Palm Pictures Home Video
Starring David Ghilardi, Deborah King, Brian Stack,
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Review by Alexandra DuPont
I. Pity, awe, The Onion and Spaceman
After watching the Spaceman DVD, I found myself regarding director Scott Dikkers with a strange mixture of pity and awe.
I'm in awe because, first and foremost, Dikkers is one of the two founders of The Onion producer of the ginchiest current-events satire on the planet. I'm also in awe because Dikkers while in the midst of a major redesign of The Onion and working 80-hour weeks, if the disc's director commentary is to be believed got it into his head that he wanted to make a movie, then followed through at great personal cost. He took out some credit cards; scrounged up some investors; cast his friends, assorted Onion staffers and some Second City theatre actors; and made a $50,000 flick that is most definitely not, as he puts it in the DVD's liner notes, "[a movie] about twentysomethings ... in apartments or coffee shops." Instead, he very consciously set out to make the sort of cheesy adventure film one makes with one's friends using a camcorder in high school a corny-as-hell epic featuring aliens, Mafia thugs, martial arts, deadpan humor, evil FBI agents, and utterly inane, low-budget fight scenes.
So whence the pity, you ask? Well, that "great personal cost" bit in the above paragraph is no joke. As Dikkers puts it in his liner notes, "In reality, the process tore my life apart, destroying my marriage, bankrupting me and driving me insane. But you can hear about all that on the commentary track." A dutiful listen to said commentary reveals that this is no satirical, Onion-esque wisecrack: Dikkers is almost self-loathing as he talks about making Spaceman, viciously pouncing on its flaws (more on that later) and laying bare the horrible compromises that result when one tries to "pull a Rodriguez" and create art without adequate resources.
Also sad is the fact that, thanks to that lack of resources, Spaceman's a real mixed bag almost a cult classic, but really just a cheesy adventure film one makes with one's friends using a camcorder in high school, only writ large, with all the flaws that implies. Certainly there are several genuine flashes of Onion-esque brilliance in the writing, moments that definitely make this platter worth a spin. The music score (by Dikkers' mother's boyfriend, Edward Pearsall) and the acting are far better than they've any right to be. Best of all, the director commentary is a morbidly funny, "Scared Straight"-esque document one that should be required listening for anyone who's considered leveraging their lives to make a low-budget movie. It's almost worth buying the disc to hear it.
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II. The story
One night in 1971, little Eugene Hendrickson is abducted by aliens (or, more accurately, by a "spaceship" that's actually a red stage light moving in front of a hole-punched black backdrop). Flash-forward 25 years: The little boy (now grown up into laser-gazed actor David Ghilardi) is bereft of an emotional life, clad in an absurd "spaceman" uniform and cap (designed by Dikkers' brother) and trained in interstellar "ceremonial combat."
Oh, and he's working at the local Sentry supermarket in Chicago.
How he got there unfolds over a series of snack-food-triggered flashbacks I won't spoil here; suffice to say, by film's end Spaceman has unleashed his ceremonial-combat skills on homophobic bullies, FBI agents, Mafia thugs operating out of a barber shop, and a martial-arts master even as he searches for his mother with the considerable help of the fetching young woman (Deborah King) who lives in the adjoining apartment.
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III. A few of the more Onion-esque bits of absurd dialogue in Spaceman
[addressing several small children on a playground basketball court]:
My boots have been damaged in an accident! I am cut off from my supplies! Your footwear appears to be excellent!
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Okay, well, we don't have much need for a ceremonial combatant at this time, but we'll keep your resume on file should something come up.
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FBI FIELD AGENT No. 1
To hell with this! Let's kick his space-ass!
FBI FIELD AGENT No. 2
No. Screws up the autopsy.
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[talking on the grocery-store intercom to his manager about a belligerent shoplifter]
Mr. Averson, I have received an honorable challenge. I need your direct orders to engage my opponent. [Pause.] I'm at Register 7.
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IV. So, what? Is Spaceman a good movie?
Well, it's almost good with flashes of goony brilliance that leave you wondering what a well-rested Dikkers could accomplish with a real budget (or if he'd shot it in the less-expensive DV format, which probably would have allowed him more creative leeway).
To be sure, there are several lovely bits certain one-liners; the snack-food-triggering of flashbacks; a rooftop pipe-fight that crackles with enthusiasm; the fact that the film's hero aspires to be a hitman for the simple reason that it's the best use of his job skills. Were the film more densely packed with these moments and not quite so deadpan, I'd consider it a marvelous candidate for cult-film status. But as it stands (and I actually hate to write this, given Dikkers' considerable courage and his unflaggingly brilliant work on The Onion), Spaceman is undermined by a few too many pedestrian two-shots, poorly choreographed fights and a plot frame that is, at its heart, a slightly more subversive version of the old adolescent action fantasy wherein one guy beats the tar out of a bunch of other guys to get the girl.
Putting it another way: If it had been a little better or a little more inept, Spaceman might be a cult classic. Does that make sense?
I want to make it clear that I mostly blame these shortcomings on a lack of money and what seems, from the commentary, to have been the director's general exhaustion and emotional extremis during the shoot. On a technical level, Dikkers certainly maximized his money: Pretty much the entire film is looped with shocking proficiency, and I can't say enough good things about Pearsall's orchestral (!) score, which is grim and touching and lends a surprising resonance to a shot of, say, Spaceman standing on a rooftop with a tiny radio transceiver magnetized to his head, trying in vain to "phone home."
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V. About that director commentary
If I watch Spaceman again, it will probably be with the commentary track switched on. It's essential stuff well-thought-out and funny and absolutely merciless in detailing every difficulty encountered by the production. We learn that a grocery store can be a surprisingly hostile filming environment. We learn that homeless people cast as Mafia-don barbers can be really touchy to work with. We learn that Dikkers was pretty much a walking corpse during the production, owing to (a) extended periods of sleeplessness and (b) the fact that his wife kicked his ass to the curb during the shoot leaving him in a mental state that had him leaping between the rooftops of three-story buildings with suicidal glee at one point. And we learn, as the credits roll, that the commentary track itself was beset by difficulties, leaving Dikkers a cackling mess as the film ends, which is actually kind of unnerving and apt.
Listening to the commentary, one comes to the conclusion that a less-obsessed fellow (one lacking the sort of drive it takes to launch, say, a national satirical newspaper) would never have finished Spaceman. For this, I salute Dikkers, and I'm a little afraid of him.
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VI. Three quotes from said director commentary that are all just terribly sad and true
- "This scene is a really good example of how lack of money directly affects the quality of the filmmaking. It's a rare thing in the arts, I think, where money has that direct an impact. When you don't have the budget, you just can't afford the time or extra number of cameras to do more than a certain number of setups a day. For this sequence, I envisioned much faster cutting, a fancier action sequence and we had no fight coordinator and we were just making this stuff up, and they're trying it, seeing if it works. I'd ask Eric, 'Well, can't you just flip backwards and land on the concrete? What's the problem?'... But it really is hard to watch this knowing what we might have had, you know, if we had another half-day to shoot, or money, a fight coordinator anything like that that a modestly budgeted movie might enjoy."
- "One word about the print of this movie. This is what you call a 'one-light transfer.' It was done at the lab. We couldn't afford the roughly $40,000 it would take to go back and conform the negative and color-time every shot which is why much of the blacks like here look really ugly and foolish. It's really tragic because [cinematographer] Chris [Chan Lee] did a beautiful job shooting this movie. It was so much better-looking than I thought it would be; he came up with color schemes.... It's really unfortunate that we didn't have the money to make it look as good as he shot it."
- "It's pretty humbling to make a movie and to realize, a couple of days into it, that you're a terrible director."
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VII. And the other extras?
(1) There's 5:48 worth of deleted scenes five scenes in all, presented as one continuous chapter-searchable track which all seem to have been cut because of either bad framing or because the actors have their heads turned away from the camera as they speak. Still, this is worthwhile for the chance to hear the raw, unlooped soundtrack, recorded without benefit of boom mike and sounding not unlike a barker mumbling in an empty convention-center ballroom.
(2) The theatrical trailer, it must be said, is quite funny, plucking the film's funniest and/or most action-packed moments and inserting them into a '50s-style B-movie trailer complete with ejaculations like "Witness!" and "Marvel!" wiping across the screen. (For those who care, Ain't It Cool News overlord Harry Knowles is quoted herein as saying, "I loved Spaceman!")
(3) There's a "Ceremonial Combat" trivia game that asks such questions as how many ribs Spaceman broke when fighting the homophobic bullies. You will play this extra exactly once.
(4) Also, we find 3:10 worth of previews for Six-String Samurai, the Japanimation outfit Manga Entertainment, the documentary Dark Days and a rave music-video DVD titled Sound & Motion Vol. 1.
(5) Plus there are "Weblinks" to www.spacemanmovie.com (which may not be live at press time), www.palmpictures.com, www.sputnik7.com and www.manga.com, teased as follows: "If you have a DVD-ROM drive and an Internet connection, you can access these websites directly by opening the weblink.html file on this DVD in your WWW browser." Or you could just click on the hotlinks above, right now, saving you all the suspense.
(5) And finally, inexplicably you can listen to this film in either stereo or Dolby Digital 5.1. This may have something to do with the fact that Spaceman will be appearing on the Sci-Fi Channel this summer. Check it out. It's a very strange artifact.
Yr. hmbl. & abid. svt.,
- Letterbox widescreen (1.85:1)
- Single-sided, single-layered disc (SS-SL)
- Two English tracks: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby 2.0 Stereo
- Commentary with writer/director Scott Dikkers
- Five deleted scenes
- "Ceremonial Combat" trivia game
- Theatrical trailer
- Additional previews
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