“Earthbound” is a bit of a Dr. Who riff on the hijinks of a lonely alien experiencing modern day Europe. Only, in this case, we’re kept guessing about whether Joe (Rafe Spall) is actually the man who fell to Earth or the one who flew over the cuckoo’s nest. His beliefs are the result of his father’s deathbed confession that the pair of them escaped from planet Zaxalon years ago to avoid death via the ritual sacrifice of an invading alien species. Joe must continue posing as a human to avoid Zalador’s ever-watchful bounty hunters. That’s a lot of heavy stuff to lay on an impressionable 11-year-old. A young boy has a hard enough time trying to fit in without the baggage of believing he’ll never live a normal human life because the entire fate of a species rests on his shoulders. So “Earthbound” is either about an orphaned alien in Dublin attempting to fulfill his destiny, or it’s about a young man who, thanks to his manic-depressive father, has been living a lonely, delusional life. Separately, either of these plots might have made really good films. But together, the two stories never gel. Writer/director, Alan Brennan, wastes so much time keeping us guessing that he forgets to develop his characters. By the time he reveals the truth, you’re no longer invested in the ending. You just want it to end.
On the bright side, the film maintains a light, campy tone that forgives many of its flaws. References to other comic book and sci-fi stories are so prevalent that it sometimes feels a bit like plagiarism. Joe is basically a reverse Superman as he is weakened, not strengthened by the Earth’s yellow sun. Thus, he has an endless list of allergies and ailments. His father provides beyond-the-grave guidance via a holographic database, bringing to mind Jor-El’s crystal messages in the Fortress of Solitude. These references also lend to the question of his sanity. Are the comics and movies really misinterpretations of the real deal? Or did pop culture help Joe flesh out his fantasy?
We see the story from Joe’s point of view so even though his sanity is constantly in question, we’re privy to plenty alien business. His paranoia regarding the bounty hunters keeps things suspenseful. Are those shifty fellows from H.R. just waiting for their moment to strike, or do they really just want to give Joe a promotion? Spall’s performance is endearing, channeling the joy, excitement and adoration for humanity that David Tennant displayed on Dr. Who. He’s not so much a force to be reckoned with as the 10th doctor, but he’s brave and determined. It’s mainly the romantic aspect of this Sci-Fi RomCom that falls short.
Joe has zero chemistry with his love interest, Maria (Jen Murray). Joe only decides to pursue her when the alien device on his wrist identifies her as a one-in-a-million genetic match for mating. Genetic compatibility is not quite the same thing as love at first sight. Maria’s attitude toward Joe seems to fluctuate between wariness and pity. He has to be very persistent to get her to go out with him. Even then, she only agrees because, as a last ditch effort, he happens to suggest one of her favorite activities (laser tag). Though they eventually move in together, Maria never really seems to like him all that much. Their relationship is, at best, a grammar school romance. Some of the blame may lie with the performances. I’ve never seen Jen Murray before so I don’t know if she’s always this bland. But I’m not sure even Billie Piper could have made the character endearing. Once Joe confesses his secret, Maria spends much of the rest of the film trying to get him committed. This one-in-a-million woman sure is a jerk.
Overall, I’d recommend spending a Sunday afternoon with “Earthbound.” But it’s definitely not marriage material.