If we’re honest about it, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was not destined to be a slam-dunk. Sure, in the hands of a master like Spielberg, a story about a square-headed, telescope-necked, bug-eyed alien stranded on Earth could become a timeless fable about things like Home and Love, but that did not necessarily have to happen. The inherent charm of a protagonist that most resembles a potato-sack full of 75 pounds of chewed bubblegum? Maybe it’s not quite so inherent.
Enter Nukie, a South African-produced entry in the parade of E.T. knock-offs that followed in the wake of Spielberg’s mega-blockbuster. Taking most of the elements that E.T. riffed on so successfully—a friendly young alien marooned on our planet; a boy forming a special bond with the castaway; a shadowy government entity trying to exploit the new species—Nukie fails to recapture the alchemy that turned its inspiration into gold. Boy, does it ever.One of the main strikes against this movie is that it dares to be in English. If it was an early-’90’s E.T. knock-off in, oh, Mongolian or Uzbeki or Senegalese, it might be easier to keep the knives sheathed in an oh-so-paternalistic Awww, Isn’t it Cute What the Locals Come Up With way. As it is, we can fully understand what is being said, what is happening—right up to the point where we have no idea what is happening and stop forgiving what is being said.
That moment comes early in Nukie, like within the first five minutes. Nukie and his identical sibling Miko are quasi-beings of light bouncing around the galaxy before arriving at Earth, Miko crash-landing in America, Nukie in Africa. Miko is captured (somehow—we never really see the circumstances) and subjected to “scientific testing” at The Space Foundation, some kind of militarized NASA run by a sentient AI program. Of course, this movie precedes by a generation any real notion of Artificial Intelligence, so we must content ourselves with a robotic-ish voice over a wall of cutting-edge PONG-era displays. Meanwhile, across the ocean our titular hero is reduced to walking around bleating “Miko! Miko!”, ultimately enlisting a talking monkey (no shit, and without explanation) and a couple young tribesboys in his odyssey. The Atlantic Ocean not keeping our good aliens down, Miko and Nukie do…what exactly? Align? Harmonically converge? It’s hard to describe but somehow they reunite just in time to beat a return to space in front of the tribesboys who look on tearfully, dutifully.
The 150 words I just gave describing this movie demonstrate way more coherent thought than the film’s creators and designers gave Nukie. How else to explain a “lovable” alien that looks like Gollum gone to seed, a puppet so poor that its eyes don’t blink in sync and that for some reason has a really runny nose? Is Nukie clothed or is his skin just shabby rags? Why does Miko teach the AI about the value of music, of love, if the only outcome of that is for the computer to mash on some poor technician? Are the actors working under duress, maybe paying off gambling debts or a crippling addiction to H? I actually recognized one of the actresses—Did her children escape captivity?
Because that’s what Nukie feels like: Hostage-taking. Are its makers the first to take a good idea whole cloth, tailor that to their own aesthetic, and fob it on the movie-going public in hopes of a few ducats? Of course not. What sets Nukie apart, then, is the sheer amateurish awfulness of the whole exercise. When one thinks of beloved movie characters, grotesque shouldn’t be the first adjective to spring to mind. Watching their stories should have more charm than, oh, oral surgery. Atari’s E.T. video game was notoriously so bad that all copies were confiscated and buried in a New Mexico landfill. We can only imagine a happier world in which Nukie suffered far, far worse.
JOHN CLARK is a local non-celebrity whose brackets are fine, thank you, except for where he picked MSU to win it all. Follow him on Twitter if you like a good retweet: @egjc_wa