Morons from Outer Space

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: Due to unwise meddling from beery slob Desmond, he and his fellow aliens – wife Sandra and ineffectual colleague Julian – crash-land on Earth, where they are subjected to tests and hostility before becoming global celebrities. Meanwhile, their leader Bernard makes his own way to Earth and ends up in America, but he struggles to convince anyone that he is the mythical ‘fourth alien’.

Films sometimes show up cultural differences in surprising ways. For example, the idea of alien life is treated by American cinema as a thing of wonder (E.T.), an opportunity for greater harmony and learning (Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek series), or at worst a new enemy to shoot to pieces in thrilling style (J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek and most other Hollywood sci-fi). In British hands, however, the attitude is far more pessimistic, with a rallying cry of ‘I bet they’re just as awful as us.’ This was true of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and possibly explains why the American(-ish) film failed to grasp most of the English author’s ideas; it’s doubly true of Morons from Outer Space, the brainchild of TV comedy duo Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones.

Desmond (Jimmy Nail), Sandra (Joanne Pearce), Julian (Paul Bown) and Bernard (Smith) are chugging along aimlessly in what they consider to be deep space. Bernard nips off for a quick game of low-gravity football, which proves disastrous as Desmond’s incessant button-pressing blasts their podule away from the ship, leaving Bernard deserted. The trio crash land on a British motorway, giving unassuming TV producer Graham Sweetley (Rhys-Jones) the scoop of a lifetime, since all his colleagues at the news desk have scarpered down the pub.

British military chief Commander Matteson (Dinsdale Landen) tries to keep a lid on the incident – ‘we don’t want little green men running around during Ascot week’ – but the Americans naturally muscle in on the act, in the form of aggressive Colonel Raymond Laribee (James Sikking). Once the aliens emerge from their ship, the British conduct tests and realise what we already know: the visitors are just like us, only stupider.

Laribee, however, is convinced they are still a threat and takes over the investigation, threatening torture to get the aliens to reveal their ‘true’ forms; Sweetley intervenes and frees them, giving them refuge in his own London flat. He uses his leverage to exploit the aliens for maximum financial gain, getting Desmond to promote green-dyed beer as an exotic drink called ‘Loob’, Sandra to record her witless, half-remembered song Tempt Me Sideways, and Julian to – well, just be Julian.

Meanwhile, Bernard arrives on Earth and quickly ends up in an eerily-familiar mental institution, and although his fellow inmates help him to break out, only a chance intervention prevents him from ending it all. Bernard travels to New York with renewed hope where his fellow aliens, now world superstars, are holding a concert; but the increasingly disillusioned intergalactic idiots are none too keen to share their new-found fame and wealth with their old acquaintance.

I’ve discussed elsewhere (see The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse) the difficulty of transferring small-screen material to film, and to Smith and Jones’ credit they set up their ideas and characters in fairly cinematic fashion, even if budgetary constraints hamper Mike Hodges’ ability to create convincing sets even more than they did in Flash Gordon (the green being who gives Bernard a lift is less than convincing, and where exactly is the rest of New York?). The two most obvious inspirations for Morons from Outer Space are Close Encounters of the Third Kind and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the film apes these with good humour, providing in Andre Maranne’s Professor Trousseau a wicked spoof of François Truffaut’s turn in Close Encounters.

Though it never attains the giddy heights of Airplane!, some delightfully silly stuff makes it into the film: particularly good fun is the design of the alien’s cockpit – a kitchenette, basically – and Matteson’s obsession with Sandra, which at one point finds expression in spontaneous song. By and large, the acting talent does well, with Pearce and Bown doing dim extremely well (I’ve never liked Nail, I’m afraid) and Smith’s squishy face lending itself beautifully to his pathetic role as the ‘clever’ stupid one; and even if Sweetley’s conversion from quiet man to yuppie svengali doesn’t quite ring true, Griff is always an amiable presence – Smith and Jones were wise to stay apart until the very end of the movie.

There are, however, two big problems with the film, both of which are glaringly obvious. The first is that it quickly – and predictably – runs out of things to do with aliens who possess no special powers whatsoever. Having shown that Desmond, Julian and Sandra are slow and vacuous, the film is left in the lurch, and the solution of the concert doesn’t cut it as a payoff, just like it doesn’t in Water (although I do like the gospel song ‘Podule of love’). The concert is not entertaining (unless you like seeing people being vomited on) and emphasises that the film has run out of steam, with the final punch-line to the aliens’ adventures a mediocre gag at best. The second issue is that while the film’s spoofs are accurate, they are hardly bang up to date, Close Encounters already 7 years old when Morons was released and Cuckoo’s Nest out for a decade. I get the gag now, but I distinctly remember watching it all with frustrated incomprehension the first time round.

Critics couldn’t find a good word to say about Morons from Outer Space, and it’s hardly surprising since it was outdated on its release and now looks almost offensively cheap. Still, if you can look past its styling and concentrate on the jokes, there is a lot to enjoy in Smith and Jones’ cheerfully stupid film. If nothing else, I guarantee that you’ll laugh at Mel’s ‘rock around the neck’ gag, a masterclass in comic timing.

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