Back in my early days as a film critic, I took a certain unseemly pleasure in mocking inadvertently funny flops — fiascoes like “The Lonely Lady,” “The Room” and pretty much anything by Uwe Boll — so it’s easy to recognize the impulse with which “Alien on Stage” directors Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer drove from London to Dorset to catch the stage play of the same name, a scene-for-scene amateur theatrical production of the Ridley Scott horror classic, as performed by a cast of small-town bus drivers. Safe to assume, the pair traveled all that way for a laugh; then they turned the delight of their discovery into a documentary.
Appreciative to a fault, “Alien on Stage” never really makes clear whether its subjects — a troupe who call themselves the Paranoid Dramatics — are in on the joke. The filmmakers have nothing but affection for director Dave Mitchell and his company, and yet it feels as if they’re fans not of the show but of their own kooky taste for liking it. There’s a hipster “we saw it first” vibe to the project, to the extent that Harvey and Kummer credit themselves with helping arrange for the show to do a one-night-only performance at the Leicester Square Theatre, a small independent stage in London’s West End that hosts magic shows and standup comedians most nights.
That’s roughly the point at which they begin filming, as the Paranoid team prepare for this high-pressure encore. If it were all done in jest (and that’s possible, considering that their past productions have involved silly songs and actors in drag, à la Monty Python), the show might qualify as parody, but as presented, Mitchell seems to be undertaking an earnest adaptation minus the wee little step of clearing the rights. Evidently, his goal is to re-create the tension and terror of the 1979 movie on a proscenium, which is no small task when you consider the role quick cuts, trick angles and special effects played in the film version — to say nothing of a pro cast.
“Alien” was famously conceived with a male actor in the Sigourney Weaver role, and Mitchell continues the gender-flipping tradition, not with Ripley (he casts his wife, Lydia Hayward, there) but by replacing Ian Holm’s Ash with a woman, Jacqui Roe. The actors don’t really resemble their on-screen counterparts, but that’s part of the fun in a film that plays like a cross between “The Fully Monty” and “Waiting for Guffman,” minus the all-important question of why they’re doing it. None of the cast seems particularly keen on acting, and the idea of doing a London “transfer” may well have been the filmmakers’, but it’s still amusing to see them swept along by the attention their little show is generating.
Amusing, but not outrageous, and while I’m glad Kummer’s camera was there to capture it, the movie doesn’t reveal enough about the performers’ backgrounds or personalities. Perhaps a scripted remake would (Mitchell, the play’s deeply committed director, could be the rough sketch for a Ricky Gervais character). But questions remain: Why are bus drivers putting on a show? What do their peers make of the hobby? And if London audiences describe it as “the funniest thing I’ve seen ever in the theater,” does that qualify as success or complete failure in their minds?
All over the world, small groups of people pay homage to their favorite movies in oddball ways, and filmmakers have been poking fun at the phenomenon for years — whether it’s Max Fischer’s high school stage version of “Serpico” in “Rushmore” or the kid-made action movies of “Son of Rambow” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation.” Those projects stick with us because they provide some insight into the parties responsible.
At time, “Alien on Stage” seems undecided whether to admire or tease Mitchell’s crew, who put considerable care into replicating certain aspects of the show, like the chest-burster and the creature. Props guy Peter devises a remarkably accurate costume with a bike-helmet head and fully articulated tail, describing his work as “what Ridley Scott would have wanted to do but in a more basic format” — more like H.R. Giger with spray paint and popsicle sticks. Behind the scenes at least, the team takes itself seriously.
Sure enough, the more psychotronic set-pieces, such as Ash’s decapitation, are impressive to see performed on stage (though a creature-p.o.v.-cam makes the monster’s cameos hard to judge). The rest amounts to an awkward slog, as don’t-quit-your-day-job actors woodenly recite Dan O’Bannon’s dialogue for a packed house of ironic-minded theatergoers, who hoot their approval. Looking back, I’m not necessarily proud of ridiculing Z-grade movies with my friends, but at least their creators were spared our heckling. Onstage, everyone can hear you laugh.