“First Contact” fails to deliver any elevated thrills, but it may just quality as a guilty pleasure for fans of mindless popcorn flicks.
Writer/director Bruce Wemple’s 2023 sci-fi horror effort, the unfortunately named First Contact (Star Trek wants their subtitle back), begins with the pensive ramblings of a seasoned scientist who we are led to believe is working on something dangerous that would “turn him to dark matter or dust” if he isn’t careful.
But whatever experiment it is that he’s doodling about in his journal a few feet from an ominously tarp-covered mystery contraption complete with a digital countdown timer is overshadowed by cut scenes of the man fruitlessly searching for his missing dog a la “Pippet” from Jaws. Hey, it is a creature feature, after all.
The viewer is expected to assume the worst about the dog’s whereabouts with creepy music cues and the subsequent power outage cliche.
Makes perfect sense to follow that up with some poking around outside with a flashlight to peer off into the darkness as Doc calls out for his undoubtedly hors d’oeuvred pet — time for an impromptu thunderstorm.
Back into the barn to escape the rain with him then, and… cue the monster.
The director probably had multiple conversations with people about how wise it was not to show the monster too soon, thereby justifying the jarring, split-second shots of its nastified hide as the unfortunate scientist desperately struggles to reach his contraption. Realistically though, it was probably more a budgetary decision than anything, a recurring theme throughout the picture.
Grimacing Doc McPensive, now in the clutches of the gutturally growling predator, uses his last few seconds alive to put two wires together and… blows up himself, the barn, and presumably the foul beastie in the process. Roll credits.
Well, not quite.
The jury’s still out on whether quick flashes of monster bits count as showing the monster, but it’s probably not a good sign that the scene reminded me of Jaws: The Revenge. It must have been fun to blow up a barn in an effect that looked like a reverse Independence Day doomsday weapon for the opening sequence, though.
This onslaught of familiar tropes is then supplanted by a Dawn-of-the-Dead-remake-inspired “we’re up Shit Creek without a paddle on a global scale” mish-mash of news reports and random vloggers during the opening credits concerning unidentified objects that are headed towards Earth.
The only things missing are zombies and Johnny Cash.
As the film proper begins, we see that one of these reports is playing in the living room of the childhood home of the man from the pre-credits scene, now identified as Dr. Ian Braddach (Paul Kandarian), where we join his adult children who have learned that he is missing.
A newspaper (do they still make those?) picked up by Bradach’s son Dan (James Liddell) features a headline about the President preparing defenses in case the UFOs turn out to be hostile and also reports that the search for their father has been called off.
There’s some decent acting and human connection as the siblings discuss their real-life woes and provide a little exposition. Apparently, they followed in their father’s footsteps and pursued careers in science, albeit on opposite ends of the war and peace spectrum.
Now between jobs, the siblings are both worried about Dad’s disappearance, which has brought them back together after several years of a strained relationship, albeit under dire circumstances.
Soon, daughter Casey (Anna Shields) finds a journal like the one her Pops was scribbling in during the intro, and… it’s time for a transition.
Too bad the scene we transition to is brief and clunky (also a recurring theme throughout).
We are treated to a young couple (alluring Caitlyn Duffy and scenery-chewing marvel Chris Cimperman of the perpetual five o’clock shadow persuasion) on a date in their car, mysterious lights from the sky that “crash land” on the road ahead, monster noises, and what appears to be a possession.
Cut back to the siblings for a little melodrama, then back to the couple the day after their UFO encounter, and the Boyfriend is faring none too well.
This thing is all over the place.
But hey, at least there’s a shower scene (even if you can see Ms. Duffy’s panty line through the shower door).
It’s clear from the superfluous monster noises while Boyfriend waxes agonized, in a performance that would make William Shatner proud, that he’s been possessed by a hostile alien. We follow him back to the bar he’d taken his Girlfriend to the night before, where he bumps into Dan, mentioning the name “Bradach” under his breath in a bit of alien possession mumbling. He then returns home to be tormented by visions of multiple monstrous versions of himself, demanding to know where Bradach is.
Dan’s curiosity is sufficiently piqued at the mention of his father’s name, but it’s a lead that never goes anywhere.
Meanwhile, Casey has struck pay dirt in her search of the old man’s premises; she’s found what he was working on, including his research notes and another machine like the one we saw him tinkering with at the beginning.
She quickly informs her brother of her suspicions that it’s all tied together somehow — Dad’s disappearance, the machine, and even the UFO reports — but he seems much more interested in continuing his search for their father, so they remain split up… because Movie.
Back at the Boyfriend’s house, his roommate Jason (Zachary Seekins) returns to find the Boyfriend chilling on the couch, looking all zombified. We get a little jump scare before Boyfriend starts monologuing in a scene reminiscent of Eric Stoltz’s turn as Martin Brundle in The Fly II before something happens that makes me forgive everything else that has occurred up to this point: Alien Boyfriend goes full Scanners on his roommate.
I don’t care how many classic teats this movie is milking, a well-done exploding head makes up for a hundred cinema sins. Bravo.
The rhythm is choppy as hell as we bounce back and forth between the forward plot momentum and the body horror of Alien Boyfriend.
The Boyfriend is slowly transforming into whatever possessed him and has now convinced the Girlfriend to go look for Dr. Bradach.
She agrees, on account of his looking kind of zombie-ish and his insisting that’s who can help him.
She doesn’t even ask about his missing roommate, who turns out to be merely a disposable character whose sole purpose is to have his head explode. Hey, I’m not complaining; do whatever you gotta do.
There’s only so much silliness one exploding head can redeem, though.
We are now treated to another half-assed possession, this time of Dan. These events are all peppered with cut scenes of recordings of Dr. Bradach that are very much like Professor Knowby from Evil Dead II relenting over having screwed around with demons, except in this case, it’s aliens (probably). He even uses the same term, “something evil,” to describe the terror he fears he’s unleashed.
I do have to admit that a well-placed pair of evil eyes works every time for willies induction, and there’s a scene during which such peepers are used to nearly as horrifying an effect as The Amityville Horror’s pig demon eyes in the window, so it’s hard to be too mad at the movie for being so sloppy.
Scares is scares, says I.
Some more choppy scene jumping lands us in a bar where the good doctor’s daughter meets up with a British guy who supposedly worked with her father. The guy has his accent and mannerisms turned up to 11, which is almost as jarring as the cut away to yet another scene (do they give Razzies for editing?), where we meet a door-to-door evangelist (Michael L. Parker) who shows up at Alien Boyfriend’s house for a bit of dark humor.
This quick back and forth between Bradach’s daughter getting talky with Captain Britain and the impending doom of a poor guy who just wants to introduce the alien to his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is misguided.
You can do quick cuts like this if what’s going on in the opposite scene has some bearing on the other, but these two scenes benefitted not at all from being chopped up and shuffled together instead of being allowed to play out naturally as full scenes unto themselves; their connection was tenuous at best and tonally dissonant.
Ah, but now Alien Boyfriend has gone full monster.
That’s unfortunate for the poor evangelist who amusingly clings to his bible as “the end draws near” (pun fully intended and about as effective here as it is in the movie).
Back to the siblings.
Dan pukes out some Essence of Good Alien in his sleep after having carved a few alien symbols around the house. There’s more fun with mysterious lights and possession, and it seems Good Alien is now possessing Casey on an interstellar mission to provide additional plot exposition.
At the same time, we see Alien Boyfriend’s girlfriend return to the house where he is hiding in the basement. In what turns out to be quite a mean-spirited scene, he quickly dispatches of her and a friend (Grant Schumacher) who she brought along for protection after she tells Alien Boyfriend she’s discovered Bradach’s last known address.
The kills aren’t as effective as the exploding head but are still some welcome violence in an otherwise bloodless, and largely creatureless, creature feature.
Girlfriend’s friend, like Boyfriend’s roommate, exists solely to die horribly.
What’s most troubling about this scene is that Caitlyn Duffy is such a good dramatic actress that her death almost takes you out of the movie with how much better it’s portrayed than everything leading up to it.
As we enter the final act, we come full circle to Casey tinkering around in the darkness and rain with the machine her father invented, which she’s learned created a portal an ancient evil alien used to enter our world. And what should come a ‘calling but the creature itself, now fully evolved from Alien Boyfriend into Alien Monster!
The creature FX, mostly Brundlefly latex, really isn’t too bad, but it’s easy to understand why they aren’t on full display till near the end.
The monster suit and makeup definitely would have taken top honors on any given episode of Face Off, thanks to Jared Balog’s undeniable talent, but it was nevertheless clearly fashioned on a budget.
In the final showdown, it’s a race against time (yes, they actually use the device countdown cliché) to summon the good aliens to defend Earth while Alien Monster tries to kill Dan, first with a boring monologue, then with a spike-fisted thrust to the torso. If only the critter had finished the job…
A few badly clichéd one-liners later, and it’s Dan who ends up slaying the beastie.
But now Casey has to sacrifice herself to save the human race inexplicably (I half expected Aerosmith to start playing), of course, at the last possible second.
There’s some cheesy afterlife stuff, then Dan wakes up the next day to hear the title of the movie being said during a news broadcast. I blanched.
This movie sucked. But it sucked in a fun, engaging, filled-with-plenty-of-heart way.
Wemple took what was likely a relatively small budget and found creative ways to get around the subsequent limitations and tell the story he wanted to, even if that story was a Frankenstein of others that have been told before and better.
There are several universal themes briefly explored throughout.
For example, when Alien Boyfriend kills Girlfriend, she puts her hand on his face in what wanted to be a heartbreaking moment. From time to time, Dan and Casey’s estrangement turns into a warm tale of siblings relying on each other during a crisis and how the petty things we think are so important tend to fade when the shit hits the fan.
But it’s not enough to save the movie from itself.
The worst thing about the whole movie for me, though, is the use of the Token Black Friend trope. While I usually applaud diversity in films, especially horror, there are literally only a couple of brief scenes featuring a person of color (LeJon Woods), and they almost seem like an afterthought. Woods does what is asked of him in the script, but unfortunately, what’s being asked is that he portray a one-dimensional “silly friend” character who may as well be saying, “Shit, son!” for all the quality of the dialog he’s stuck with.
While the character does end up playing an integral role in saving the day, it feels insincere and unearned.
This is the kind of “bad” movie you may find yourself feeling a little guilty about having wasted an hour and a half watching, that is, till you consider the aforementioned (probably unintentional) nods to Scanners and The Fly, some solid performances (particularly from Shields and Liddell, as well as Caitlyn Duffy and Michael L. Parker), and some decent cinematography that is, sadly, wasted in many spots due to the overuse of cut scenes.
The overall art direction is effective and even captivating at times, as is the score.
Also, I can’t help but mention that Casey tells her brother that the family dog’s remains were indeed found in the woods, which I felt was a little mean, but at least it wasn’t possessed by an alien. I seriously almost expected to have the camera pan in on the dog at the end and see her eyes glowing…BWAHAHA. Instead, the ending was, I’ll admit, kinda cool. I love interesting cliffhangers, even those tacked onto the ends of clunky-yet-fun movies.
I say give Bruce Wemple a damn budget.
Rent it if you’re looking for a mindless distraction; buy it if you’re an alien creature feature enthusiast. Either way, it should help you digest your popcorn.