In case you haven’t noticed, aliens have taken over Hollywood. The multiplex is positively infested with them. Almost every summer blockbuster seems to involve extraterrestrials—except the Pirates and Harry Potter sequels, which make do with man-eating mermaids and soul-sucking ghosts. Elsewhere, it’s all aliens, all the time. In Transformers: Dark of the Moon, monster toys from another planet morph into war machines that clear-cut Chicago. In Super 8, a King Kong-sized space creature sends freight cars flying and dismembers townsfolk. And in Green Lantern, Ryan Reynolds inherits super powers from a purple alien who crash-lands on Earth. July winds down with Cowboys and Aliens, a genre mash-up that has Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig battling space invaders in the Old West. August ushers in Rise of Planet of the Apes, an unlikely prequel starring James Franco, followed by Attack the Block, a horror comedy about a teen gang in South London fighting an alien invasion of black, hairy beasts with fangs that glow in the dark. There is an alien-free blockbuster opening next week, Captain America: The First Avenger. But even though its super-soldier hero is not from another planet, he may as well be: he doesn’t seem remotely human.
Hollywood seems stuck in extraterrestrial gridlock, a summer vacation from hell, full of flashing lights, loud noises and screaming crowds. Summer movies are supposed to be about escape, but how do you escape the cacophony of alien escapism? Fortunately, there are alternatives. Sprouting up in the shadow of the blockbusters are some superb indie gems—namely, A Better Life, The Trip, Submarine and Beginners. Instead of special effects, they harness that strange and elusive force called human emotion.
Take A Better Life, a tale of tragic misfortune that manages to be wonderfully uplifting. Though not to be confused with the 2010 Oscar winner A Better World, it too is a father-son story that explores issues of immigration, intolerance and retribution. It’s about an alien—of the human variety. Carlos (Demián Bichir) is an illegal Mexican immigrant, a single dad who works as a gardener in Los Angeles, struggling to support his teenage son. When his boss retires, Carlos borrows money to buy his truck and gives chase to the American Dream—until catastrophe strikes. At the core of the drama is the father’s rift with his son, who’s on the verge of joining a gang. Bichir is a force of nature as the stoic, salt-of-the-earth hero, and director Chris Weiz captures L.A.’s Mexican subculture with remarkable veracity—hard to believe he’s the guy who made the last Twilight movie.
Beginners offers another true-to-life tale of father-son alienation—the portrait of an artist (Ewan McGregor) grappling with the death of his gay dad (Christopher Plummer), who turned terminal cancer into a coming-out party after 45 years of marriage. Death, cancer—it doesn’t sound like fun, but this quirky, bittersweet memoir by writer-director Mike Mills hits home with a note-perfect balance of drama and comedy.
Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip is much lighter fare, but it too has that stranger-than-fiction smack of vérité. British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play themselves in a road trip touring gastro-pubs in northern England. Ignoring the stupidly elaborate cuisine (heavy on scallops), they engage in hilarious bouts of one-upmanship, volleying impressions of Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Woody Allen, and so on. With the possible exception of Bridesmaids, it’s the summer’s funniest comedy. Yet it has a lovely undertow of melancholy—from the bleak beauty of the landscape to Coogan’s desperate road-dog infidelities.
Sadness also provides ballast for Submarine, an inspired gothic comedy set in ’80s Britain about a 15-year-old boy on a mission to get laid and save his parents’ marriage. As a deadpan comedy about depression, it’s priceless. But what’s uncanny is how it finds empathy for such a grim little family—an otherworldly clan of English losers so exotic they could be from another planet. In this alien summer, a close encounter with the heart may afford the ultimate escape.