The condemned: Elvis From Outer Space (2020)
The plot: If you’re curious about whether or not the plot of a movie called Elvis From Outer Space will make sense, you needn’t worry, because this film will explain it to you roughly a dozen times over. Then, just for good measure, the characters onscreen will pause to explain it to each other, as well, as though trapped in a feedback loop of gratuitous exposition with the viewer. No leaving things to the imagination, here—unless you count wondering what exactly the thought process was that brought all involved to this end result. See, a movie called Elvis From Outer Space might lead a casual reader to assume it was a comedy. And while there are definitely a few moments that elicit laughter, it remains anyone’s guess the degree to which chuckles provoked by this movie are intentional.
The film’s narrative begins more or less how you might think, given the title: Rather than dying back in 1977, the King made an arrangement with some aliens (aided by the CIA? It’s a little unclear) to have his consciousness transferred into a human-shaped “biosuit”—a handy way of explaining why star George Thomas looks very little like Presley himself—and taken aboard a spacecraft, where he then travelled to Alpha Centauri, performing his music for adoring beings throughout the stars. But after 30 years, Elvis is lonely for Earth and the secret daughter he left behind, so his alien hosts agree to return him to the planet, with the caveat that he only has a few days before Earth’s gravity and atmosphere break down his biosuit and kill him—for good this time, if he doesn’t make it back to the ship by the appointed deadline.
And hey, wouldn’t you know it, Elvis just so happens to come back during the very weekend that the “1970s Elvis World Crown Competition” is taking place in Las Vegas. This very strange concept is essentially competing Elvis impersonators—only those adopting his ’70s era aesthetic, mind you!—singing original songs that “sound like they could be” Elvis hits; if that sounds even more depressing than a normal Elvis impersonator contest, it is. Let this be a warning to anyone wanting to make a movie about Elvis that doesn’t have any money, and thus can’t afford the rights to any songs from his catalogue. (Or perhaps take it as a challenge! Like a Tupac movie positing that he’s still alive and performing knockoff raps the real Shakur would have vomited upon hearing.)
So, despite the fact that this trip is supposedly all about Elvis’ daughter, “Linda Truman” (in her 40s and not knowing Elvis is her real father), he enters this contest under the pseudonym John “JB” Burrows, and proceeds to so electrify the audience, the whole nation is soon captivated by the fact that there’s a pretty good Elvis impersonator at this subpar Elvis competition, wondering who the mysterious JB could actually be. (This is not even the biggest leap in logic made by the film, but it’s close.) Meanwhile, Elvis falls in love with the contest organizer, the CIA tries to kick him off the planet and holds his daughter hostage to make him comply, and the guy narrating the entire thing has his own subplot about owing money to the mob and therefore needing to win the contest for himself. What? Who are we supposed to root for?
Over-the-top box copy: Pretty sure the title speaks for itself in this case. No box copy, though the two taglines accompanying the box image in the promotional materials are “Supposedly based on actual events, maybe” and “The King lives.” They might want to focus on the second one, as the former implies this is a comedy, which again—well, we’ll get to it.
The descent: Aside from the fact that the name implies something dumb enough to potentially be fun, there’s a deeply weird backstory to this one. Or rather, weird in the sense that it’s pretty unusual to still happen in the 21st century. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, it was actually fairly common practice for disreputable low-budget studios to buy the print of a shoddy movie made years prior, and then recut it and/or add new scenes to change it just enough in order to release the production as a brand new film. And that’s what happened here: Acknowledging the very Roger Corman-esque nature of the decision, a company called JOBA Entertainment purchased a crappy little film named Memphis Rising: Elvis Returns, made in 2011 by an Elvis superfan named Marv Z Silverman. (Being an Elvis fan seems to be the only credential he possesses, having apparently never been involved in movie-making in any other capacity before or since.)
Bringing in a new writer/director/editor, Tracy Wuischpard, the film was then altered, with some scenes removed, new ones added (they brought back star George Thomas and used some very lo-fi digital effects to try and de-age him for those reshoots, almost a decade later), and expanding the narrative with lots of what we’ll generously call “padding.” Wuischpard also added the brand-new voiceover, completely shifting the story to be from the POV of a minor character, Big M (another Elvis impersonator from the contest), whose own storyline gets awkwardly shoehorned in on top of the whole “long-dead rock star returns from space with aliens to force the CIA to let him see his daughter” thing. If that seems like a silly extra story to ladle atop this entire other central plot (and it certainly does!), please, no one tell Tracy Wuischpard. The whole thing screams “recipe for disaster.” Needless to say, I was all in.
The theoretically heavenly talent: Elvis Presley. Just kidding. Bizarrely, the movie does devote numerous minutes of subplot to the fact that the King summons his old bodyguard Sonny West to again serve as protection for him, and the real-life Elvis Presley’s former real-life bodyguard Sonny West shows up to act like this is his old buddy. It’s deeply weird and a little unsettling. It does, however, provide an opportunity for a The Room-like moment when the narrator, Big M, freaks out about meeting Sonny West (I guess that must be a big deal for die-hard Elvis fans in reality?), only to abruptly cut it short with a tossed-off, “Sonny West, I don’t believe—hey, Grandma,” to a woman in a wheelchair who has never been introduced, and we never see again.
The execution: Let’s start with the worst thing about it, because it happens again and again in this film. The biggest addition to this recut film seems to be the inclusion of Barry Live!, a TV show that seems to spend the majority of its episodes talking about the Elvis song competition (sure), mostly as a means of giving the movie an easy way to try and situate the events of the plot in the wider universe of the film, which seems unnecessary until you realize that trying to make this competition seem like a bigger deal than it would actually be is really all this revised version of the film has going for it. Thus, Barry Live!, with its smiling and dancing host, plays multiple times during Elvis From Outer Space, and each time we see the entire opening sequence to this fictional TV series. It goes like this—and get used to it, because it feels like a third of the movie is watching this little montage.
Apparently, Wuischpard got the actor who played the emcee of the contest in the original film to shoot all these segments in a wholly green-screen environment, directing him remotely from New York by having a P.A. wheel around an iPad with her head on it so she could oversee things. As you can see, the results definitely embody this literal process of “phoning it in.” Any time the movie’s momentum seems like it’s flagging (which is more or less constantly), you can be sure Barry will pop up, dancing his way into confirming that, yes, it sure is flagging.
But the voiceover narration by Big M is really where this film assures its disposability. Wuischpard presumably mixed up the two elements of the old saying, “Show, don’t tell,” because the movie is nothing if not a series of scenes in which Big M tells us what’s happening, we then watch it happen, and then Big M returns to tell us what we just saw, while also saying a few more facts about the characters, plot, and general thrust of the narrative, just so there’s never any confusion—or, god forbid, subtext. It was hard to choose the least essential example of this; there are copious ones to decide among (not least of which being a moment right after we watch Elvis escape from the CIA, and Big M helpfully pipes in to say, “So that’s how Elvis escaped from the CIA”). But perhaps this instance of voiceover literally just saying what we’re seeing onscreen takes the prize.
At every step of the way, budget limitations rear their ugly heads, highlighting the challenges of making a movie that’s supposed to involve large numbers of people being excited about something. The most entertaining of these might be the crowds of people that purportedly flock to this Elvis impersonator contest; fascination with the competition is sweeping the nation, because the kids are all about Elvis these days, for sure. But each time we cut to the contest stage, taking place in a Vegas ballroom, the audience shots reveal the same 15 or so women hired to be extras pretending to freak out over Elvis impersonators, and there’s very little effort made to hide the fact that this is the entirety of the “crowd.” Better still, for a contest that’s meant to unfold over the course of several days, each time we see these fans, they’re almost always wearing the same outfits.
Reportedly, the presence of aliens was significantly beefed up in Elvis From Outer Space, which is why we’re treated to CGI of Elvis’ alien benefactors that resembles nothing so much as cutscenes from a Playstation 2 game. The graphics are pretty funny when paired alongside—oh no, it’s Barry Live! again! But why interrupt the movie just when it’s trying to build narrative momen-
As I was saying, the aliens drop off Elvis at the beginning of the film, and then spend the rest of the movie’s running time hovering in space above Arizona, with the camera periodically returning to watch them silently standing around, staring at a TV screen of the events unfolding below. It’s funny enough when they’re just standing motionless, as though waiting for someone to grab the game console controller and start up the next level, but it gets even better when they open their mouths. The biggest laugh the movie provides is when Elvis meets his secret daughter for the first time. Linda’s mother never told her who her real father was, so when the CIA brings a captured Linda to Elvis, she quite understandably has no idea who he is, or why she’s been brought to him. He says, “Hi, baby.” She (appropriately) says, “I don’t know you.” Cut to the aliens, watching from above, who somberly turn to one another and intone, “She doesn’t know him.” It’s amazing.
Notice the deadly serious music playing underneath the scene, meant to emphasize the moving nature of Elvis’ tragic predicament? That’s the most baffling element of Elvis From Outer Space—it wants us to take the emotional journey of Elvis seriously, as though this were a Lifetime tearjerker about a father trying to reconnect with the daughter he never knew. Rather than lean into the ridiculousness of its premise, the film seems to take for granted that anything it shows us is inherently funny, because of the “wacky” conceit. So it never actually offers anything in the way of a comic setpiece, or even one-liners, or anything that feels like it’s trying to make us laugh. Instead, it wants to touch our hearts; I shit you not, three-fourths of the way through the film, everything stops and we get a montage watching Linda grow up, set to a Muzak version of M83. Mind you, this is for a character who has never spoken, we know nothing about, and even Elvis himself has barely said three words about her. What is even happening at this point.
That goes on for two more full minutes.
It is confounding, watching the movie make choice after choice like this. Honestly, I debated just making this month’s Home Video Hell nothing but an assemblage of these clips, organized in random order, just to emphasize that it really doesn’t matter how you watch this—the movie doesn’t care if you laugh, but it wants you to cry. Elvis From Outer Space wants you to get all choked up from a biosuit-clad, alien-sponsored Elvis Presley hugging a middle-aged woman who has never met him before, and then watch him get back on a spaceship and sail away. And honestly, how are we supposed to take any of this seriously when the main character’s sideburns are so clumsily glued on?
Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Nil. It’s not anywhere close to the realm of so-bad-it’s-good. It’s more stupefying than anything, a 90-minute exercise in what I can only assume is a tax write-off gone horribly wrong.
Damnable commentary track or special features? Alas, no—some explanations for the choices made here would have been extremely helpful. A commentary track would likely be more entertaining than the film itself. But hey, we’ll always have Barry Live!, right?