I n the summer of 1993, the Coneheads movie arrived with high expectations. Its producers had good reason to believe it could ride the coat-tails of one of the top grossing movies of the previous year, Wayneâs World, which pulled in over $180m worldwide. After all, both films translated beloved characters from the classic TV show Saturday Night Live to the widescreen world of Hollywood. More, SNL had enjoyed parallel success with its first attempt to move its franchise from small screen to big â The Blues Brothers. That 1980 film became one of the top-grossing hits of the year, going on to be recognized by the Library of Congress as a âculturally, historically or aesthetically significantâ work.Hear me out: why Johnny Mnemonic isnât a bad movie Read more
Things didnât quite work out that way for the film adaptation of SNLâs pointy-headed aliens. The reviews compiled by Rotten Tomatoes summed up the screen version of these charming intergalactic creatures as âlistless, crude and uninspiredâ. Roger Ebert went in a more alliterative direction, calling it âdismal, dreary and desperateâ.
Small wonder Coneheads lost money in the US and wasnât even released internationally in its day. Thatâs a baffling response considering the depth of the filmâs themes, the variety of its subtexts and, crucially, the laugh-out-loud hilarity of its script. Far from a stretched-out exploitation of a TV bit, or an air-headed comedy, Coneheads had a socio-political resonance and a verbal inventiveness that, apparently, sailed right over the heads of what its title characters would call âthe blunt skullsâ (ie human beings). True, Coneheads was a harder sell than either Wayneâs World or The Blues Brothers. Both earlier films sent up character types we all know well â the suburban stoner teenagers in Wayne and the soul-music-loving baby boomers in The Blues Brothers. Coneheads asked more, challenging a host of our most basic assumptions, including our notions of beauty, our approach to âothernessâ, our attachment to the American dream, as well as our most common expressions of prejudice.
From its start, the film took on big targets. In an early scene, lead aliens Beldar and Prymaat Conehead (stupendously played by Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin) crash-land their space vehicle in Jersey City where they soon check into a local motel. Noticing the Bible in the drawer, Mrs Conehead starts reading, which instantly sends her into uncontrollable fits of laughter. As religious digs go, thatâs right up there with Monty Pythonâs Life of Brian. The movieâs plot centers on two absurdities â the Coneheadsâ attempts to integrate themselves into society and the machinations of a zealous immigration agent who wants to expel them as illegal aliens. (Only later does he discover that they are literal aliens.) The filmâs immigration theme reflected the scriptwritersâ critique of the policies of then president Reagan, an attitude that would turn apoplectic were it to be updated to the days of Donald Trump. In fact, the INS agent in the film does Trump one better by proposing an electrified fence at the southern border primed to zap anyone who tries to enter the country.
Meanwhile, Beldar Conehead presents the most empathic portrayal of the immigrant imaginable. Heâs incredibly hard-working, efficient and uncomplaining. As such, he earns the respect of the fellow strivers he meets in New Yorkâs Black and south Asian communities. Beldarâs ambition allows his family to move to the suburbs, where they try to cover for their unusual appearance and behavior by claiming to come from France. The fact they get away with this howler smartly sends up American provincialism. Likewise, the way the Coneheads eat â âconsuming mass quantitiesâ in their parlance â presents a wry comment on American greed.
The Coneheadsâ placement in the suburbs mirrors the setting of the original SNL skit. It was inspired by two popular American TV shows of the mid-1960s â The Addams Family and The Munsters. Each featured âfreakyâ characters who considered themselves entirely normal. Their confidence served as a cool rebuke to the Eisenhower era of Leave It to Beaver conformity while also presaging the âlet-your-freak-flag-flyâ ethos of the coming counterculture. The Coneheadsâ parallel ability to assimilate into society while staying true to their eccentric identity likewise subverted the whole notion of âthe outsiderâ. The most fascinating part is that, other than the ghastly INS folks, everyone who encounters the Coneheads accepts them entirely. Itâs a perfect example of the disparity between the positive way most people treat outsiders they actually know and the negative way they are manipulated to regard them once theyâre demonized as a threatening force by politicians and pundits.
If that sounds like heavy stuff for a comedy, the movie maintains its lightness through the delight of its language. Because the Coneheads understand no local idioms, they speak in hilariously tortured descriptions. They refer to lunch as âa midday cessation of activities for protein carbo intakeâ and cheese pizza as âa starch disc topped by the molten lactate extract of hooved animalsâ. The language they add from their home planet, like âtorgâ, âsmordidâ and âLorpslapâ, sound like drunk Swedish. Together, their perspective achieves the goal of the greatest satires â to present an alternate universe that lets us see our own more clearly.
Coneheads is available on Paramount Plus in the US and to rent digitally in the UK