For example, SciFi of the 1950’s is often characterized as creature features – monsters that would send a chill up viewers’ spines – and the industry banked on these films’ abilities to thrill watchers more than anything else. The 1960’s saw Science Fiction evolve cinematically as filmmakers worked to raise the stakes, position mankind at a cultural crossroads, and finally start to use these features to say something about the human race. The 1970’s? Well, with a few notable exceptions, audiences were treated to somewhat darker tales where a totalitarian future spelled even greater doom, more so for the individuals as opposed to all of mankind.
As for the 1980’s?
Well, studios started to dial back the grim messages and instead found that SciFi could be used to entertain the masses-at-large. Stories started to even have a ‘feel good’ focus again, and this opened the door for more family-friendly tales for the great, growing middle class who long thought the movies had left them behind. The 1980’s gave us such benchmarks as TRON (1982), The Last Starfighter (1984), Ghostbusters (1984), Back To The Future (1985), and Short Circuit (1986). Granted, each of these films may’ve retained an element of darkness in some small measure; but the overall tone still pushed them away from seedier or academic leanings into the pop culture mainstream.
However, not every attempt was successful.
It’s natural for some features to struggle to find an audience, but how and why did My Stepmother Is An Alien come up so short in that regard? It featured popular talent. It came from some solid, industry-proven backers. It even cast Kim Basinger in a central role near the height of her professional fame and fortune! Alas, it just wasn’t quite meant to be … and I think I have a good idea why.
From the product packaging:
“When widowed astronomer Steve Mills inadvertently causes a gravitational disruption in deep space, a race of hyper-advanced alien lifeforms sends one of their own to investigate, disguised in the alluring human form of Celeste. Tasked with seducing the lovelorn Steve in a bid to gain access to his scientific research, Celeste finds herself falling for the man she’s been sent to swindle. But they’ve not counted on Steve’s young daughter Jessie, who’s none too thrilled by the prospect of a new mother – especially not one from another planet.”
To be frank, My Stepmother Is An Alien is a film probably not fondly remembered by most who had the good fortune (or misfortune?) of seeing it on its original theatrical run. I’ve read that the motion picture has developed a bit of a cult following over the years – I couldn’t quite say why, though it’s clearly one of actress Basinger’s only true comic performances and is worth seeing for her (and Jon Lovitz) alone. I worked briefly in the video rental industry for a time, and I do recall it being a mildly popular rental, much of that owed (from what I recall) to Dan Aykroyd’s presence as his was still a popular household name in those days. Thirty-plus years later, the flick is still a bit goofier than it is looney, and I think only fans of traditional slapstick (The Three Stooges comes to mind) probably got a kick out of it. Dare I point out that most of its jokes have also been done elsewhere – and done much better?
As a construct, the film really just takes no risks. It stays right in the middle of the road from start-to-finish. Creatively and artistically, all of it just feels like it’s ‘there,’ not a bad place to be but certainly not one worthy of any greater attention. Its SciFi elements aren’t strong enough to draw in traditional SciFi viewers; and its comedy elements – while a bit decidedly old-fashioned – never really offer up something that hasn’t been tried before. In the final estimation, everything’s just … well … lukewarm.
I think the critical problem with Stepmother is that it’s a film that’s hard to enjoy on its own merits and doesn’t compete well against other like-minded properties. It has very little to distinguish itself from the opposition and quite possibly ends up appearing more like background noise instead of anything exceptional in and of itself. That’s particularly disappointing given the comic work in here – Basinger is always fetching to watch, and she clearly invests in her work here – but, as they say, it is what it is. Without something to differentiate itself, this one just played it way too safe, maybe even way too conventional to draw the attention of a wider audience.
As for the special features? There’s a nice 15-minute interview with director Benjamin that’s worth a listen. Critic Bryan Reesman turns in a solid audio commentary, though he darts and weaves tangentially throughout much of the track. Granted, this was a ‘lesser release’ for its day and it’s likely that not an awful lot was written about the flick, so he certainly does the best he can with the material available to him. Lastly, there’s an essay about the story’s various roles written by Amanda Reyes in the enclosed booklet.
Honestly, this kind of shtick isn’t for everyone, but fans of old-school style slapstick and farce should find a bit of enjoyment in My Stepmother Is An Alien. Basinger gives a good performance as the Earthbound visitor whose task it is to save her species while inadvertently dooming our own, and Aykroyd hits all of his marks with equal nerdish aplomb. It’s great to see a young Hannigan just getting started in the business, and those watching closely will catch the equally young Seth Green with a few scenes. Though rated PG-13 (mostly for the bits with obvious sexuality), this is mostly tame and clearly written for the young-at-heart. Passable … but only by a bit.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Video provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of My Stepmother Is An Alien (1988) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.