DIR/WRI: Alan Brennan PRO: Heidi Madsen, Jacqueline Kerrin, Dominic Wright ED: Barry Moen DOP: P.J. Dillon Cast: Rafe Spall, Jenn Murray, David Morrissey, Carrie Crowley
It’s not unusual for a film to feature a central character who is alienated. We’ve seen variations on the loner and the outsider countless times but this amiable Irish film’s hero has good reason to feel displaced. Mainly because he believes that he actually is an alien.
Joe Norman (Rafe Spall) lives a seemingly normal if rather sheltered life in Dublin enlivened only by his rapt interest in science fiction. However, Joe’s obsession with the genre stems from his certainty that certain elements of sci-fi are based on fact and not fiction. Turns out that Joe’s father divulged a seismic family secret on his deathbed. Namely that despite having the appearance of a human, that Joe is actually an outcast alien from a distant planet Zalaxon. His father contends that they are hiding on Earth from intergalactic bounty hunters intent on snuffing Joe out.
This kind of earth shattering news accompanied by profound grief makes a lasting impact on Joe. As the primary action of the film begins twenty years later, Joe is still following the prime and last directive he received from his father – to hide himself away and limit interaction with the humans. Naturally this has guaranteed a lonely existence. However, after decades without any close calls or alien activity of any kind, doubt and a drop in vigilance begins to invade Joe’s life. He remains in contact with his father via a hologram of stored parental advice but his guardian’s pleas for incessant unwavering caution begin to fall on deaf ears.
Something in Joe is stirred by a meeting with a nubile human Maria (Jenn Murray). A sweet and tender courting follows until Joe reaches a defining moment when he must confess his true origins. Suffice to say – Maria does not take the news well. Soon Joe is dismissed as mad and appears on the cusp of being committed to an institution. Only in his darkest hour does the full truth finally emerge. Joe’s universe is going to be blown apart and maybe ours along with it.
Earthbound skilfully weaves in a story thread of depression and mental illness throughout that keeps uncertainty alive for the audience. Was Joe’s father just mad in the head? Has his son just inherited the same delusions? Is it all just a cruel lifelong folly that Joe has been burdened with? While never didactic, the film can’t help but reflect on that fine line between imagination and insanity. Anyone in a creative field can associate with hearing voices. The film could have settled for merely being a poignant exploration of deep grief. Ambitiously though, deep space is also served up in the same portion of quietly impressive entertainment.
Brennan is served by a stellar cast with Spall exuding a goofiness that doesn’t grate while also possessing enough inner steel to convince when the going gets tough. Speaking of which, Jenn Murray actually has the tougher role of the two. Striving and succeeding in keeping Maria endearing in the face of a betrayal that while believable could have hurt her standing in the audience’s eyes. Elsewhere, there’s a terrific vampy turn from Carrie Crowley which threatens to steal the show even from Ned Dennehy’s icy headhunter. While the ubiquitous David Morrissey brings vital gravitas and authority to his brief role.
It’s great to see Dublin locations being exploited so cleverly. Many buildings, backdrops and settings in the capital have strong sci-fi connotations if you look long and deep enough. And Brennan clearly has. Fans and especially non-fans of a relatively new modern Dublin landmark will surely get a buzz from seeing it launched into space. Brennan’s film is filled with wistful thinking, wit and even a little sprinkling of wonder. Rare enough qualities in films worldwide. Virtually extinct in homegrown ones. Until now.
12A (see IFCO website for details)
Earthbound is released on 15th March 2013