Fascinating tale of ‘Alien Hunter’ fails to hit mark

November 9, 2012

Nearly everyone is taught not to judge a book by its cover, but it’s not always a lesson that sticks.

Take the case of Alien Hunter, an obscure (at least to me) 2003 science fiction outing featuring James Spader. It is not a book, of course, but a movie; the point is, I found it hard to resist forming conclusions based on the picture’s lurid green and yellow poster. Everything about the artwork and type (“Earth just got its final warning!”) screams B movie.

Spader’s appearance in the infamous 2000 sci-fi flop Supernova certainly did nothing to discredit my assumptions about Alien Hunter.

But while watching Alien Hunter just the other night, I found that my conclusions didn’t quite pan out.

The beginning is certainly not promising. There’s a brief opening set in New Mexico circa 1947, in which something mysterious and other-worldly appears to occur. We then switch briefly to Antarctica, where a mysterious signal has been intercepted, before popping into the 2003 classroom of University of California at Berkeley lecturer Julian Rome (Spader).

An expert in communications and decryption, and an infamous Lothario, Rome used to be an “alien hunter” with the discontinued SETI project. (The acronym, many readers will know, stands for search for extraterrestrial intelligence.) A colleague asks him to examine data on the signal; soon, Rome is flying to an isolated Antarctic base.

The outpost’s small crew is holding a block of ice containing the source of the signal in its maintenance bay. The ice is melting rapidly, but that’s not the only thing cooking at the small scientific base. It turns out that Rome’s former lover, Kate Brecher, is one of a trio of scientists conducting potentially ground-breaking agricultural experiments there. The sexual tension between Rome and Brecher as well as Rome and a technician named Nyla Olson is soon dialed up to maximum.

Rome is still analyzing the signal when the melting ice reveals an unusual pod. Goaded mainly by a hot-tempered Irish scientist, Michael Straub, the crew decides to cut the object open. It is a decision they come to regret…

So far, this is pretty basic fare, borrowing liberally from  The ThingAlien and The X-Files, among other genre standards. But once the pod opens, screenwriters J.S. Cardone and Boaz Davidson steer the story in directions both unexpected and clever.

Unfortunately, Alien Hunter really is a B movie, and its execution isn’t as striking as its ideas. The cast is decent, for the most part, but Spader is only occasionally fully engaged with the material. (He seems to be rolling his eyes in one climactic scene.)

The special effects range from passable to subpar, although I watched the film on a streaming website, which hardly provides optimal video quality.

But the movie’s biggest flaw is its biggest strength: The script. As interesting as the story becomes, it barely bothers to develop any characters but Rome, and much of the dialogue is clunky.

Confronted with bad news, one person snarls “Well, that’s just great.” As a deadline approaches, the same character shouts “We’re running out of time!” Another actor has the unenviable task of yelling “Look at the corn!” to a companion.

Science fiction aficionados may find some things to enjoy here, and viewers with eclectic taste may feel this picture is a satisfactory distraction for its 92-minute running length. The general public, however, can rest easy about not targeting Alien Hunter.

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