Disjointed and clumsy from its inaugural splashdown, Coneheads coasts on the goodwill bestowed upon its cult characters, never realizing that the rudimentary aspects of a 5-minute Saturday Night Live sketch aren’t enough to sustain a feature-length film. Its bloodless caricatures, impassive aside from deafening shriek, mug to conceal the vapidity of their dialogue, inspiring confusion in place of emotional resonance. Verbal exchanges drag the pace to a grinding halt, allowing the mind to wander to the curious state of the props and set design. The distraction of strewn junk food and crude gadgetry beget a budget phantasmagoria that unintentionally engages an otherwise dazed audience.
Our extraterrestrial visitors, sporting heads shaped like fleshy traffic cones and prominently-collared spacesuits, attempt to commingle with their Earthly peers, perplexing neighbor and viewer alike through a verbose and barely discernible prattle. This endless feed of technobabble, dribbling from Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin’s frothing mouths, is intended to be humorous, but it’s impossible to snicker as your mind backpedals through a sea of garbled jargon. The exaggerated clip of their speech is matched by accelerated-motion photography, speeding up patches of mechanical ingenuity and mild sexuality for comedic effect, but upsetting the natural rhythm of the film. The narrative itself is just as jumpy, excising subplots and leaving decades in its wake as it tramples towards the foregone conclusion of a tidy climax.
In spite of this hackneyed premise, a rather modern critique of naturalization lies just beneath the surface, presenting planetary aliens as proxies for undocumented immigrants, progressing the plot based on their desperate efforts to evade capture by a draconian INS. Additional insight may have elevated the concept to shrewd political satire, but painting each government operative as a one-dimensional villain seems partisan, establishing the writing staff’s argument as poorly researched and absolutist.
The emigrants themselves fare far better, having their assimilation documented in a Super 8 home movie that eulogizes the “American Dream,” propelling the film further into the abyss of bald sentimentality with each note of Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome.” Despite the triteness of this extended montage, the film improves as its characters shift into bourgeois roles, finding footing through the addition of a teenaged daughter that inspires engaging bits about parenting and dating that transcend the first half’s army of failed gags.
The application of old-fashioned practical effects also succeed against the odds, delighting and disgusting in equal measure by way of a stop-motion karkadann and the cavernous layers of Aykroyd’s comically unfastened jaw, overflowing with rows of arrow-shaped teeth and a protuberant pink tongue. If the style and verve of these creatures and the space opera epilogue were applied to the central domestic drama, Coneheads could have matured into a cult item, but its melange of conflicting elements were never made to cohere, miring otherwise brilliant ideas in a wave of inanity.
Coneheads (Paramount Pictures, 1993)
Directed by Steve Barron
Written by Tom Davis, Dan Aykroyd, Bonnie Turner and Terry Turner
Photographed by Francis Kenny