Invasion puts humanity to the test even before the aliens arrive [Apple TV+ review]

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Invasion review: New Apple TV+ sci-fi series goes big and broad.
The new Apple TV+ sci-fi series about an alien invasion goes big and broad.
Image: Apple TV+

Right after Foundation took the world by storm and For All Mankind raked in a third season, Apple TV+ is rolling the dice that viewers will get excited about yet another space show. This one’s called Invasion, and it debuts Friday.

The new sci-fi series follows a half-dozen people as an alien invasion force wreaks havoc all over the planet. Can these people get over their foibles and weaknesses to survive? Can this show extend its predecessors’ winning streak on Apple TV+?

Invasion review

it was a bad day even before the aliens arrived on this continent-hopping Apple TV+ show’s debut episode. On Long Island, Aneesha Malik (played by Golshifteh Farahani) and her husband, Ahmed (Firas Nassar), sent their kids Luke (Azhy Robertson) and Sarah (Tara Moayedi) to school. But the kids came home only a few hours later. Something weird was going on, and every student in school got a nosebleed at exactly the same time. Everyone except Luke…

Aneesha winds up dealing with it because her husband is working late. But when Luke tries to look up his dad’s location in the Find My Phone app, he discovers he’s not in New York City, where his office is supposed to be, but just a few miles away in a nice suburb. Having nothing better to do and naturally curious, Aneesha drives over there and finds Ahmed in the arms on an Instagram food influencer.

Meanwhile, in the middle of nowhere, Sheriff John Bell Tyson (Sam Neill) is about to retire. (Alzheimer’s disease has started creeping up on him). But he’s gripped by a missing persons case. Two drug-dealing ne’er-do-wells went missing with their mother’s truck, and John decides he can’t take the badge off until he does this final thing. Of course, he keeps finding more than just signs of two dumb schemers having gone AWOL — like a perfectly round crater in the middle of a cornfield that’s scaring off birds and locusts.

Elsewhere …

In Tokyo, astronaut Hinata Murai (Rinko Kikuchi) plans for her most important shuttle launch. She and her crew will head to the International Space Station for the longest stint ever endured by any Japanese astronaut. What nobody knows is that she’s dating a communications expert at the Japanese Aeronautics and Space Administration, Mitsuki (Shioli Kutsuna). So whatever happens to Hinata in space, Mitsuki will be silently watching from her desk at the big control room down on Earth. Which will make things hard if things go sideways.

Despite having a group of loyal friends, British schoolboy Caspar Morrow (Billy Barratt) still has it rough. He has epilepsy. School bully Monty (Paddy Holland) makes it his mission to humiliate Caspar in front of everyone every chance he gets. And Caspar has a crush on tough girl Jamila (India Brown), who won’t give him the time of day. Maybe today’s school field trip might change things.

And finally, in Afghanistan, U.S. Army operator Trevante Ward (Shamier Anderson) is so used to life in the desert with his unit that he’s having a hard time thinking about returning to civilian life. He and his wife aren’t handling their long-distance relationship well at all. And he’s grown addicted to feeling like big man on campus in Kandahar.

And again that’s all before the aliens start attacking.

The truth is out there

Invasion review on Apple TV+: Sam Neill holds down the show with his usual intensity
Sam Neill holds down Invasion with his usual intensity.
Photo: Apple TV+

Invasion executive producer Simon Kinberg just can’t help himself. Kinberg, who co-created the show with Hunters creator and head writer David Weil, is one of those fixtures in culture whose name you probably don’t know unless you’re an obsessive.

Like Foundation creator David S. Goyer, Kinberg has been keeping the wheels of the American blockbuster machine well greased for the last 20 years. He’s written most of the X-Men movies and produced the rest. He also penned a bunch of films plainly intended to start similar series (Sherlock Holmes, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Jumper, This Means War). Kinberg also helped in a big way on the CBS All Access reboot of The Twilight Zone, which was pretty poorly received.

To say that the quality of Kinberg’s work varies is true. But there’s also a sort of inherent lack of ambition here. Kinberg has largely been content to steward franchises and do whatever companies needed of him.

Will humanity shine in Invasion?

So Invasion presents an interesting possibility. What if a guy famous for big, loud ladles full of nothing finally got a chance to make his passion project? What would that look like?

Well, because Kinberg can’t fully divest himself of his instincts as a producer/director of big-budget fantasy — and to be fair, why should he, because he’s made quadrillions at it — there’s lots of running and shouting and explosions and too-big character moments in Invasion.

But the show also offers a hint of real humanity missing from Kinberg’s movies, and for that I am most grateful. The show would be above-average spectacle TV but for the characters, who for the most part elevate it.

When big and broad go bad

So let’s start with the bad. Too many of the characters completely overstate their thematic position in the story. Neill’s troubled sheriff, for instance, is written like someone just watched No Country for Old Men and thought, “This is good but what if it were also The Ten Commandments?”

Neill’s Tyson unspools way too many revealing monologues and symbolic gestures toward biblical importance. There’s the scene where he says to his deputy, “Just as men of the robe are chosen by god, so are men of the baaaaadge.” And then there’s when he goes and stands in the alien crater and yells for the heavens to show him a sign, only for the aliens below him to attack. Kinberg should do hard time in writer’s jail for this stuff.

The little portrait Kinberg and Co. paint of the rednecks whom Sheriff Tyson contends with is similarly broad. They’ll admit that guys hiding out in abandoned buildings lousy with Confederate graffiti will be feckless racists. But because it’s TV, they use 80-year-old slang to skirt censorship or outright offending anyone. These guys do not for a minute seem like the genuine article despite the expert production design.

Then there’s Monty, the school bully. He’s a pure sadist of the sort fiction always tries to tell us exists. He lies about his family life to get Caspar to open up about his own deadbeat father so he can use the info as blackmail later. You’re in the midst of an alien invasion. Does your adversary also have to be a little Richard Nixon?

Divorced from reality

Ahmed the cheating husband is similarly overdrawn. The same night his wife catches him in flagrante delicto, he calls the mistress and tries to abandon his family in full sight of them by begging for a ride out of the neighborhood. Maybe he’d do this to the wife he’s fallen out of love with, but to the kids?

I’m torn between believing this is really what a true coward would do in this situation and feeling like Kinberg and Weil are stacking the decks against the character so it will feel more satisfying later when they either kill him or have him reconcile his behavior with some operatic gesture or other. I don’t like it, but we’ll see what happens.

Then there are the cutesy flourishes that keep you from fully being invested in individual scenes. Every time we change locations, we see a chyron that explains the situation. That’s unnecessary, certainly. But on top of that, Kinberg adds the word “Earth” to every location. Obviously we’re eventually headed to another planet, but after the sixth title card that says “Tokyo, Japan, Earth,” you can do little but roll your eyes. Oh, so not the Tokyo on Jupiter? Got it.

Blowing the personal touches

Kinberg and Weil also give their characters little personal touches that feel wrong. Caspar listens to Nirvana and Green Day, for instance, which … fine, sure, not out of the question that an 11-year-old today somehow got into those bands. But then he also listens to Joy Division. I draw the line there.

The impulses that draw you to the music of Green Day are diametrically opposed to the ones that bring you to Joy Division. I’m not saying he can’t like both. I’m saying your typical 11-year-old boy makes too-concrete aesthetic choices. When you discover post-punk music, it subsumes the rest of your listening habits. You don’t bum yourself out only to immediately pick yourself up.

I chalk this up to Kinberg trying on the one hand to realistically depict a young person’s taste in rock music and on the other to use Joy Division, which he must love even now, to score the scene of the bus crash that strands Caspar and his schoolmates.

Similarly, Mitsuki has a The Man Who Fell to Earth poster in her otherwise completely blank apartment. I’ll grant you that this character might be a fan of that 1976 sci-fi movie. But the odds that the single poster she bought was for an English movie, when Japanese sci-fi has outpaced Western science fiction in every single regard, and that literally the only decoration she has is for a movie with a title redolent of what’s happening here that obviously Kinberg was influenced by … do you see what I mean when I say he can’t help himself?

Invasion boasts undeniably strong actors

Golshifteh Farahani classes up <em>Invasion.</em>
Golshifteh Farahani classes up Invasion.
Photo: Apple TV+

Having said all that, there’s plenty to like about Invasion. The cast is uniformly strong, lead by the incredible Golshifteh Farahani who is on some days my favorite modern actress.

Fans of Iranian cinema will recognize her from the likes of Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin and Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly, both incredible films elevated by her openness as a performer. American audiences perhaps saw her in a pair of Ridley Scott films, Body of Lies or Exodus: Gods and Kings, but lately she appeared in the forgettable Extraction with Chris Hemsworth.

Farahani possesses the fracturing composure of a silent film star, and it proves magnificent to see her in charge of this cast. The scene where she finds her husband’s girlfriend’s Instagram page, and solemnly likes every single photograph, is marvelous. It does slightly beggar belief that anyone would step over Farahani for an influencer, but hey, I guess no divorce, no conflict. It’s always good to watch Neill, too, even if the writing lets him down. Rinko Kikuchi is also an incredible screen presence. I wanted to see more of her.

And the effects look awesome, too

The effects in Invasion so far look stunning. The score, by the great Max Richter, is excellent. His music works perfectly with the aggressive sound design to create a constant feeling of unease and propulsion. And the photography looks above average for episodic TV.

The whole thing feels big and expensive without becoming anonymous, as so often happens with shows like this. But the thing that makes Invasion most interesting for me from a conceptual point of view is that in the Caspar Morrow storyline, you have something approaching a personal statement from Kinberg.

It takes no little imagination to see a younger version of the show’s creator in the desperately uncool English schoolboy with the imagination for greater things. (Caspar’s drawings are what draw the initially cold Jamila to him.) And what disaffected kid hasn’t daydreamed about a crisis that can end with them proving to the prettiest girl in school that they’re more than a bullied weirdo?

Invasion is the kind of story I always expect to see more of from creators with something close to a blank check from studios but so rarely do. Yes, I’m grateful for the other storylines to balance this out, but I also wouldn’t say no to this having just been a story about the worst school field trip of all time.

This is the angle from which I imagine we’ll see the most exacting emotional work from the writers (even more so than from the Maliks’ divorce, if I don’t miss my guess) because it does seem to be Kinberg’s own story, after a fashion.

Is Invasion perfect? God no. But I’ll have more fun watching this than I do the bulk of Apple TV+’s weekly shows.

Watch Invasion on Apple TV+

New episodes of Invasion arrive on Apple TV+ on Fridays.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.