Throughout the ‘80s, director Julien Temple labored to update the joyous spectacle of the classic Hollywood musical for younger generations.
His first love was punk music; as a young Englishman, he’d palled around with the Sex Pistols and directed their mockumentary The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, released in 1980. Almost a decade later, he found himself making an odd musical about aliens trying to pick up girls on Earth: 1988’s Earth Girls Are Easy.
The titular Earth girl, in this case, is Oscar winner Geena Davis, who carries the entire movie effortlessly. Temple’s movies can at times feel more like big parties than classic works of cinema, per se, which means a lot rides on which actors are in attendance. Luckily, the party Earth Girls Are Easy throws involves Jeff Goldblum, Jim Carrey, and Damon Wayans.
Carrey and Wayans would end up meeting again in two years for the sketch comedy show In Living Color, and it’s easy to see why they decided to reunite. Indeed, it’s easy to see why so many actors from Earth Girls Are Easy became huge stars in the next decade. Geena Davis has the earnest lightness of a lead that audiences would follow through the most ridiculous plots, Goldblum provides the kind of self-assured swagger that still steals scenes in blockbusters, and Carrey and Wayans both deliver great physical comedy while looking like heartthrobs.
Throughout Earth Girls Are Easy, everyone seems a little shocked that they’re on set, making a movie based on a parody song of the same title (from Julie Brown's 1984 EP Goddess in Progress). Brown, who also co-wrote the script and appears in the film, was known for musical comedy tracks that played with popular ‘80s Valley Girl stereotypes, celebrating herself in a self-aware and bratty way (other tracks featured in the movie include “I Like ‘Em Big and Stupid” and "'Cause I'm a Blonde"). The movie follows her lead, offering up a Valley Girl movie that’s a little weirder than the rest.
On screen, Davis is a little bit like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz — except, in this case, three very odd men wind up in her strange land. That’s Brown’s idea, as she told Salon in 2012:
“With "Earth Girls," the idea in my head was always "The Wizard of Oz." Dorothy is in this place of longing, and she doesn't know what it is. That's what Geena's character is going through. She's at a level of dissatisfaction. And then this alien comes along, and suddenly she's willing to leave the planet with him.”
Her character, Valerie, is in a relationship with a perpetually unfaithful boyfriend, Ted Gallagher (Charles Rocket), a doctor who can’t stop trying to sleep with nurses. After she kicks him out, three furry aliens (Goldbum, Carrey, and Wayans) that have been monitoring her — with an interest Earth Girls Are Easy never pretends is anything other than sexual — suddenly crash-land into her pool. She investigates but knocks her head on their ship, and the three save her from drowning. After a small adjustment period, they become fast friends.
Davis and Goldblum, who were married at the time Earth Girls Are Easy was shot, practically ooze chemistry. Their eventual sex scene gives Davis some great comic relief (“You’re an alien, and I’m from the Valley”), and it’s carried off with small yet crucial special effects that make the whole fling feel otherworldly. The aliens of this film, we learn, have the power to turn everyone on sexually, although they apparently use this ability sparingly.
The early scenes of Earth Girls focus on aliens trying to figure out how certain objects and customs on Earth actually function, and these moments can drag on a bit, though they’re bolstered by fun musical numbers about Valerie’s job at a nail salon and her attempts to fix her relationship. The movie picks up once Valerie takes the aliens to the nail salon to meet her co-worker (Julie Brown), who gives them all makeovers.
Shorn of their fur and resembling human beings, the aliens are suddenly free to do what they wanted to do all along: hang out with hot babes in L.A. And they do! They drive around talking to women in other cars, and eventually go to a club to dance with some young ladies, despite the fact that they barely understand the planet they’re on. The aliens learn through copying other people’s motions, speech, and body language, but this isn’t a perfect science: Wayans’ alien ignores the girl he’s dancing with to enter into an elaborate dance contest, copying her every movement.
Beyond the plot, Earth Girls thrives on the notion these characters are so fun to be around that they’re worth watching in any scenario. It’s an idea that works in part because the movie itself is also a lot of fun: costume designer Linda Bass clearly had a ball finding outfits for Earth’s newest visitors, all of which would surprisingly still work today. Davis, for example, runs the gamut of ‘80s styles, from bikinis to midriffs to jean jackets. Letting style guide a movie light on plot was a wise choice, especially because the style this director and his team bring to the table is so strong.
The audience for science fiction movies grew rapidly in the 80s, buoyed by huge spectacles like The Empire Strikes Back and E.T.. By the late 1980s, directors had figured out how to directly appeal to teenagers by splicing sci-fi together with comedy: advanced, out-of-control technology meets raging hormones, a great soundtrack, killer fashion, big parties, and a big bow to wrap everything up at the end. Outside of their complicated time travel mechanics, movies like Back to the Future presented wholesome and ultimately positive images of young adulthood.
Like Hairspray, also released in 1988, Earth Girls delivers genre spectacle on its own terms. When it came out, the movie (which was a flop at the box office, it should be said) was received by critics as a fun, disposable trifle. The Washington Post compared it to cheap champagne, saying that “even though it's lousy, it still gives you tickles up the nose.”
But there’s nothing lousy about a movie that knows so clearly what it wants to do. In fact, making everything look this easy is often much harder than it seems. Earth Girls Are Easy only ever wanted to give audiences a fun, lighthearted, slightly sleazy time, and it delivers that in spades.
Earth Girls Are Easy is currently streaming on HBO Max.