Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Girl from Mars (Atlantis Films/South Pacific Pictures, 1991)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The program at last night’s “Mars Movie Night” was called “Mars for Kids,” and started with two unspeakably awful cartoons — a 2009 production from Walt Disney Studios that used the classic Disney characters (Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald and Daffy Duck, Goofy and Pluto) for some Sesame Street-style lessons to teach pre-school kids colors and shapes, and an episode of a blessedly forgotten (or never heard of) TV series called Galaxy High School created by Chris Columbus, of whom, when he made the film Home Alone in 1991, I joked, “Ah! His first hit in 499 years!” The synopsis of this episode, “Martian Mumps,” says it all: “Lox, a new student from Mars arrives and infects Milo with the Martian Mumps. Soon the entire school is looking green, sporting antennas and very punctual. Only Doyle and Aimee, being from Earth, appear to be immune. Captain James T. Smirk of the Medifederation Starship Eagle Eyes arrives on the scene and places Galaxy High under eternal quarantine and places it in orbit around Mars” — or at least he tries to until Doyle, Aimee and a character named Professor Eisenstein figure out how to cure the Martian mumps. The parts of the show that parodied Star Trek were actually wickedly funny, but the rest was so relentlessly stupid I wondered why writer Larry DiTillio wanted credit for coming up with its script.

Fortunately, the feature was a minor gem: The Girl from Mars, a 1991 TV-movie with Edward Albert as the star and his father, Eddie Albert, in an important supporting role — though the real lead is Sarah Sawatsky, playing Deirdre “Dee Dee” Puttman, daughter of Dan Puttman (Edward Albert). It takes place in the small town of Obegon, Washington, which is near Seattle (which explains why virtually all the outdoor scenes take place during rainstorms), where Dan is an environmentalist attorney who’s running for town council to save the city’s mountain from being bulldozed to make room for a parking garage for the local college. He lost his wife to cancer a year before the movie begins, and he has two daughters. Level-headed Liane (Christianne Hirt) is the older; she’s about to graduate from high school and go to college, and though Christianne Hirt was actually 17 years younger than Edward Albert they look the same age on screen — which is odd but not altogether inappropriate because Liane has decided to “play mom” to Dee Dee now that their real mother is dead.

Since her mom died Dee Dee has become obsessed with outer space, claiming to be an agent from the planet Mars sent to pose as an Earth high-school girl to learn more about Earth and its customs. She’s built her own flying saucer, a remote-controlled toy (today we’d call it a “drone”) she flies with a radio setup, also of her own construction, and she’s inserted a microcassette recorder so she can use it to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations and record them — though surprisingly little is made of this plot point by writer Brian Allan Lane. Dee Dee is written off as the school weirdo at the local high school, where she’s bullied by her fellow students in general and Earl West (Lochlyn Munro) and Ricky Swanson (Kaj-Erik Eriksen) in particular. They make fun of her not only for her Martian obsessions but also for befriending the school nerd; at one point they steal the control for her flying saucer and she bites Ricky on the leg to get him to drop it so she can recover it. As it happens, Earl West is also the son of college dean Wayne West (Jeremy Radick), the man who wants to bulldoze the mountain outside town to build a parking lot for the college, and who’s therefore Dan’s biggest political enemy. The dramatis personae include a news reporter from a Seattle station, Stacey Moliet (Gywnyth Walsh) from KXYX Channel 11, who’s sent to Obegon to cover Dan’s campaign by her boss as punishment for her refusal to have sex with him, and who seems to be attracted to Dan (though writer Lane doesn’t do much about that, either) even though her reports, as edited back at the station in Seattle, make him look like an idiot.

Whether she’s really from Mars or not, Dee Dee turns out to have telekinetic powers — at one point he makes a burner in chemistry class flare up unexpectedly, singeing the eyebrows of science teacher Mr. Sharbut (Leslie Carlson) who’s just given her an F on a test and read her answer to the class (she wrote a philosophical meditation on Earth instead of just writing the name of the planet closest to it in the solar system). Later she smashes out the glass of the cars of people who are being especially mean to her, though for some reason her power disintegrates windshields and glasses lenses but keeps intact the lens of the camera with which Stacey’s crew was filming this. Dee Dee also gets disappointed with her avuncular friend, scientist Dr. Charles Favender (Eddie Albert), for issuing an environmental impact report on the proposed development that says bulldozing the mountain and building the garage won’t have an environmental impact because the fabled “snowy,” a white owl that once lived on the mountain, hasn’t been seen in 10 years. (The moment you hear a hint like that, you just know a snowy white owl will be seen on that mountain before the film is over —and it duly is.) It all comes to a climax when Dee Dee manages to take over the screen of a drive-in movie theatre that’s showing a horror double bill and announces that she — wearing a silver metallic jumpsuit and with her head shaved, which she explains is so she can shed her skin more easily to revert to her “natural” Martian state as a pure energy being — is about to lift off and return to her home planet. She actually gets a commercial prop to fly like the rocket ship it looks like, only at the end she decides to stay on Earth because she’s come to love her (adoptive) family.

I wasn’t expecting much from The Girl from Mars — especially after the awful shows that preceded it — but it scored through the quiet dignity of Lane’s writing and Neill Fearnley’s direction and the impeccable acting of a mostly no-name but quite good cast — though Sarah Sawatsky takes the prize here. Like Chris Columbus’s Home Alone star, Macaulay Culkin, Sawatsky has an odd appearance but one that’s precisely right for this role, and she nails it while keeping us uncertain as to whether she really is from Mars and, if not, whether she believes it. (At one point, with Dan and Liane badgering Dee Dee about not having any plans for her future, I joked, “She could always become a backup singer for Sun Ra.”) In some ways it’s a kinder, gentler Carrie, with the put-upon teen getting her revenge by smashing their windshields and flying off into space instead of starting a bloodbath, but The Girl from Mars is genuinely charming and especially spoke to me since I, too, had a “weird” reputation in school (more in middle than high school — actually once I got to high school it was big enough I was able to find enough like-minded friends and not feel so isolated) and can remember all too vividly what it was like to be the “odd person out” in the school environment. One odd thing about The Girl from Mars was not only how retro it was technologically (Dee Dee has one of those old-style phone answering machines — the dreadful term “voicemail” had yet to be coined — with two cassettes, one for your outgoing message and one for incoming ones; also her flying-saucer toy features a microcassette recorder and Liane shoots home movies of the family with a full-sized camcorder instead of a smartphone) but that we were watching it on a VHS tape, with the telltale bits of snow and occasional tracking problems that itself connoted a sense of nostalgia — “Guess what, folks? In those days that was all we had!”