The premise hooked me: an ordinary, modern-day, distracted and stressed couple (Sunita Mani from GLOW – not to mention the great Cocoon Central Dance Team – as Su, and John Paul Reynolds from Stranger Things as Jack) decide to give up on social media and mobile phones for the week they’ll spend alone, reviving their intimacy at a country house. What they don’t realise is that, while they’re disconnected, aliens land, invade and (it seems) completely take over Planet Earth. Sci-fi comedy mixed with modern, young-adult relationships: I like this type of blend. There have been teen movies and family comedies in this realm (from Earth Girls Are Easy  to Meet the Applegates ), and more recently John Cameron Mitchell’s grossly underrated How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017). So, here we go.
This one is a Universal release, with Sundance script-lab development somewhere in the mix, so it’s closer to the current Netflix model of streamlined, semi-indie cinema, rather than the funky fantastique hybrids that peeked out in the 1980s or ‘90s. One of the directors, Alex Huston Fischer, co-helmed (with Rachel Wolther) Cocoon Central Dance Team’s wonderful 40-minute video Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone (2017). The partner director-writer here, Eleanor Wilson, hails from Australia and has made several shorts I have yet to see.
Save Yourselves! makes a real virtue of its low budget and minimal set of elements: hardly any more than the central two players (who are both very good), beyond an opening party scene (other characters are mainly just voices at the end of a phone signal, or a corpse); very restrained digital effects; no grand attempt to convey the end of the world in process. A little like a pared-back Black Mirror episode in this regard, it’s an apocalyptic tale that plays on the simple, mounting dread of two people trying to get out of a house, drive down the road, and make their way through some woods – with, due to a nasty turn in events, a small, cute baby (also named Jack) in tow. That’s less “endtimes spectacle” than even Jean-Luc Godard mustered for Weekend (1967), and a lot less than a film this one reminded me of, Lorene Scafaria’s curious hybrid Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012).
Generic tone marker: the “alien” here – mainly only one, until an ultimate The Birds-like distant glimpse of a hopping pack – looks like a brightly coloured, round pouffe (and is referred to by our heroes as “the pouffe” throughout, even at the most lethal moments), and emits a high, squeaky sound. Squeaky aliens = comedy. Also the hyper-bouncy music score (by Andrew Orkin) = comedy.
What do these aliens want? Mainly, it would appear, the food source of ethanol (found in wine, petrol, etc.), although they seem ever-ready to instantly kill any human who threatens their mission. Actually, this mission – and whether it has any overarching cosmic logic or destiny – is deliberately left vague, right to the final frame, and that is a strength of the film. Just as we don’t see the entire, global activity of the invaders, we don’t get their “plan” spelt out for us, either. It’s the opposite of Mars Attacks! (1996) – or 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or any number of serious SF movies – in this regard.
Where Save Yourselves! becomes a little less stereotyping of itself as pure, parodic comedy is in the depiction of its central, human relationship. A lot of it is brittle in the standard way: gender issues of his mainly missing manliness and her occasional need to be protected; jokes and routines (some quite funny) about modern-day technology-dependence and inane, Internet-fed, self-help rituals. The stages of this relating are punctuated by nocturnal cries and visions on Jack’s part of strange creatures disturbing his sleep – until the point when the vision becomes real (hi, pouffe).
Like in some inverted pastoral drama (Terrence Malick’s Badlands  came to mind), we are eventually flung into the woods with the couple and their inadvertently adopted child. There, elements of the film start to float strangely, losing their moorings: not only a farting-pouffe episode, but a weirder dreamy hallucination visited (for no evident reason, and from no evident source) upon our heroes (who even manage to lose track of the baby for a bit). Something is stirring in this movie.
It builds to enigma: without revealing too much of it, our duo-cum-trio encounters a destiny that is ambiguously either an imprisoning damnation or an interplanetary, evolutionary salvation. And that’s where the title comes back in, with the final spoken line from Su: “Are we saved?” That line casts you back through the story, levering it open to a deeper thematic progression than we might have assumed was operative: saved from what, how – and delivered unto what? Who needs to be saved, to be “washed clean”, to start over again with a second chance? Weighty ideas we more readily associate with Krzysztof Kieślowski or David Lynch films – but here they are, in a lightly futuristic, relationship comedy. It’s good to see.
© Adrian Martin 24 October 2020