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Extraterrestrial: Sex, lies and science-fiction

"Extraterrestrial" (90 minutes) premieres simultaneously on June 15th on DVD and all major on-demand platforms. It also opens June 15th in limited theatrical release.

If you've seen the 2007 thriller "Timecrimes," you already know that Spanish writer-director Nacho Vigalondo has a noteworthy knack for developing big ideas (in this case, time travel) on an intimate scale. "Timecrimes" marked a promising debut, with Vigalondo in full command of limited resources: With only three central characters and a tightly restricted location, he executed a cleverly conceived plot with stylish economy and Hitchcockian flair.

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With his second film, "Extraterrestrial, " Vigalondo presents another, more intricate exercise in thwarting expectations. Imagine the bloated-budget excess of a blockbuster like "Independence Day," with dozens, maybe even hundreds of gigantic alien spaceships hovering ominously over Earth's major cities. Now take the same alien invasion scenario, eliminate 99% of the special effects and spectacle, and shift its focus to four lovelorn apartment dwellers in an abandoned city (in this case Madrid) as they proceed to confuse each other with a comedic succession of lies.

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Now you've got "Extraterrestrial," in which the only E. T. is... well, I'm not going to spoil it for you, but here's a clue: Think of Vigalondo as the anti-Roland Emmerich. He has no apparent interest in epic battles requiring Will Smith to save the world against slimy, monstrous aliens. Instead, Vigalondo attempts an audacious bait-and-switch, keeping his "epic" sci-fi entirely in the background while focusing on what is, essentially, a farcical rom-com about three guys in love with the same woman. It's a daring attempt at genre-bending that doesn't always pay off, but it's a refreshing alternative to uninspired, play-it-safe blockbusters.

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The woman is the young and lovely Julia (Michelle Jenner), who has just shared her bed with Julio (Julián Villagrán) after a mutually pleasurable one-night stand. They partied hard the night before: They can't remember each others' names or how they met, and they're about to get a wake-up surprise: Madrid has been evacuated overnight, and now there's a massive, four-mile-wide alien spaceship hovering over the city.

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It seems like we might be veering into "Cloverfield" territory, but when Julia's boyfriend Carlos arrives with details about the apparent "invasion," Vigalondo's straight-faced burlesque begins: Julia has to lie about the night before, taking advantage of Carlos's too-trusting nature; Carlos eventually lies to save face with Julia; Julio repeatedly lies to both of them to keep a major secret of his own; and Julia's nerdy, secretly smitten neighbor Angel (Carlos Areces) is a chronic eavesdropper who jealously threatens to blow everyone's cover.

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All of this suggests the structure of a door-slamming farce, with four characters running circles around one another while protecting their own hidden agendas. Yet again, Vigalondo steers clear of the obvious, but the result is a film with an identity crisis, which might explain its mixed reception at last year's Toronto Film Festival: "Extraterrestrial" is being promoted as "a hilarious science fiction comedy," but the comedy is so bone-dry that it barely earns a chuckle or two, and the science fiction, as already noted, is almost non-existent. That places "Extraterrestrial" in a kind of cross-genre no-man's land, neither funny enough to be a praiseworthy farce nor dazzling enough to satisfy the Comic-Con crowd, who have to wait for the film's final image to see a single, modestly special effect.

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This kind of generic mash-up poses a challenge for marketing: How do you create a tag-line and a movie poster that accurately promotes a movie that can't be handily pigeon-holed? How do you simultaneously appeal to two distinctly different audiences, namely those who favor sci-fi spectacle and fans of rom-com chick-flicks?

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The movie doesn't pull that off, but Vigalondo deserves credit for straddling genres with well-drawn characters and a smart, well-chosen cast. Jenner and Villagrán are especially appealing in their quiet scenes together, establishing an easy, good-natured chemistry that's easy on the eyes and ears. Each character benefits from sensible arcs that give them admirable dimension, partially compensating for the alien-invasion questions that Vigalondo steadfastly refuses to answer. Like a magician, Vigalondo knows the value of misdirection, and those who enjoyed "Timecrimes" will continue to appreciate his penchant for keeping a few tantalizing tricks up his sleeve.

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"R-rated" trailer:

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