that their audience is.
Here’s the specific situation the characters find themselves in. The toughs, led by 24’s Carlos Bernard, need to figure out who among the staff are aliens. They used to have a psychic on their team that could tell them this merely by looking into people’s eyes, but now that he’s dead, they have to do the test the old-fashioned way, by making everyone drink a lot of milk, and then cutting off one of their fingers.
Wait, that sounded pretty stupid, didn’t it? Let me check… No, that’s actually how they tested. Yikes.
So what’s so stupid about this situation? The toughs, who are semi-pros at this by the time the film starts, having been rolling around the country, snuffing aliens left and right, handle this testing in the most ridiculous way possible.
They tie everyone up in a storage room, and then drag one of them off into another room to perform the test, leaving just a single armed tough to watch the other seven hostages while they’re gone. This brings me to a question – why on earth would they do this? What is gained by separating the testable hostage from the rest?
Here are their three problems: 1 – Some of the hostages are Aliens, and want to escape. 2 – The rest of the hostages don’t believe in Aliens, and think the toughs are just crazy, so they want to escape as well. 3 – They don’t have enough people and guns to cover both a group of hostages and an exposed, rampaging alien at the same time.
Note that all three of these problems can be solved with a simple change in plan: perform the tests in the main hostage area. Instantly you’ve solved problem 3, since everyone’s in the same room. Then you perform the test until you find an alien, and kill it. Problem 1 down. And by exposing the alien in front of everyone else, you’ve revealed that the aliens are real, and you’re not crazy, neatly solving problem 2. Hell, the rest of the hostages will be happy to be tested (except for the aliens, of course).
See how much smarter that would have been? You know where I got that technique from? That’s right, it was what Kurt Russell did in The Thing. And his character was just a clever helicopter pilot who knew how to follow a line of deductive reasoning.
Maybe I should cut the characters in this film a little slack. I mean, it’s not like they’re rocket scientists, right?
Wait, what’s that? The toughs are a group of Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists who quit their job when they discovered the alien conspiracy? So this actually is a film about Rocket Scientists fighting aliens?
I withdraw that previously-offered slack.
The funny thing is, it’s a huge storytelling mistake that both exposes this problem, and causes a bigger one right at the end.
What’s that problem? The movie is told, almost exclusively, from the Rocket Scientists’ point of view. That’s right, you’d think that a movie like this would be utterly mysterious about what the toughs were up to, and gradually let us in on it as our proxy characters, the hostages who are being roughly pulled into this world, learn a piece here and there.
But that’s not how the story is told. No, the film even opens with a montage of the Rocket Scientists gearing up for that night’s job and recording videotapes about what they’re doing. If they’re not explicit with the details of the alien threat right away, it doesn’t matter, because we know the most important thing – that they’re right.
Consider the psychic who points out aliens to them. Here’s how open the film is that he’s on the level. When he scans people, the movie actually goes into a first-person perspective.
See that guy? He’s not an alien. We know this because the screen is only shaking mildly.
But when he looks at his lady:
An electric rattle kicks up on the soundtrack, and the psychic freaks out, letting the audience know that he’s on to something.
This absolute certainty that the Rocket Scientists are doing all this for a good reason kind of kills the tension of the first and second acts, because in every scene the only threat is that the hostages will escape before they can be properly tested. This makes the many scenes we get of the hostages talking quietly to each other, trying to figure out what’s going on, and planning their escape extremely dull, because we in the audience already know what’s going on, and don’t care whether they escape or not, except for insofar as it inconveniences our actual main characters.
Which is what makes the film’s cliched ‘the threat is still out there’ ending such a complete failure. We’re supposed to give a damn that the (spoiler alert) pretty cashier that the stockboy likes turns out to be the queen alien, but these characters have been so peripheral to the main action that we barely know who they are, so it’s a little hard to get involved, except on a purely intellectual level. Although even then the ‘still out there’ ending isn’t much of a threat, since the film ends with the girl aliening out while in the back of a locked cop car, surrounded by men with guns, who will no doubt shoot her just after the credits start to roll – and the aliens are profoundly not bulletproof.
Just think of how much more effective the film could have been if it was told from the POV of the hostages from the beginning. Open with their boring night at the supermarket. Stay with them for the terror of having guns stuck in their faces, and then watching their friends and neighbours get killed because some weirdo in a hoodie announced that they needed to die. Instead of just knowing that the toughs were right, we’d have had to learn it through snippets of conversations, and the police investigation going on outside.
It’s more compelling, more mysterious, and would have had a more effective reveal when one of the people we’d spent 40 minutes of the film getting to know turned out to be a monster that then tried to kill the rest of them.
Such a great premise. If only they’d written it a little harder.