tv review

Invasion Made Me Root for the Aliens

Photo: Macall Polay/Apple TV+

The first episode of Invasion, the new aliens-attack-Earth series premiering today on Apple TV+, gives you the impression that it will be a fairly rote entry in the genre of Devastating Alien Crisis Inspires Global Panic and Individual Resiliency. Sam Neill plays a small-town sheriff heading out for his last day on the job before retirement. He’s rueful. He wonders what life will look like now that he’s no longer on the force. But wait — what’s that inexplicable circle out in the cornfield, and why are the crows acting so strangely? Meanwhile, somewhere on Long Island, a harried suburban housewife played by Golshifteh Farahani runs on a treadmill and packs school lunches. Later that day, all the kids in music class — all except her son — will spontaneously experience intense nosebleeds. Weird!

Invasion hits these beats with lumbering competence. Here is the doubting townsperson. Here is the guy in a desert in Yemen, drawn to a mysterious funneling in the sand. Here is a story about an important Japanese space launch, definitely not destined to be derailed by any sort of alien interference, no sir.

What slowly dawns on you as Invasion continues, though, is that the story this show wants to tell has remarkably little to do with the alien invasion of Earth that is killing untold thousands (millions?) of people. From a generous point of view, this is a daring and unexpected stance for a show called Invasion. Intellectually, there is some appeal to the idea of an alien apocalypse story where none of the individual players ever really know what’s happening, there is little to no attempt at some higher-level summary of what aliens are doing to the world, and petty personal problems continually eclipse the urgency of human extinction.

You could even argue there’s some realism to it. It seems totally possible that if aliens did start wreaking mysterious widespread havoc, the individual experience of that event would be confusing, vague, and frustratingly short on any details about what the hell was going on. Maybe you would continue to care way, way more about your husband cheating on you than the aliens destroying the planet. Maybe it would be very difficult to see past the pain of your relationship with your semi-estranged wife in order to give your full attention to the end of humanity. And it seems totally reasonable that there’d be a series of occasionally provocative discoveries about the aliens, but because of international distrust and the collapse of global communications, no one would ever connect the dots into a coherent concept of alien infrastructure.

But the fun of turning that over in your mind as a narrative experiment feels very different when it becomes an actual television show. Invasion is a ten-hour season devoid of nearly all humor, where characters across the globe continually bumble around in their own misery, resentful that aliens keep interrupting their tragic lives. It is possible that the resentment is more on the viewer’s end than actual text within the show — the characters, including Cheated-On Mom (Farahani), Anger-Issues American Soldier (Shamier Anderson), Bullied Sad British Kid (Billy Barratt), and Grieving Japanese Comms Expert (Shioli Kutsuna), are not explicitly resentful of the aliens, but they are stunningly resistant to evincing even the tiniest amount of curiosity about them. Even more frustrating, everything happens very, very slowly. It’s as if the series was written by someone with a fetish for exposition; Invasion takes longer than the entire runtime of the film Independence Day before anyone actually says the word “aliens.” Even after that point, characters keep looping back to the same exhausting interpersonal traumas, rather than stopping to ask, for instance, Hey, should we figure out what’s up with that one kid who didn’t get a nosebleed? Or possibly, how many people have actually died by this point? Or even, oh my God, aliens!!  

Stopping to think too long about the many questions Invasion prompts and declines to answer can be a dizzying sensation. What are governments around the world attempting to do to communicate with the aliens? Has there been any scientific research on what might stop them? It seems like radio communications are still working at times — wouldn’t someone attempt to report on what all these various disasters actually look like? Or is that impossible? Why is that impossible? How long is any of this taking, because at one point a guy gets a very serious chest wound and shortly thereafter is bounding around in the woods like it’s no big deal. Are we talking days, or weeks, or …?

Throughout the first several episodes it seems as though Invasion is just dawdling on all of this, stuck in an excruciatingly dilated experience of that initial alien shock. But by the time it nears the end of the season, it becomes clear that its small-scale perspective on global catastrophe is the entire design. At no point does the show ever shift to the relief of clarity about anything that’s taken place re: the invasion, and there is such excessive attention to exactly how mad Cheated-On Mom is at her husband, and precisely the ways that Bullied British Kid was traumatized by his father, that the interminable, over-detailed personal material can only be the result of Invasion’s intent, not its accidental result. In some ways, it’s not all that different from The Leftovers: Something beyond human comprehension happens, and the show is more interested in how people cope than in the event itself. Except it’s one thing to watch humanity grapple with the nature of life after a one-time spontaneous mystery; it is infinitely more infuriating and incomprehensible to watch people whose capacity to grapple with an existential crisis starts and ends with “why are you being so mean to me,” and who choose to ask that question over and over in the midst of an ongoing, rapidly developing extraterrestrial calamity.

Invasion is the second big-budget science-fiction series from Apple TV+ this fall, but at least for the first, Foundation, it’s very evident where exactly all that money went. Foundation has its flaws, but it’s lovely to look at and at the very least is a reasonable attempt to wrestle with the source material’s challenging qualities. When it comes to the aliens themselves, Invasion is fairly circumspect. Best to draw a curtain over the mysteries better left untouched. And yet, it’s very difficult not to snorfle in dismay as the horror music swells in the background — not for aliens, but when Cheated-On Mom slowly scrolls down the Instagram feed belonging to her husband’s mistress, spite-liking each post.

The few clear shots we get of the aliens are admittedly cool; someone has spent a lot of time thinking about the mechanics of how they move, and they’re impressive beasties. Given how exhausting the rest of the series is, though, it feels like insult added to injury that so much of it is shot in gray tones or even pitch black. I wanted to see more of the aliens, because by the time I had finished the series, I’d decided I was rooting for them. Please put these people out of their misery, I thought, so they are no longer so painfully focused on their own problems. It’s probably not a huge spoiler to say my wish does not wholly come true, but the end makes a clear gesture toward what might come in a second season. Hope for the success of the alien apocalypse springs eternal.