Your Attention Span Won't Survive 'Invasion' Created by Simon Kinberg and David Weil

Starring Golshifteh Farahani, Shamier Anderson, Shioli Kutsuna, Firas Nassar, Billy Barratt, Daisuke Tsuji, Sam Neill
Your Attention Span Won't Survive 'Invasion' Created by Simon Kinberg and David Weil
3
Ever since author H.G. Wells upset the sensibilities of Victorian-era England with his depiction of humanity at conflict with a Martian enemy in 1897's The War of the Worlds, our popular imagination has been fascinated by ideas of "first contact." In film, this concept translates broadly and effectively with '90s blockbuster hits like Independence Day and Contact alongside more cerebral efforts like Under the Skin and Arrival. However, for television, the results are somewhat mixed, with classics like The X-Files rubbing shoulders with more meddling entries like the lack lustre V reboot, Falling Skies, Colony, and several contemporary adaptations of Wells' original genre-defining story.

All of this is to say that Invasion, the latest entry in Apple TV+'s sci-fi programming slate, comes with some cultural expectations baked in. Modern audiences have more alien stories than they know what to do with, which generates a demand to change things up and use the medium to subvert existing genre tropes.

Invasion decides to approach this issue by pushing the aliens to the periphery, instead focusing almost exclusively on human drama and the reality of a first contact scenario grounded in the everyday. Created by Simon Kinberg (Dark Phoenix, The Twilight Zone) and David Weil (Hunters), the series follows the different perspectives of various people on separate continents as they face down the far-reaching consequences of a devastating alien invasion.

Former med student turned stay-at-home mother Aneesha (Golshifteh Farahani) discovers that her husband, Ahmed (Firas Nassar), has been unfaithful. The knowledge of Ahmed's infidelity threatens to unravel their marriage, as they're forced to flee their suburban Long Island enclave and escape upstate with their two young children, Luke (Azhy Robertson) and Sarah (Tara Moayedi). American solider Trevante (Shamier Anderson) is on deployment in Afghanistan and his unit is one of the first to encounter a curious alien anomaly. After this deadly extraterrestrial incursion and the loss of his men, Trevante is injured and alone behind enemy lines, and must find his way back home to his estranged partner in L.A.

London teenager Casper (Billy Barret) is being bullied for his epilepsy and poor home life when his school bus is struck by a falling satellite while on a field trip and crashes somewhere in the pastoral highlands. Mitsuki (Shioli Kutsuna) is a communications specialist for Japan's space program who's also secretly in love with a female astronaut on a doomed mission to board the ISS. Oklahoma sheriff John Bell Tyson (Sam Neill) is retiring after forty years of service in his small-town post and feels unfulfilled over not making a big enough difference. When a mysterious disappearance occurs on his last day on the job, he refuses to let his one last chance at redemption get away and doggedly chases down leads as strange events begun to occur across the planet.

The most obvious reference points for Invasion fall somewhere between the endless "mystery box" bait of Lost and the cloying melodrama of This Is Us. To his credit, Kinberg straight up admitted to the J.J. Abrams influence in an interview, which goes a long way to explaining why his series spends a good half of its first season slowly teasing events that are incredibly obvious to everyone but the show's characters, moving from one unenthusiastic set piece to the next with little emotional pay-off. Episodes come and go with almost zero plot development; some approach nearly an hour of screen time and others barely push half as long without much reason or purpose.

By the time Invasion's alien antagonists are revealed in a substantial way, they're treated as a thematic afterthought. The creature design is genuinely weird and unique enough, but viewers looking for any story detail beyond that will be left wanting by the season's conclusion. There's no hint as to who or what they are, or ideas about how and why they're here on Earth. The most consequential exchanges of this nature happen practically off-screen, popping up in news reel footage ("Strange things are happening") squeezed into frames of house interiors and gas stations, or in brief interrogation scenes pumped full of leaden exposition that gesture towards terraforming as a vague motivation. Even a glimpse at alien vessels and any real understanding of their physical form is saved for the show's final two episodes, which makes the near eight-hour preamble before it feel like an interminable crawl.

To that end, the main characters hardly seem to grasp the profundity of the existential stakes they've been thrust into and, more often than not, seem psychologically fixated on airing out personal grievances and petty squabbles because the plot demands it. Which reveals perhaps the single most damning element in Invasion's entire narrative construction: utterly boring characters. Perhaps with the exception of JASA's Mitsuki, who Kutsuna portrays with a genuine sense of pathos and leads her to a fulfilling arc across ten episodes, the show's overwhelming emphasis on interior over exterior, on individual drama over alien sci-fi spectacle, is severely undercut by an insistent focus on reprehensible characters that are the least deserving of surviving of an alien invasion.

Aneesha and Ahmed are terrible for each other and even worse as parents in a crisis, abandoning their (admittedly annoying) children at times without explanation and failing to provide a shred of reasoning or planning across the whole season. Much is hinted at Trevante's darker past and a big secret to come, but his eventual reveal fails to make up for his jingoistic chest-beating and blaming everyone else for his own problems. Casper lands in a clear Lord of the Flies scenario and then spends most of the season drawing sketches and telling stories about his mother before she's unceremoniously killed offscreen. Neill's Sheriff Bell is gruff and boilerplate, feeling like a paper-thin rehash of something Tommy Lee Jones did a decade ago in a much better Coen Brothers film.

As Kinberg told Polygon, "I wanted to tell [an invasion story] the way it would be experienced by, you know, 99.999 repeating-percent of our population, and just be in the dark. I wanted all these characters to be in crisis, and for their drama to be strong enough that it could stand on its own without aliens. And the aliens are just this huge added bonus that blows [the drama] up into a bigger scale and a bigger stage."

While this intention seems genuine and Kinberg's calculation of banking on a large-scale story told through personal stakes and intimate encounters sounds good in theory, Invasion's tepid execution leaves far too much room for retreat. (Apple)