SXSW Review: Earthling


What do you do if it turns out your very existence is a lie? Clay Liford's feature film Earthling explores identity, relationship and the meaning of home in his follow-up to his Sundance selection short My Mom Smokes Weed.

After a mysterious "atmospheric event," teacher Judith (Rebecca Spence) finds herself at odds with her life, and haunted by an enigmatic student, Abby (Amelia Turner). Judith realizes that the life she thought she had has been a pretense, and after Abby's insistence they are connected, Judith's life starts falling apart.

Clay Liford defies current science-fiction convention, eschewing rockets, robots and rayguns (the "r-cubed" he mentions in our earlier interview) to employ a low-budget indie style that emphasizes the story. Earthling employs an old-school, pre-Star Wars science-fiction style, when the story was more important than the dressings, such as Tarkovsky's Solyaris (or even Soderbergh's remake Solaris). It's more like The Quiet Earth or Shane Carruth's Primer, a 2004 indie time traveller sleeper that shook up the indie/sci-fi world a bit.  Primer was also filmed in Texas (Addison, to be exact; Earthling was filmed in Dallas).

While the plot of Earthling is relatively simple, the motivations get complicated and at times it gets confusing as to who wants to do what when the seed is found.  There is no tight resolution and a lot more to the story than could ever get explained by the time the end credits roll.  While frustrating for some audiences, it's intentional to mirror Judith's journey. 

Like most films, Earthling's success as a film is measured by its cast, and Liford cast well. Spence is sympathetic even when she's sabotaging herself to pursue the mystery. Other cast members include Peter Greene, a recognizable face if not name from film and TV (Zed in Pulp Fiction), and William Katt, no longer The Greatest American Hero but a father incapable of helping his son. Even with Spence's understated and engaging performance, the standout in this cast is Amelia Turner as Abby, in a role revised in order to cast her (see my interview with Liford for more). Her self-assuredness belies the character's age and gender, enhancing the story.  Earthling is Turner's first feature film, but based on her performance it won't be her last, as she more than held her own opposite seasoned actors.

Fans of space-opera style science fiction may not appreciate a cerebral film lacking the pervasive gimmickry common to contemporary science fiction films.  The minimal special effects are simplistic "B" grade, and are only there as needed to further the story.  But Earthling isn't about effects, it's about people.  It's a quiet film, but a memorable one. Considering Earthling is also scheduled to screen at the upcoming Dallas International Film Festival, Sci-Fi London, and more festivals, I'm not alone in thinking it's worthy of attention.