You may not have noticed that there’s been very little buzz online about the 20th anniversary of Spaceman. That’s because you probably have no idea that Spaceman exists. It’s all right, though. Hardly anyone does. But perhaps they should.
A little background for the uninitiated, which in this case includes practically everybody. Spaceman is a 1997 feature film in which a young boy is abducted by aliens and trained as a gladiator in an intergalactic bloodsport. When he finds himself marooned on Earth as a young man, he struggles to adapt to a day-to-day existence that doesn’t include battles to the death. It’s a dark sci-fi comedy with a melancholy undercurrent of existential quandary. That’s a description befitting Spaceman writer and director Scott Dikkers, best known as the co-founder of satire juggernaut The Onion.
Of course, that credit didn’t mean as much in 1997, when The Onion was a cult item, a hugely funny publication still transitioning from its roots as a Midwestern college newspaper to a place of national prestige. Still, his Onion bona fides gave Dikkers the leverage to pursue his filmmaking dreams, albeit on a very small scale.
“Steven Spielberg was my idol in my teens,” Dikkers told me in a recent interview. “When I was a teenager, the following movies came out: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. Obviously Star Wars was big, Superman was big. It was the golden age of Hollywood B-movies produced as A-movies,” Using that concept as a guideline, Dikkers set out to write Spaceman as a throwback to both old-school sci-fi flicks and the high-minded blockbusters of his youth. Although he’d attended film school at the University of Southern California and helmed a sketch comedy TV show in Madison, Wis., he was still very much a newbie when it came to making movies. Once he got started, though, the project propelled him. “It hit me as a funny fish-out-of-water story. I’d never written a screenplay before, but it was one of those things that I just felt compelled to do. I really had no control over it.”
The end result was a well-pedigreed, ambitiously conceived, genuinely funny curiosity from the thick of the ‘90s indie boom. By all appearances, Spaceman should be a cult classic. Heaven knows lesser films from the same period have claimed that title. Yet 20 years later it remains deeply obscure, if well-liked by the few folks who’ve actually seen it. (The DVD is out of print, though not impossible to find.)
Dikkers confirms that obscurity, and says he doesn’t recall getting any feedback from fans over the years. “I don’t know that there’s any kind of fan base. It’s just a small, unknown movie.” That can be chalked up at least partially to what Dikkers calls “the indie film lottery” — for every Clerks or El Mariachi, the ‘90s yielded dozens of also-rans that didn’t grab the public’s fancy in quite the same way. Still, it’s worth examining some of the factors that have held Spaceman back from true cult status.
One reliable path to cultdom is to have someone involved go on to greater stardom. Films like Following and Bottle Rocket were indie hits on their own merit, but they’d likely be largely forgotten today if their directors hadn’t grown up to be Christopher Nolan and Wes Anderson. While Scott Dikkers carries an impressive list of credentials — beyond his print work, he also created the classic anti-comedy comic strip Jim’s Journal and produced the Peabody-Award winning Onion News Network video series — he’s a long way from being a household name. He does have another feature film to his credit, 2011’s similarly overlooked Bad Meat, but it’s easy for people to write him off as a funny guy who made a couple of movies rather than a legitimate filmmaker.
Of the Spaceman cast, both leading man David Ghilardi and deranged antagonist Brian Stack are accomplished writers and recognizable character actors, but not many people are going to hunt down a 20-year-old comedy because it stars the teacher from that one Buffy episode and Jorgenson from 30 Rock. It’s very possible that Dikkers will direct a zeitgeist-grabbing movie somewhere down the line, or that Stack will become America’s new favorite sitcom dad. When that happens, folks will seek out Spaceman, but until then it’s not going to get discovered via star power alone.
Another stumbling block for Spaceman may be that it’s actually too well-made. Although it’s clearly made on the cheap by largely untested filmmakers — “It was not a low-budget, independent film. It was more like a glorified home movie,” says Dikkers — it’s a well-written, coherently structured piece of work built around actors who mostly know what they’re doing. While it’s not unheard of for legitimate forgotten gems to find their cults in the streaming era, the real drawing cards are the outsiders and oddballs. Homemade gore-jockeys like Mark and John Polonia and DIY anarchists like Charles Pinion command cult followings not because they overcame the limitations of their tiny budgets, but because they leaned into them and created movies so defiantly non-professional that they bristle with a strain of liveliness that no traditional film could come close to capturing. There’s a whole underground of videohounds dedicated to unearthing shot-on-video weirdness and backyard slasher movies that would be justifiably hated by 98% of moviegoers and fervently embraced by the 2% for whom they resonate.
No one is going to mistake Spaceman for a big-studio production, but its comparative competence ironically makes it less interesting to a certain segment of obscurity seekers. Perversely enough, there might be more of a market for Dikkers’ film if he’d fallen far shorter of his Spielbergian ideals. As devotees of Birdemic and Samurai Cop can tell you, there’s always a place in the canon for audacious failures. Solidly made, modestly ambitious riffs on classic themes don’t have quite the same ironic appeal.
Along the same lines, the vast majority of those low-budget rediscoveries are pure genre fare. There are certain genres of film that have always attracted a more dedicated fanbase — just look at the hundreds of websites and podcasts dedicated to obscure ‘80s horror and action flicks. Italian exploitation of the ‘70s has plenty of devotees, as do the nudie boom of the ‘60s and = the direct-to-video erotic thrillers of the ‘90s. While Spaceman would seem to have some genre clout behind it as a sci-fi action movie birthed at the end of the ‘90s indie cinema boom, it’s also a cerebral satire with elements of romantic comedy. The bandwagon for that particular genre is exceedingly small. Comedies in general have a harder row to hoe here. It’s rare to see a low-budget, star-free comedy break the cult barrier. After all, even a bad horror or action movie often yields some unintentional laughs or ironic fun. A bad comedy, on the other hand, is a truly painful thing, so perhaps viewers are more reluctant to take the gamble.
So does all of this mean that Spaceman is doomed to remain an ultra-obscure artifact of an overstuffed indie cinema boom? Not necessarily. Despite the long odds, it does boast a number of cult cinema hooks, starting with its title character. David Ghilardi’s unwavering deadpan in the lead role brings to mind Peter Weller’s Robocop played partly for laughs, but with an unnerving intensity that makes the film’s fight sequences feel surprisingly high-stakes. Pair Ghilardi’s performance with a memorable bit of costume design that makes Spaceman look like a mash-up of Pee-Wee Herman, Klaus Nomi, and the Good Humor Man, and you’ve got the kind of iconically off-kilter character who could launch a hundred hipster Halloween costumes.
It’s also a movie whose backstory is laden with the kind of quirky indie anecdotes that film geeks gobble up. The cast, for example, was patched together from a mix of Chicago-area actors and comedians, various Onion staffers (including Robert D. Siegel, future writer of The Wrestler and The Founder), and assorted homeless people who’d work for the price of a room. In fact, the film’s lead villain, a mob boss who wants to recruit Spaceman as a contract killer, is played by a Madison panhandler whose “devious look” impressed Dikkers. The film even boasts a bit of an Entourage tie-in, as Spaceman had a long flirtation with notorious Hollywood super-agent Ari Emanuel, muse of Jeremy Piven and brother of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, who wound up dumping the project in an awkward phone call to Dikkers from a ski slope.
And, of course, the most important factor that could lead to a Spaceman resurgence: it’s a pretty darn good movie. It’s rough around the edges, to be sure, and not all of its ‘90s signifiers have aged gracefully, but it’s a very strange, very funny, oddly insightful piece of work that’s decidedly not for everyone but is right on point for a select few. It’s a cult classic, in other words, the type of film that would almost certainly catch the fancy of a certain audience if there were only a way to put it in front of them.
But even if his movie never sees that kind of resurgence — and he seems justifiably skeptical that it will — Dikkers is content to regard it as a learning tool. “I’m a huge believer in failure as the pathway to success. I think failure is the best teacher. There are a lot of failures associated with Spaceman, and I learned a lot from all of them.”