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Aliens Ate My Homework

Universal // PG // March 6, 2018
List Price: $14.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted April 4, 2018 | E-mail the Author
Rod Allbright (Jayden Craig) is a pretty average kid. He lives with his mom, Gwen (Kirsten Robek) and two siblings, Eric (Christian Convery) and Linda (Carmela Nossa Guizzo), who he gets along with -- although he really misses his MIA father, Art (Sandy Robson), who vanished three years ago without a trace. He's got one close friend, Mickey (Sean Quan), who likes to build inventions that are varying degrees of dangerous. At school, he doesn't seem to have a reputation, good or bad, although he is routinely tormented by the school bully, Billy Becker (Ty Consiglio), who likes to squish bugs into his victims' hair. None of these things seems likely to change...until a miniaturized alien spaceship carrying Colonel Grakker (Dan Payne), Madame Pong (Tristan Risk), Phillogenus esk Piemondum aka Phil (voice of William Shatner), and Tar Gibbons (Alex Zahara) crashes through his bedroom window.

Based on the first in a series of YA books by Bruce Coville, Aliens Ate My Homework is a middle-of-the-road DTV movie experience which demonstrates one of the biggest challenges of adapting kids' books into movies. A good kids' book -- a category I'd personally say includes not just the Aliens series, but Coville's work in general -- captures the imagination in a way that doesn't really translate to film simply because a film does the heavy lifting when it comes to realizing the world and the characters. Admittedly, I haven't read the Rod Allbright books since they were age-appropriate more than 20 years ago, but at the time the entire series felt like a grand adventure that this slightly meandering, low-stakes, low-budget movie can't replicate.

Memories are hazy, but at a glance, Homework recalls things I remember from the book: Rod's disappearing dad, the volcano science project, Grakker's interchangeable personality modules, and Billy Becker's backstory all ring some distant bells. However, the meat of the book -- Rod's character arc or emotional journey aside from the alien adventure -- seems to have been lost in translation. On film, Aliens' story only consists of an extremely basic MacGuffin hunt for the device that will re-enlarge the aliens' shrunken spaceship Ferkel. Watching the special features, I was reminded that Rod's honesty is a key point in the book, which the movie mentions a couple of times but never turns into a real character trait (rendering the scene that gives the book and film its title anticlimactic). Rod seems to struggle with his own intelligence, the disappearance of his dad, and being bullied, but none of them really make an impression, and shallowly including all of those details plus Rod's honesty and the alien story just makes the movie feel scatterbrained.

Complicating things is Rod's cousin Elspeth McMasters (Lauren McNamara), who shows up in the second book but has been introduced ahead of schedule. If there are plans to make the entire Rod Allbright series into movies, it makes sense to get her in right away, and a co-lead helps make the movie equally accessible for boys and girls. However, her presence splits the amount of screen time to develop even one character in half, and Elspeth comes off as just as underdeveloped herself. Rod's self-confidence issues and Elspeth's bossiness and know-it-all attitude are a good pairing, but it merely amounts to banter because neither trait is rooted in anything substantial or developed. Both young performers give pleasant performances (and handle a single serious conversation about divorce with enough conviction to wish the movie had more meat on it), but they're mostly there to deliver exposition as screenwriters Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens focus on the plot.

Director Sean McNamara and his crew put in some impressive effort to create a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids feel with Grakker, Pong, and the other aliens on oversized sets with massive props of glue sticks and pencils (although little details, like the shapeless backpack interior, the repetition of limited sets, or the inexplicable presence of a doll's head -- why would Rod have one? -- hurt the illusion). The mixture of practical and computer effects is awkward, with the practical mostly having a goofy charm (even if one of the book's more haunting revelations is anticlimactic in live-action) and the CGI merely looking cheap. The design of the aliens is also strange, borrowing a bit from the series' original illustrations by Coville's wife Katharine, but with an excess of additional business cluttering the look of each character and making the costumes and makeup seem clunkier. The script also gets in the way of spectacle, with sequences such as Grakker trying to sneak out of Billy's possession back to Rod's backback coming off like the movie spinning its wheels in the absence of character. These issues culminate in a half-baked finale that has Rod's mom and school faculty inexplicably cheering what ought to look like bullying, and everyone ignoring an entire character disappearing.

Aliens Ate My Homework comes with pretty basic, underwhelming artwork featuring a picture of Rod with his alien friends against a bright orange backdrop, with a green title treatment and a giant sticker-like graphic boasting of William Shatner's involvement. The one-disc DVD release comes in an eco-friendly Amaray case and features a glossy, embossed slipcover featuring the same artwork, and there is an insert with a MoviesAnywhere Digital Copy code (which, given MoviesAnywhere has no resolution toggle, should redeem in HD).

The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, Aliens Ate My Homework is a solid adequate across the board. Colors, detail, depth, and clarity are all right in line with expectations for a low-budget 2018 release shot on HD digital video. There don't seem to be any significant post-production tweaks to the cinematography aside from mediocre digital effects, and the lack of razor-sharp detail thanks to the SD presentation is really the only (unavoidable) compromise. The soundtrack follows a basic template for how to surround the viewer with a blend of dialogue, effects, and music, but it has that perfunctory, adequate feel of most DTV movies. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and French, Spanish, and subtitles are also provided.

The Extras
Four featurettes are included. "Not of This World: Creating Alien Life Forms" (12:55) briefly chats with the cast and crew about their belief in life on other planets, before delving into the makeup and some of the production design (namely, the alien spaceship, which I did not notice looked like an animal until it was mentioned here). "Aliens Ate My Homework: From Page to Screen" (14:12) is a more general overview of the production and the producers' desire to bring the movie to life, with plenty of comments by Coville on the adaptation process and his feelings about the film. "On the Set With Bruce Coville" (5:47) continues Coville's earnest pleasure at seeing his book come to life, as well as detailing his time on set playing the principal of the aptly named Coville Elementary. Finally, "The Galactic Patrol Wants You!" (4:57) is a little bit of interview with Payne and Risk in character as Grakker and Pong, as well as contributions from the kids.

Although Aliens Ate My Homework is never bad, it's also never more than flimsy surface spectacle for very young kids, something to watch on DVD or Netflix and forget instantly. (The film's wit peaks with a couple of mild Shatner references -- preference of "Star Trek" over Star Wars, and a line with "Cling on" in it.) Paired with an underwhelming finale, Aliens is merely a rental.

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