Movie Review: Indie Sci-Fi Thriller ‘Alien Code’ Talky but Engaging
In the opening scene of the new indie thriller Alien Code, Kyle Gallner’s Alex walks into his suburban home to find an unsettling sight: a dead body on his living room floor.
But Alex is even more disturbed when he flips over the body to find… (queue Twilight Zone music)... yes, himself dead on the floor in front of him. He’s holding a note that says ‘watch me’ and an envelope with a flash drive containing a recorded message.
That startling sequence, which unfolds over Alien Code’s opening credits, immediately hooks us in and creates a lot of good will: piecing together exactly what is going on here accounts for most of the interest in the early scenes of Alien Code.
In the video on the USB, a gaunt-looking Alex who claims to be from the future is sending the past version of himself a message. He narrates the film we are about to watch, which begins with a knock at the door and a surprising job offer.
It’s from the mysterious Rebecca (Mary McCormack), who claims to be working with a NSA-supported organization called ARIST and arrives at Alex’s door with a pair of MiB heavies. She needs the help of Alex - an expert cryptographer down on his luck - to work on a project she can’t give any details about until he signs a non-disclosure agreement.
Alex is incredulous but intrigued - especially with the $50,000 immediately transferred into his account just for signing the NDA. Soon he’s sedated and driven to a remote facility, where he wakes up the lone decoder on a top-secret project.
The project: a satellite retrieved from orbit and purportedly sent… from the future! It contains a message than cannot be decoded, which is where Alex comes in. And for the next five weeks, he works on it in isolation.
We’re merely twenty minutes through Alien Code, and things only get nuttier from there at a fever dream-like pitch: mysterious blueprints, brain tumors, and visions of strange, featureless Slenderman-like creatures, including a giant that visits Alex by his bedroom window.
This is fun for awhile, but Alien Code can’t quite sustain itself during a second half that sags under the weight of exposition and a script that tries to explain itself out of a rich sci-fi scenario. Alex eventually meets up with prior decoders Beth (Azura Skye) and later Miles Driscoll (Richard Schiff), who both suffer from the same hallucinations. But are they really hallucinations? Or visitors from another dimension?
The answers to these questions lay not in on-screen action, but in mounds of dialogue and lengthy exposition that explains this world and events not unlike the much-derided climactic scenes of The Matrix Reloaded.
For a low budget indie production, however, Alien Code deserves a lot of credit. Interest wanes as more and more gets explained, but for a good while this is an intriguing ride that keeps you glued to the screen to figure out the intricate puzzle that lies at the heart of the movie. Only in climactic scenes do budget constraints become apparent; sets and costumes could have used an upgrade in an otherworldly finale.
Written and directed by Michael G. Cooney (though the on-screen director is credited as Sam Havenhurst), Alien Code isn’t quite Primer but it is fun and diverting and even has a nice sense of humor about itself. Gallner, alone on the screen for much of the movie, is especially impressive as the progressively freaked-out protagonist.