Looking back at Ant & Dec’s Alien Autopsy

How does Ant and Dec’s Alien Autopsy, about a faked alien video from 1995, hold up? Rob has a look…

Alien Autopsy is one of the most re-watched films in my DVD collection. Bear with me a little here. Yes, I’m referring to the same Alien Autopsy that stars English TV hosts Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, better known as Ant and Dec. It’s all about a scandal from 1995 where British blokes Ray Santilli and Gary Shoefield duped the world with a film they made in an empty flat depicting the autopsy of a fake extra-terrestrial.

Thinking about it now, I’ve probably seen Alien Autopsy more times than I’ve seen a lot of much better, much more geek-cred-friendly films. In terms of times-watched-by-me, it’s right up there with Star Wars, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Around The World With Timon And Pumba (maybe I’ll get to that another day).

For me, as a child of the early 1990s, I had long adored Ant and Dec. As the Pokémon-jumper-wearing hosts of SMTV Live, no one was cooler than them during my childhood. When – a few years after they had left that fantastic Saturday morning TV show – they brought a film out, and a geeky comedy at that, I was thrilled.

This was an age when I would enforce films upon my entire family, and Alien Autopsy was one we could all agree on as a fun-filled 95 minutes. Because of that, and because I genuinely loved it, I watched it several more times in the months following its release in 2006.

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However, after nine years, a film degree and a year-and-a-half of writing for Den Of Geek, I’ve still yet to meet anyone who shares my passion for Alien Autopsy. Was I wrong? Is it just a naff film that doesn’t deserve the love I gave it in my youth? I re-watched it to find out…

The film kicks off with a very meta meeting at Qwerty Films (who produced the film), where a gruff no-nonsense documentary maker played by Bill Pullman is forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement before even being allowed to meet Gary and Ray (played by Ant and Dec, respectively).

These scenes couldn’t be a more blatant a framing device, not even if you used them to display your holiday snaps on a mantelpiece. I had genuinely forgotten Bill Pullman was even in this film, and I’ve probably seen Alien Autopsy more times than the people that made Alien Autopsy. That’s how dull these scenes are.

However, they serve a purpose that it would probably have been difficult to reach otherwise. There needs to be a reason that this story is being regaled, and the idea of Gary and Ray pitching it to a documentary maker is as passable as any. I like to think that a scene like this actually took place in real life, between the real Gary and Ray, and a real filmmaker. Maybe it got to the point where Ray was asked for proof of the original alien footage, and maybe then they decided it’d be a lot easier to make a comedy instead.

Regardless of your stance on UFOs or unimaginative framing devices, you won’t need to worry about it for long. As soon as we get past the opening credits (reels of film, with Supergrass’ Alright playing in the background), things become very fun indeed.

Like almost every comedy film ever, not every joke in Alien Autopsy hits the mark. Especially when you’ve seen the film more than ten times, in less than ten years. However, the verbal sparring between Ant and Dec is undeniably chuckle-worthy at points.

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After the credits we are pulled back to 1995, with Ant and Dec’s Gary and Ray now ten years away from their boring meeting at Qwerty Films. Immediately, the bickering begins. 1995 Dec has borrowed 1995 Ant’s car without asking. They argue via ginormous mobile phones as fuzzy dice dangle from the rear-view mirror of the borrowed vehicle.

This is a funny scene. Although it’s simple, Ant and Dec have clearly been nagging each other for years, so they step into these roles very easily. There are visual cues, too – Dec’s Ray is a bit of a wheeler-dealer, so he likes wearing chains and things. Ant’s Gary is a worrywart, so he likes wearing glasses and constantly pushing them back up the bridge of his nose when they slip down. Nothing here is complicated or clever, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable to watch. Everyone needs a silly comedy sometimes, and this one’s off to a decent start.

We’re then straight into another humorous encounter – Ray pops around to his nan’s house to tape a film onto an intricate interconnecting web of VCR systems. Here Dec delivers lines like “It’s the new Woody Harrelson, nan – Natural Born Killers – I think you’ll like it” with a cheeky-chappy swagger that David Jason would probably be proud of.

Less successful is the side arc that kicks off now – Ray sizing up Morris, his nan’s new suitor, and warning him not to try any ‘funny stuff.’ The parody role reversal going on is far from subtle, and this feels like a tacked-in side strand engineered to add a bit more comic flavour to what otherwise may be a fairly sparse roster of characters.

In fact, there are lots of moments that give me this feeling that Alien Autopsy is very padded out. We reach another one very quickly…

Now that still is actually from the end of the film, but it’s more interesting than any other images of Jimmy Carr’s involvement of the film. The comedian plays Gary’s boss, essentially some sort of legal big wig at a biscuit manufacturing business.

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Shortly after Ray has finished recommending questionable movies to his nan (and getting caught by Trading Standards), we move into Gary’s work place. Here we have what my Film Studies tutors would have referred to as ‘the refusal of the call,’ the clichéd moment where the hero turns down his destiny for whatever reason the scriptwriters see fit.

No, Gary doesn’t want to go with America with Ray to buy Elvis memorabilia to flog, he sees a bright future in his job as a legal clerk at the biscuit place. On cue, Jimmy Carr beckons Ant into his office. What follows is a fairly unremarkable scene where Carr’s character reveals he isn’t going to promote Ant’s character.

A few more refusals later (my Film Studies tutors would have loved this bit), and Gary eventually agrees to Ray’s hare-brained scheme. It’s been a while since we had a big laugh, but I know where we’re headed in a few minutes, so I don’t particularly mind.

Soon, a voiceover kicks in, and we’re reminded for the first time since the opening credits that this film has a framing device. What essentially happens is that Dec explains the plot. It’s pure exposition. Or Dec-sposition, if you prefer. This happens quite a lot, probably because the writer William Davies (who later went on to work on How To Train Your Dragon, fact fans!) and director Jonny Campbell (who went on to direct Doctor Who’s Vincent And The Doctor episode, amongst other things) would rather get to the point than spend too long explaining the motivations for the trip to America.

The important thing is that they go there, and eventually Ray ends up with a video that proves that man isn’t alone in the universe. It’s quite a leap, but Alien Autopsy is so ruddy good that it only takes a couple of minutes to get from A to B.

This bit, where Ray witnesses a recording from a real alien autopsy, is when many will begin to doubt just how much of Alien Autopsy is ‘based on a true story.’ But hey, there isn’t really time to get bogged down in that kind of thing, especially not when things are about to get interesting again…

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Before that, though, the film veers unnaturally into paranoid thriller territory in order to bring Ray into contact with a top secret United States military film pertaining to the existence of extra-terrestrial life. He meets Harry Dean Stanton’s Harvey at his Elvis-merchandising-selling event, and Harvey whisks Ray off into the night promising him something bigger and better. As I sit through these scenes, I look forward to the bit where Alien Autopsy becomes a British comedy again. But, to be honest, these scenes are a necessary stage of the journey.

Next, We have to endure a few more shoehorned-in comedic supporting characters; first up is Götz Otto’s Laszlo, a deranged gangster that Ant met at a car show, who loves spinning around nude in crop circles (see above) and agrees to finance the purchase of the film; after that, we get David Threlfall’s Jeffrey, a generic nutter who works in a film lab. Eventually though, we get to the crux of what makes this story (fictional or not) so good – they lost the film. Because of the way the film was stored, the footage from Roswell is now un-viewable.

But Laszlo is expecting to see the film. Being a deranged gangster who lent Ant and Dec $30,000 to secure the purchase, they really don’t really want to go back to him empty handed. The solution? Well, naturally, we British decide to make do and mend. With no useable footage left, Ant and Dec and their friends will reshoot a passable-to-a-gangster version of an alien autopsy video from 1947.

These twenty-or-so minutes are truly brilliant. They’re what my Film Studies lecturers would call the ‘fun and games’ stage, when we’re through the exposition and not yet into the third act downward spiral. This is the section of the film I’ve really been looking forward to watching again.

This stage kicks off when, after realising the original film is a no go, Ray and Gary are in their local kebab shop fretting for their lives. That might not be the safest bet for a sure-fire side-splitting scenario, but it definitely works here.

As it turns out, all of Ray and Gary’s mates can help; Omid Djalili’s Melik moonlights as a wedding photographer, so naturally shooting a convincing 1940s military film shouldn’t be an issue; Ray’s nan’s suitor Morris works in manikin-making, so he’ll chip in with a photorealistic alien corpse; the local butcher will whip you up some alien entrails using mince meat and pigs blood; and, Gary’s sister is away in Ibiza for a week, so that’s a shooting location sorted.

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I still love this sequence, where they divvy out the jobs as if shooting a 1940s Roswell film in a 1990s London flat is no problem whatsoever. This scene’s comedic value is only topped by the magnificent scene that follows soon after…

After the kebab shop scene and a short montage – which involves a lot of scribbling, faffing and jaunty music – we finally reach my favourite scene – the filming of the fake autopsy. Any tense scene in moviemaking history could be made hilarious by adding in Madeleine Moffat as a snack-delivering nan, but sadly Hollywood big wigs haven’t taken me up on that idea.

Here, Moffat’s timing and delivery (of both nibbles and dialogue) is a joy to behold. When she popped into a shot of Gary dissecting the ‘alien’ brain to offer him a biscuit, I was in stitches. As Lee Oakes’ Edgar looks on through glass, pretending to be a government official observing the procedure, Moffat nips in to offer him a sausage on a stick. I lost it again, even though I knew it was coming. This scene is brilliantly British and sensationally silly, and that’s why I love it so much.

There are some other, broader comic beats here too; Gary’s sister returns early from Ibiza, Ray tells her ‘it’s not what it looks like,’ she faints; Gary pushes Ray, he slips on the pig’s blood and falls; Gary drops the brain, Morwenna Banks’ Jasmine suggests putting a pot plant on the stain; and, also, the replacement brain strongly resembles a haggis and would apparently provide a ‘very nutritious meal for a family of four.’ Sadly, they eventually call it a day and I have to stop laughing my head off and start focussing on the plot again.

Ray then shows Laszlo the film, and he utterly believes it’s real. Because of this, and showcasing some more superb decision-making, Ray and Gary hatch a plan to sell a few copies of their film in the local corner shop. After some unconvincing Dec-sposition, they decide to host an event at the Museum of London to impress said corner shop owners. Hundreds of people, and the national press, arrive as well.

Resultantly, another scheme is hatched – to sell the film to the highest bidding television network in every territory around the globe. Soon, they’re superstars. The scene where the core group of friends gather around to watch the American/English broadcast, where Jonathan Frakes cameos via archive footage, is genuinely sweet and heart-warming.

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Laszlo isn’t happy, though, and starts threatening Ray and demanding more dosh than they originally agreed. In a fairly poor bit of narrative streamlining, his character is killed by CIA and everyone else is chuffed by it. While this didn’t used to bother me, I now find it pretty heartless that his death is played for laughs, even if he was quite a menacing unfunny side character who exposed himself a lot.

Just as Laszlo was introduced to fill a plot point, his death is used to make room for another one – without guns being pointed at him any more, Ray is free to cash in on his fame. He begins flying around the world and appearing on chat shows, getting more and more unbearably annoying as he goes. Dec plays Ray-gone-wild surprisingly well, and it’s the biggest step outside his charming comfort zone that the film asks of him. I didn’t dwell on Dec’s smarm when I watched Alien Autopsy before, but today I was genuinely impressed that he pulled it off.

Soon enough, Ray’s hubris ruins it for everyone and their film’s fraudulent nature is revealed. From here, after giving Ray and Gary a happy ending in the shape of a huge pile of cash, the film blends back into its framing device, as the documentary maker is made to sign another NDA.

Then, the input of the real Ray Santilli and Gary Shoefield (as executive producers) becomes clear, with the film insisting on reinstating the idea that there was an original alien autopsy video that got accidentally destroyed before they made their fake. It jars a little, but the fun selection of outtakes that follows manages to take the edge off a bit.

The ending isn’t that strong, then, but I still found plenty to enjoy on my Alien Autopsy re-watch. Although I can now see why some didn’t like the film (the wacky side characters got on my nerves the most), I still think the barmy British charm that exudes from the second act is well worth the price of admission.

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