Comedy Oddities: Morons From Outer Space

The only time I’d previously seen Morons From Outer Space was at the cinema when I was a young, innocent child back in 1985 and I remember being fond of it but not exactly loving it. Infamously a big flop I’ve always been a fan of Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones though and so thought it deserved a second chance. Written by the duo and starring Mel, Jimmy Nail, Joanne Pierce and Paul Bown as the four aliens / morons, it begins with a serious voice over announcing how we’re going to learn if others like ourselves exist, whether they would be super intelligent, peaceful, and sensitive, and how this story will go some way to answering such questions.

The opening footage then does this straight away as there’s shots of Jimmy Nail and the space caravan they travel in as he messes about and pushes the wrong buttons to create all manner of silliness. When we meet the other aliens it initially feels like Mike Leigh in Space (the early, quirky Mike Leigh of Abigail’s Party and Nuts In May at least) though alas this doesn’t last for long as it becomes far stupider. It’s quite possibly the most British piece of sci-fi I’ve ever seen, and a friend once made me sit through Roy Chubby Brown’s U.F.O., though for doing so I’ve since killed him and his entire family, but when the judge heard about the circumstances he not only let me off scot-free but gave me the key to the city. And ten thousand pounds? Yeah, why not.

At this point we’re introduced to Griff’s inept character Graham Sweetley who works for a tv news show and when the aliens crash on a local motorway (bar Mel, who’s initially still stuck in orbit on his own) he’s the only one at the station around to cover the story. The aliens end up just outside of Luton and cause death and destruction when they land, though no one seems to care about this, indeed an appealingly daft moment follows where the police casually describe the chaos in an offhand manner as if this is something that happens every day. It’s a joke which continues when during what looks to be an important political dinner Commander Matteson ( Dinsdale Landen, easily the best thing about the film) receives a phone call telling him about the aliens and he politely utters “If they’re still alive don’t let them out of their flying saucer, we don’t want a lot of little green men terrorising the home counties during Ascot week, do we? Yes, alright, full emergency.” He also runs over a conspiracy theorist declaring that it’s the end of the world as if he didn’t have a care in the world and autographs the helmet of a panicked fireman completely ignoring his distressed claims. All of which made me laugh a lot, and these initial scenes gave me a lot of hope for the film.

After this Matteson claims to the press that it was just a government prototype and not an alien spaceship to calm the general public and they move the ship to a private location and go about interrogating the aliens, as Griff breaks in and silently observes everything. They soon learn that the aliens are complete idiots but an American army type decides they’re faking being so dumb and demands that they be murdered, so Griff ends up helping them escape. Meanwhile Mel gets a ride from a decaying green alien but after he refuses to be seduced by such a creature he’s dumped in to the Earth’s atmosphere and ends up in America. The film forgets about him for long periods of time but every so often he pops up, and is eventually put in to an insane asylum where a lame parody of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest plays out.

Back in England Jimmy Nail and co are introduced to the public, become incredibly famous and launch a music career. There’s plenty of opportunities for some sharp satire here but instead it becomes broader and broader and relies on lazy gross out humour for laughs instead, and unfortunately fails as by this point the characters are bordering on the unlikeable. Then presumably because they didn’t really know how to end the film another spaceship arrives, and it’s an alien rental recovery man looking for the ship we learn they borrowed which was supposed to be returned several weeks ago, and the three main aliens leave with him. Mel’s left behind however and sits around looking depressed until Griff arrives offering him fame and fortune, as at some unseen point he’s seemingly turned in to a savvy media whore. Cue the end titles, and a terrible theme song sung by Jimmy Nail and some of the rest of the cast.

It’s by no means so bad that it deserves a place in our “Oh, The Humanity” reviews section of horrendous films but it’s clearly an uneven piece which doesn’t satisfy. It starts off so well and most of the first half is enjoyable but I’ve never witnessed a film run out of steam like this one does. During the first section there’s a real oddness to events which provides a lot of the humour, like when an employee at an unnamed space agency spots the spaceship everyone dashes over to see what’s going on bar one man who’s practicing taxidermy on a bird. Later on there’s a scientist who doesn’t speak English but who sings a note perfect version of Born Free on a Wurlitzer, and the glee everyone shows at the prospect of murdering the aliens is bizarrely funny, as is Commander Matteson bursting in to song and confessing his love for one of the aliens out of the blue. But like much of the humour in the film the quirky side disappears after the first half and it becomes a much blander work.

Also rather disappointing is that most of the laughs come from the supporting cast rather than Mel and Griff, which feels a bit odd, Griff especially feels like a supporting character despite his high billing in the credits and barely speaks during the first thirty minutes at all. Given Smith and Jones’ famous chemistry it’s frustrating that they barely spend any time at all together on screen, but even more of an issue is that all of the characters are thinly drawn and it’s hard to care about them in the slightest. Some of the antics of Jimmy Nail and co made me cringe a lot as well, including when Nail is drunk and vomits over Joanne Pierce’s cleavage, and a dull sex scene feels really out of place in a PG rated movie like this. The film’s also occasionally choppily edited and at times feels like a series of sketches rather than a cohesive whole. All of which could have been solved rather easily, if they’d just spent a little longer making the characters sympathetic and the jokes in the second half funnier then it could have been far more successful and it’s flaws easier to ignore. It definitely has some charm and during the first half there’s some cute satire of politics and the media and a fair sprinkling of slapstick (mostly involving Smith and Nail’s characters) which is genuinely funny stuff, but the second half really ruins the movie.

Famously a troubled production, director Mike Hodges clashed with Smith and Jones, and in an article claimed “They did not trust, or perhaps understand his comedic judgement or cinematic visual satire and the film became far more broad than he had intended” so perhaps the blame lies with the duo rather than Hodges. Which is a surprise as much of their comic output at the time like Not The Nine O’Clock News was far smarter than this, so it’s hard to know what really happened. Either way it’s just a shame it’s not more consistent as it does show some promise, but ultimately can’t be seen as anything other than something of a missed opportunity.

Alex Finch.

Related Links:
The film is screening at the Prince Charles with a Q&A with Griff Rhys Jones and Mike Hodges in January 2019.
The Forgotten Film Club Book One: Morons From Out Of Space by Jon Spira.

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