“Alien Island” (“Isla Alien”)
Screened at the 59th Annual Chicago International Film Festival (3/5); Letterboxd (3/5), Imdb.com (6/10), TMDB.com (3/5)
Urban legends have a way of taking on lives of their own. So it was in Chile in the mid-1980s, when a group of ham radio operators intercepted messages from witnesses who claimed to have seen and interacted with a collective of benevolent, highly advanced extraterrestrials (members of a Pleiadian “congregation” known as “Friendship”) on a remote island off the nation’s far southern coast. But where was the definitive proof of this? The radio messages were about the only available “evidence,” and attempts by investigators to visit Friendship Island always fell through. What’s more, as all of this was unfolding, the nation was in the grips of the authoritarian dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, a ruling junta known for creating an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia and frequently spreading disinformation. So what was really going on here? That’s what writer-director Cristóbal Valenzuela Berríos has sought to expose in this highly stylized black-and-white documentary about the fabled, enigmatic Friendship incident. Presented very much in the style of cheesy, campy 1950s horror flicks, the film combines audio recordings of the original ham radio messages, interviews with the short-wave operators who intercepted them, expert opinions from contemporary ufologists and re-enactments of the alleged alien encounters, punctuated by clips from 1990s Chilean TV specials about the incident and select scenes from vintage, low-budget creature features for comic enhancement. However, as well as the film integrates these elements, as the story plays out, it loses some of the humorous, stylistic punch with which it opens, becoming somewhat more mundane and drawn out as its theories about what really happened are explained, moving forward in an increasingly plodding, subdued manner. This portion of the narrative also tends to place too much emphasis on some aspects of its explanation while seriously underplaying others, an issue that undercuts the true impact of its revelations. It’s unfortunate that this offering ultimately progresses as it does, especially since it has a good thing going for it at the outset. Regrettably, though, as one of the screenings I most looked forward to at this year’s festival, instead of mesmerizing me, “Alien Island” merely left me modestly amused and somewhat underwhelmed.