Nacho Vigalondo’s films are about ideas. The Spanish filmmaker's two recent science fiction films, Timecrimes and Extraterrestrial, suggest that the drive towards scientific discovery or self-discovery doesn't need to be motivated by personal reasons. Vigalondo also makes the best contemporary high-concept science fiction movies. Timecrimes is a time travel thriller, and Extraterrestrial, his equally worthy 2011 follow-up, is an alien invasion story. At the same time, Timecrimes's story also concerns a struggle between free will and determinism; Extraterrestrial is also a romantic comedy about two people who slowly learn to make the best of their lots in life.
Extraterrestrial is especially striking since it's not about aliens' actions once they've arrived on Earth, but rather the actions of two characters who have elected to hole up in an abandoned apartment building after a UFO arrives. Our heroes never directly make contact with the aliens; Extraterrestrial isn’t about first contact. Instead, Vigalondo’s latest shows two indecisive, amoral protagonists reacting to extraordinary circumstances.
I sat down with him this Tuesday to talk about the philosophy of time travel, Primer, Stanislaw Lem, and Red Planet Mars, among other things.
I know you’ve said before that Extraterrestrial is sort of an unconventional alien invasion film, unlike [Steven Spielberg’s] War of the Worlds, because your characters can’t see everything that’s going on. When you set out to write Extraterrestrial, what else did you set out to do?
Nacho Vigalondo (NV): I think that significance in your films comes from the movies themselves. Directors don’t always need to be aware of everything they’re doing. For example, when we talk about science fiction films from the ‘50s, we don’t know that those movies were cathartic expression—sorry for my English. When I speak about abstract ideas, it becomes complicated even in Spanish. [laughs] But those movies in the ‘50s talk about global fears about the war, about the unknown, about the others. Communists, for example.
Those films give symbolic expression to that fear. But those filmmakers were not aware of that. So I always try to let my movies talk instead of me. I think my movies have more interesting things to say than I do. So when I’m writing, I try to ignore my motives. When I started to write Extraterrestrial, my first idea was, “Ok, what if we were to tell an alien invasion story from the point-of-view of normal people instead of the heroes, people who would be occupied with everyday things?” That would describe most of us. If you have a toothache, and the end of the world comes, you still have a toothache. So you’ll be desperate for painkillers. So: “What if we talked about this big event from the point-of-view of people who are just waiting for things to happen, who are just waiting for things to be solved by someone else?”
That’s a little childish, I think. It’s a way to amuse myself when I write this sort of thing. But then, I let my movies talk about something else, which is more important. For example, in Timecrimes, what I wanted to do is prove to myself I was able to write a time travel story in which everything happened in real time, and the killer, the instigator and the victim are the same [person]. So I think of those stories as formal challenges.
But later, I found out that both movies are about guilt as well as the feelings you have when you find out you are the other. In both movies, the main guy realizes that he’s not just a good guy, that maybe he’s “the other.” So I feel it’s important, in any art, to let your body of work speak for itself. That’s a religion to me. Movies are more intelligent than their directors. I promise you that that’s the case with me.
Well, that’s also true of viewers and your films. When I was rewatching Timecrimes, I noticed new things that I missed the first go-around, like the way that the main character’s wedding ring is constantly emphasized. So at the end, when he talks to his wife’s hand, it’s sort of a re-affirmation of their relationship. Although at the same time, that gesture is, after the film’s grueling events, almost like a way for the character to silently say, “Well, I accept the fact that there’s only so much I can change in my life. Time to exhale and move on.”
NV: They’re looking up at this dark sky and don’t know what will happen next.
Right. I didn’t remember the ending of Timecrimes, so while I was rewatching it, I was debating with my roommate [Bill Best] whether or not the film was in favor of determinism or individualism. And he was insisting that it was definitely not an individualistic movie, and then I saw the ending again and I thought, “Oh yeah, it isn’t.”
NV: [laughs] This is one of those nice interviews, where you prefer listening to answering.
And in Extraterrestrial you start from the premise that everyone’s gone, so all that’s left for the main character to do is hunker down in an apartment and just move from there with a limited amount of options. So it’s not about the fact that aliens have invaded: that’s a given. The spaceship is in the sky, we can see it. What happens next isn’t even a matter of waiting for people to do something—it’s waiting for this guy to do something. By comparison, since you mentioned ‘50s science fiction movies, I have to ask: have you ever seen the movie Red Planet Mars?
NV: Hm. Sometimes the title gets changed in Spain. Red Planet Mars?
It’s a film based on a play where a radio signal is emanating from the far side of Mars, and people think it’s the voice of God.
NV: Oh, I haven’t seen it. I would remember that, definitely! [both laugh]
The idea is that the Americans and the Russians are competing to find the source of the transmission. And ultimately there’s a complicated conclusion where they find out it was a Russian plot the whole time. But wait, no, it wasn’t the Russians, it was the Americans pretending to be Russians. But then they realize, oh wait, it was God, after all. So ultimately, it’s just people figuring out that however much they think they’re in control, they’re really not.
NV: Oh, great! Who made this film?
I’m not sure…
NV: Because it really sounds like Stanislaw Lem, the guy who wrote Solaris. I’ve been reading this guy all my life, because he’s writing about conspiracies in which, after a certain point, characters have to assume they can’t know what’s going on. And I wanted to take this feeling and put it in Extraterrestrial, in a comical way. In my film, one character says, “Well, why are you here?” And the other replies, “Well, we haven’t thought of that.” That’s a metaphor for the script itself, and it’s something I wanted to play with consciously.
The latest Lem novel I’ve been reading—I’m not sure if it’s been translated into English—is called Fiasco. In it, we find evidence of extraterrestrial life in the universe, and they are expecting us to do something. We react, trying to communicate, but the nature of both civilizations is so deep that we are not able to communicate with them. We don’t understand them, and they will never understand us. It’s not because the language is different: the nature of the language is different. What if we realized that rocks were secretly alive, but we were not able to talk to them? Or we don’t get their references or the way we ordinate reality is totally different? I love when science fiction gives us the chance to look at ourselves as human beings. Instead of picturing ourselves as conquerors or limitless beings, we are just humans, and we have to face the fact that humanity has its limits. I love that, and I wanted to work on that in a different way in Extraterrestrial.
That’s interesting since there’s a rumor that you’re working on a film adaptation of a comic book written by [Kickass and Wanted co-creator] Mark Millar, called Supercrooks.
NV: Not exactly an adaptation, because we wrote the script together. In fact, the comics’ script and the screenplay were made in the same location. So at the end, I appear as a co-plotter. Our collaboration was really intense and one of my best professional experiences ever.
But while your stuff and his have cursory thematic similarities—they both ask how a “normal person” would behave under extraordinary circumstances—your characters are much more indecisive. Your characters are much more amoral than immoral.
NV: One thing I’ve noticed is that when Mark writes comic books, even when it’s just a Marvel comic like Wolverine or Fantastic Four—I have a theory. I’m not even sure he’s aware of this; it’s his nature as a writer. I’m not sure that he’s working on this in a conscious way. But every time he picks a character, he lets us intuit what the darker side of his characters are. So when we see the Fantastic Four in a Wolverine comic, the way you perceive the Fantastic Four is so dark. It’s not in a nasty way; he’s not being a punk writer to them. But you can guess—I don’t know, I’m being a bit crude now, but you can guess that there’s no sex life between Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman. That’s nothing explicitly said but it’s something you can feel based on the kind of relationship they have. He’s too into his job and she feels invisible in many ways.
To get back to your movies: what’s interesting about these two films is that, while they’re science fiction films through and through, they’re also high concept.
NV: I really like to push for a starting point that feels striking and surprising but I don’t like the idea of making a movie that is just a high concept. For example, in the case of Extraterrestrial, the starting point is a mix of two genres that are apparently incompatible[: science fiction and romantic comedy]. But that’s the way it’s going to be described from this point. So we try to work every sequence in a way that we can forget about this starting point.
As in Timecrimes, I wanted everything your intuition says will happen at the end of the movie to happen in the middle. I want to work with audiences on that level. I want to take their hand and push them into different directions they were assuming the movie would take. So for me the idea of high concept is attractive but I don’t want to feel comfortable with that concept.
Not many people are making science fiction without a big budget. Horror movies are prolific because filmmakers know that they can do that on a low budget. But making a low-budget science fiction film is—not many people are doing it.
NV: That’s because science fiction films have become related with production values. Even B-movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s, most of the time they were trying to fake production values in their trailers. So that was the thing that always—sorry, two steps back. I feel sometimes, when I’m talking in English first thing in the morning, like I’m Danny from The Shining when he’s inside the labyrinth and he has to walk backwards [laughs].
But I think if you’re a true science fiction fan, you read novels. Because there aren't so many science fiction movie masterpieces. But if you read science fiction authors like Stanislaw Lem or Philip K. Dick, you’ll realize that science fiction is based on ideas, not descriptions of planets or other civilizations, but pure ideas. In fact, I’m not really sure science fiction is a genre. That's something I love to talk about. Because most of the time, people think science fiction is a genre. But a genre is based on rules, and there are no rules in science fiction.
There are rules in the western, in the crime movie and some horror subgenres. But in science fiction, you don’t have rules. The only rule in science fiction is that you can take ideas to the edge in many ways. You can say I have made two science fiction films, but I have also made a giallo and a romantic comedy. In a common romantic comedy, if you want to lie to someone else, you have this set of lies you can play with. But if there’s a UFO on the horizon, you can say, “Maybe this guy’s an alien?” It’s like giving new truths or new artifacts to a character in a Billy Wilder comedy.
I was recently thinking about the western and how it goes from the classical period to the spaghetti western to the acid western. And the further you go, the more the genre’s rules and tropes become decontextualized. Do you think that in science fiction, contemporary filmmakers just don’t know how to push and break down those ideas? Put another way: have you seen any contemporary science fiction films whose ideas have really impressed you?
NV: Yeah, but I’m not going to surprise you. I think the titles I’m going to give you are the titles you already know.
Go for it.
NV: For example, when I was writing Timecrimes, Primer had just come out. And I was horrified because the shape of the movie was close to mine. But then I saw it, and I saw that it was totally different. But I love the fact that in that movie, there’s no melodramatic implication to the fact that they’re going back in time. There’s no human impulse rather than the excitement of the scientific experiment itself. So you’re not going back in time to save the world, and you’re not going back in time to save the girl: you’re just scientific. I really liked the idea of applying that scientific impulse to the film. I like this film and I even really like an older film like Silent Running.
Oh, I love Silent Running!
NV: What’s amazing about that film is that it runs on ideals. In most movies, filmmakers tend to be universal through the intimate human experience. So it’s easier to tell a story where you’re going to protect your wife than wanting to protect a forest. It’s an unusual film in that the main character is pushed by pure ideals.
What comes next for you? Is Supercrooks filming…?
NV: At this moment, my next film is going to be called Windows. It’s a movie I’ve been developing for a couple of years. In fact, Windows is going to be like Timecrimes in so many ways that I decided to make Extraterrestrial first to prove to myself I can push a different button. Because those two movies—Windows and Timecrimes—are like narrative labyrinths in which, on every page of the script, you find another little twist. The nature of what we’re telling is changing all the time. It’s really plot-driven. I wanted to make something that was totally the opposite of me, so I made Extraterrestrial. I was trying to fight against myself.
And Windows is going to shoot this October, if everything goes well. I wish the casting were finished, so I could tell you about that, but we’re doing the negotiations right now. It’s going to be a really special thriller again in the Hitchcockian tradition. But this time, I really had Brian De Palma on my mind. I don’t want to make explicit references in my films because I want those references to be felt, not told. So if I had in my Vertigo and Psycho all the time while making Timecrimes, the movie I had in front of me for Windows is Blow Out.
Oh my God.
NV: So it’s a movie with an erotic element, and a chase element and the tricks with perception of the characters—it’s really in front of you all the time.
When you said “De Palma,” I was hoping you’d say, “Body Double.” But still.
NV: But you know, Body Double is too Timecrimes for me. I saw Body Double when I was making Timecrimes, and I thought, “This is the movie I’m making now: one guy falls into a trip, there’s an erotic impulse that is manipulated, and this guy has to move from his house to another place, but it’s a trap. Timecrimes is the same kind of film, except that the bad guy is also the good guy. But it’s the same kind of trick. It’s the same bait in both films.”
There will also be a lot of technical tricks in Windows that are going to make it really special. It’s not a found footage film but . . .
Oh, thank God.
NV: But I’m going to play a different game. I’m not going to fake a camera . . .
Oh, thank God.
NV: But I love found footage! Some of it’s good. I was so amazed when I saw Chronicle recently. When you see people flying in that, it’s like you’re seeing people flying on film for the first time. So I find it weird. People tend to criticize the movies, not the tool. And I think found footage is just a tool. This is not a found footage film. But I’d love to use found footage someday.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.