“I hate to leave the universe in such a mess.”
With an out-of-this-world premise – complete with an alien eyestalk living inside a purse, brought to life by a special effects crew that would go on to work on Men in Black, among others – My Stepmother is an Alien seems like the kind of movie I would have seen as a kid. It was released in 1988 but, for whatever reason, I never saw it until Arrow decided to put out a Blu-ray.
It probably didn’t help that the film was a box office disaster, critically panned and raking in only about $13 million against its $19 million budget. It’s an especially dismal figure, given the star power the flick brought to bear in its leads. Dan Aykroyd – just four years past Ghostbusters – plays the widowed astrophysicist who is raising his 13-year-old daughter as a single father while trying to contact life on other planets. Fellow Saturday Night Live alum Jon Lovitz plays his horndog of a comedy-relief brother, while Kim Basinger, a decade away from her Academy Award and already a major sex symbol, plays the alien sent to Earth to discover his secrets by winning his heart.
As Amanda Reyes points out in the booklet that accompanies the Blu-ray, some of the film’s critical drubbing came about as a result of unfavorable comparisons to another, more literal fish-out-of-water comedy, Ron Howard’s Splash from 1984. And it would have been easy for My Stepmother is an Alien to do little more than walk those familiar paths. What sets it apart is right there in the title, though.
As much as this flick is about a nerdy but good-hearted scientist falling for a beautiful alien from outer space, it’s also about the scientist’s daughter, her initial joy turned discomfort with the newcomer in their lives, and the resolution that lets them all become a new family unit, stronger than they were before, through the stepmother’s genuine love for her new daughter.
Helping to sell that is the daughter in question, played by then-newcomer Alyson Hannigan, who gets an “introducing” credit at the beginning of the picture (while Tom Jones covers Prince’s “Kiss” on the soundtrack). Indeed, even though Aykroyd, Lovitz, and Basinger were clearly the intended draws when the film was released, Hanigan and one of its most minor characters have almost risen to outshine them in the years since.
When we see a very young Hannigan (she would have been around the same age as her character, 13) getting ready to go on a date, her brace-sporting beau turns out to be none other than an equally-young Seth Green. Of course, it wouldn’t be the last time that the two would hook up, as they famously reunited a decade later in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
That surprise pairing is probably the biggest modern draw to watching this charming but ultimately slight and goofy ‘80s confection, for anyone who didn’t see it when they were kids. But it’s far from the only oddity in the film’s pedigree. In fact, the original script for My Stepmother is an Alien was something very different; a much darker take that intended to focus on themes of child abuse. Written by a comic book fan named Jerico Stone – whose only other film credit is Joe Dante’s 1993 flick Matinee – the script was ultimately deemed unproducible by Paramount Pictures, who suggested that it be changed to a comedy.
To make the comedy part happen, the original script was heavily rewritten and the film was eventually turned over to actor-cum-director Richard Benjamin, who had previously helmed the Tom Hanks comedy The Money Pit just a couple of years before.
Though ultimately destined for box office failure and relative obscurity, My Stepmother is an Alien enjoyed a much more auspicious start. It debuted in Washington, D.C. with none other than then-president-elect George Bush (the first one) in the audience. In fact, Bush was a personal friend of one of the film’s producers, and the premiere of My Stepmother is an Alien was designed as a continuation of his predecessor Ronald Reagan’s habit of showing films (including many of his own) to a select audience either at Camp David or the White House itself.
So, that’s a lot about how My Stepmother is an Alien came to be, but how is the movie itself? Charming and extremely goofy, as I already mentioned. Everything in My Stepmother is an Alien happens very fast, from the “courtship” and marriage between our two leads to the transition from happiness to suspicion and back again on the part of Alyson Hannigan’s character. Everything is rushed and ridiculous, but everyone is also clearly having a good time.
The perhaps surprising standout in the comedy department, given that she is surrounded by Saturday Night Live alums, is Basinger, who not only delivers most of the picture’s best laughs, but manages to play a fish-out-of-water character who seems as frustrated by her own inexperience as anyone in the audience might ever be, while also investing her alien with a warmth and heart that helps sell the film’s schmaltzier beats.
By the end, everything is wrapped up in a bow as goofy as anything that has come before, including a last-minute bid to foil an alien attempt to destroy the planet that comes down to Aykroyd and Basinger doing their best Jimmy Durante impersonation, among other things.
But the last shot of our leads (notwithstanding Jon Lovitz sailing off into space with a bunch of flight attendants) is reserved not for Aykroyd and Basinger, but Basinger and Hannigan, underscoring once again that the story is as much about the relationship between stepparent and stepdaughter as it is a love story between a goofy scientist and an (equally goofy) alien supermodel.