Thursday, August 19, 2021

Fantasia Fest 2021 Review: ALIEN ON STAGE

 by Patrick Bromley

In Dorset, no one can hear you scream.
There's a great documentary to be made from the story of a group of working class bus drivers who band together to produce the first-ever live stage production of Ridley Scott's Alien. I'm not sure Alien On Stage is it.
The film documents the production from rehearsals through the big night, with special attention paid to the creation of the sets, props, and special effects, all brought to life with tremendous imagination, ingenuity, and a lot of luck. They're all amateur performers, staging an amateur production of a seemingly impossible to mount stage show, giving Alien On Stage an underdog appeal: we want them to succeed because they seem nice and because what they're attempting is so ambitious. As film lovers (and as Alien fans), there's part of us that also wants them to succeed because we want to see what an amateur production of Ridley Scott's sci-fi masterpiece would look like if realized on stage. It's a little like the "sweded" movie adaptations from Michel Gondry's Be Kind, Rewind; the budget and resources may be limited, but there is the spark of creativity and a love for the project that cannot be faked.

At least, I think these things are present in Alien On Stage. At times, it's the charming documentary I'm describing. At others, it feels cobbled together from available footage, much of which seems to have been taken as the cast gets ready on the day of the production; everything prior to that feels rushed, and then too much time is spent showing them unload sets from trucks and standing around in dressing rooms without much of a story being told. This is a case of me reacting to the movie I wish I was seeing both for better and for worse, charmed by the film I wish it was and frustrated by the film that it isn't. We don't really get to know the participants, nor what this material and opportunity means to them. Good documentaries tell a larger human story inside the story being told, but Alien On Stage is all surfaces, never digging for deeper understanding or resonance. Mounting a stage production of Alien winds up being an achievement, but there's little else on display here.
Roughly the last third of the movie is devoted to footage of the production itself, and it's pretty surreal. On the one hand, it's great to see how all the various set pieces are staged and gags like the discovery of the facehugger or the subsequent chestburster sequence are pulled off. On the other hand, it's a little strange to hear the audience in attendance treat every line reading and every dramatic beat as though it's the funniest thing they've ever heard. Yes, Alien On Stage is a celebration of the creative spirit and of the communal aspect of putting on a show, and it's great to see how warmly the audience receives the finished product. But treating Alien as a comedy reduces their efforts to kitsch, and I don't think that's what was intended. It's a strange beat on which to end a movie that never really decides what it is or what story it's telling, if any.

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