SXSW FILM 2010
By Don Simpson | March 24, 2010
Director: Clay Liford
Writer: Clay Liford
Starring: Rebecca Spence, Peter Greene, Amelia Turner, William Katt, Matt Socia, Savanna Sears, Jennifer Sipes, Chris Doubek
A spiky ball (resembling a large stress ball or a naval mine or maybe a seed pod from a sweetgum tree) drifts in space towards a space station. The three-man crew of the station picks up the strange object. One of the astronauts, Sean (Matt Socia), comes in contact with it; a strange pulse rings out, instantly killing the other two astronauts. Sean survives the encounter, but returns to Earth in a comatose state.
Back on Earth there is a temporary brown-out that triggers Judith (Rebecca Spence) to suffer an epileptic seizure, which results in a car accident. Judith wakes up in the hospital, with no recollection of what happened. The doctors change her anti-seizure medication, assuming that she has grown immune to her previous dosage, and send Judith home.
(This is around when Earthling begins to feel more like a rich existential character study ala John Cassavete’s A Woman Under the Influence or Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura rather than a sci-fi flick.)
Distracted and confused by very vivid dreams (or suppressed memories) of a young girl in a swimming pool and also of the astronaut who we now know as Sean; Judith, a respected school teacher, begins to breakdown mentally. She is slowly drifting away from the person Judith used to be, doing things that she would have never done before the accident. Her devoted husband, Stephen (Chris Doubek), becomes frustrated with Judith’s sudden inability to communicate with him. Is she emotionally scarred from her recent miscarriage (presumably from the car accident) or is Judith stressed about something?
(OK. It is my duty to warn you that from here on out there are spoilers. Many of them! Honestly, I could not figure out a way to discuss Earthling at the depth at which the story deserves to be observed without spoiling the plot.)
Judith no longer knows who she is – and I mean this literally, as even her mirror image appears foreign to her. She has developed strange bumps on her forehead and her skin peels off when she scratches it. Water mesmerizes her and Judith seems to be able to create waves in liquids merely by focusing on it.
It is not long before Judith discovers a strange group of people who appear to be following her. At first she does not recognize them; however, it turns out that they share many of the same traits as Judith – seizures, strange bumps on their foreheads, vivid dreams – yet these kindred spirits seem to have a pretty good understanding of what is going on. We soon discover that the brownout “rebooted” Judith and her rediscovered brethren, reminding them of their true identities and purpose. That spiky pod from space is somehow linked to them, as are the strange slugs, as is Sean. You guessed it – that spiky pod is their way back home.
This concept of pod people invading Earth harkens back to Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers [there were multiple remakes, as well as Shaun Cassidy’s underappreciated short-lived television series Invasion]. The difference with Earthling is that the humans never become aware of the presence of the pod people – the aliens have assimilated into society convincing even themselves that they are human. Judith and her fellow parasitic alien friends are not on Earth to cause harm or steal its precious resources; they are on Earth to experience the human condition – to experience love. Unfortunately, since this alien species cannot mate with humans their time on Earth is limited.
I truly understand why some people might be confused (and frustrated) by the slow and quiet nature of Earthling. The pacing, atmosphere and tone are reminiscent of Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris – both are films that sci-fi fans love to hate, probably because they play in stark contrast to the kinetic-pacing and overabundant special effects inherent to most sci-fi films. (There are some low-fi special effects – done in true B-movie fashion – reminding me of some of David Cronenberg’s early films such as Scanners.)
Writer-director Clay Liford does not shy away from referencing different genres of cinema (such as the aforementioned Cassavetes and Antonioni); in doing so, the resulting creation is something very unique and special. Grounded almost entirely on Earth, Earthling is purely a cerebral brand of sci-fi functioning as an intense meditation on humanity. Is a human being defined purely by biological make-up or can it be a state of mind?