My Stepmother Is An Alien first published by Little White Lies, and entry 144 in my Cinema Psychotronicum column
Hard to believe now, but when Jericho Stone pitched his original script to Paramount Pictures in 1981, it was a serious drama whose sci-fi frame provided an allegory for domestic child abuse – think something along the lines of Gregg Araki’s later Mysterious Skin (2004) – and it came with the disturbing working title They’re Coming, which ambiguously straddled invasions of an alien and a more intimate variety. Paramount optioned the script, but informed Stone that they would prefer it to be a comedy, and a screenplay, rewritten by Richard Brenner but still under the name They’re Coming, was scheduled to go into production in late 1984. Production then moved to Twentieth Century Fox, with further rewrites by Herschel Weingrod and Timothy Harris, before going into turnaround to Weintraub Entertainment Group, now under the title Two Kids, with a further rewrite from Jonathan Reynolds. It was finally shot and released in 1988, with Richard Benjamin at the helm, with original writer Stone now credited merely for the story, and with the all-new title My Stepmother Is An Alien.
All-new, yet old – for the title My Stepmother Is An Alien harks back to Fifties genre cheapies like Gene Fowler Jr’s I Was A Teenage Werewolf (1957) and I Married A Monster From Outer Space (1958). This determinedly ‘B’ title comes with the ironising distance of nostalgia, much as the alien stepmother of the title herself keeps appropriating behaviours learnt from older films (Casablanca and The Man Who Came To Dinner, both 1942; Marilyn Monroe, the Three Stooges; even Debbie Does Dallas, 1978). It also signals a self-conscious acknowledgement of the film’s schlockily generic plotting – even if the $19 million budget for the film’s production brought it far from Planet B. For as well as being an intergalactic romance and a goofy comedy, this is an effects-heavy Eighties extravaganza – and the casting of Dan Aykroyd as a nerdy scientist, in what is essentially a reprise of his rôle as Ray Stantz from Ghostbusters (1984), quickly establishes the mix of genres for which the filmmakers were going.
Sleazy playboy Ron Mills (Jon Lovitz) would like his widowed brother Steven (Aykroyd) to start dating again, but the physicist and single father is more interested in his attempts to send a radio signal far into outer space. This summons Celeste (Kim Basinger), a ‘Chief Extragalactic Probist’ sent by her planet’s elders to locate the source of what they perceive as an act of aggression. As the ‘heavenly’ Celeste moves in on – and with – the smitten Steven, this alien (essentially a super-evolved human) rediscovers the long-lost pleasures of sneezing, kissing, fucking, eating, boozing, and singing along to vintage Jimmy Durante musicals, even as her eccentric behaviours draw the attention and alarm of Steven’s 13-year-old daughter Jessie (played by the then newcomer Alyson Hannigan).
It is hard to see how nobody else notices. After all, everything about Celeste screams otherness: she dresses in out-of-this-world clothes, she nibbles on used cigarette butts, she smokes carrots, and she speaks in a postmodern collection of improperly assimilated quotations derived from the pop cultures of vastly different eras. The failure of Steven and others to recognise that she is not of this earth might come down to the fact that they are blinded by her bombshell looks and irresistible sexuality (a design feature that is the explicit reason she was selected for the mission), even if she is an adult virgin who knows literally nothing about sex and love, and has to learn fast. Yet no doubt part of the joke here is that in the coked-up, anything-goes Eighties – the kind of era and environment that could produce a film as unhinged and tone-deaf as this – Celeste fits right in, and her assimilation to the ways of Earth is all too easy. After all, she is hardly any weirder than the entirely human horndog that is Ron – a middle-aged, moronic, mad-for-sex monster of overreaching schlubbiness who would appear to be precisely this film’s target audience, even as Celeste herself and her line of fellow female aliens (who look like they have stepped out of a Robert Palmer video) provide the film’s element of unattainable wish fulfilment.
Celeste’s oddest feature is not her conduct, but an accessory. For like Felix the Cat with his bag of tricks, Celeste has a designer handbag which conceals an alien companion (called ‘Bag’) that furnishes her with material objects (money, identity cards, diamonds, etc.) and advisory films projected as required, and eventually tries to take over Celeste’s mission. Though voiced by a woman (Ann Prentiss), Bag is a decidedly masculine presence – a hyper-phallic one-eyed monster with destructive designs on all humanity, and with an appearance that falls somewhere between the penile Elmer from Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage (released earlier in the same year) and the cobra-like hatchling from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, made over two decades later. “That bag will destroy your planet,” suggests Celeste of an ostensibly desirable object that comes to represent the very worst impulses of both consumerism and patriarchy. It is about as close to a social message as My Stepmother Is An Alien gets, as Celeste, in becoming Steven’s wife and Jessie’s mother, provides the feminine touch that has been missing from this broken family, and from a planet (not unlike her own) ruled by men.
In the end, Celeste persuades the all-male alien council that Earth is worth saving by getting them to see it with her eyes – which essentially involves a rapid montage of projected scenes from My Stepmother Is An Alien itself, shown in flashback. It is hard, though, to avoid the opposite conclusion: that if a supposedly advanced species of aliens were to watch this unsophisticated, unfunny, often incoherent film, and to regard it as their prime evidence for human culture, they would turn their ships right back around, despair for our future, and perhaps even, purely out of mercy, push the destroy button. Benjamin’s film is certainly interesting as a time capsule of a rather conservative brand of Eighties excess, and as a gender-switched companion piece to Julien Temple’s Earth Girls Are Easy from the same year – but on its own merits, it is what it is: a committee-written, dumb-assed mess, less amusing than alienating.
strap: Richard Benjamin’s sci-fi rom com raises the question why advanced extra-terrestrials would not destroy Eighties America