Orson Welles’s 1938 radio broadcast of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds was an illusion that tricked many by tapping into an array of collective fears. Who were these aliens coming onto our planet? What were they doing, infiltrating our communities? What were their plans for ourselves and our children? Suspicion of outsiders isn’t a new thing; that’s tribalism, baby!
Before that term became an overused political buzzword, it was a seemingly legitimate explanation for how we kept ourselves alive so many years ago when faced with all the threats the natural world could offer, including the threat that is other people. But it’s a hop, skip, and jump from suspicion to paranoia, and even before Welles terrified so many listening to CBS that night, our feelings about the potential of life on other planets were a mixture of curiosity and unease. As A. Brad Schwartz reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2015:
“In 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had observed a series of dark lines on the Martian surface that he called canali, Italian for “channels.” In English, canali got mistranslated to “canals,” a word implying that these were not natural formations — that someone had built them. Wealthy, self-taught astronomer Percival Lowell popularized this misconception in a series of books describing a highly intelligent, canal-building Martian civilization. H. G. Wells drew liberally from those ideas in crafting his alien invasion story — the first of its kind — and his work inspired an entire genre of science fiction.”
All of this is to say that for hundreds of years, humanity has imagined new threats for itself and then struggled to respond to what those threats — real or envisioned — may be. Violence is usually the answer, as it so often is on Earth, and into this landscape arrives Invasion, Apple TV+’s latest big sci-fi series from co-creators Simon Kinberg and David Weil. These two have a mixed history in the genre. Kinberg has a writing or producing credit on all the latest X-Men movies, which were summarily not great! But he also produced Elysium and The Martian, and created and wrote Star Wars: Rebels and The Twilight Zone reboot, which were all okay to good! Remember Matt Damon’s time as a sci-fi star? That was unexpected and kind of fun!
Weil is more of an unknown: He created and wrote Hunters, which was so-so, and Solos, which was agonizingly pretentious. (My apologies to Constance Wu, but monologues are really not for everyone.) As co-creators, Kinberg and Weil share writing credits on this premiere episode, “Last Day,” and nearly exclusively handle this responsibility for the entirety of Invasion’s ten-episode season. White-guy writers will be the norm here, with credits also going to David Rosen, who worked alongside Weil on Hunters, and Andrew Baldwin, who wrote that truly problematic “Jared Leto joins the Yakuza” Netflix movie The Outsider. In comparison, looking ahead for Invasion, it looks like only one woman, story editor Gursimran Sandhu, gets a “story by” nod for the eighth episode “Contact.”
Is that hegemony a little worrisome given that this premiere episode emphasizes the series’s “aliens as outsiders” theme by starting with a scene in some unspecified location in the Middle East/North Africa and then explicitly focusing on a Middle Eastern family during this time of upheaval … but the writers’ room seems to lack a steady presence of someone from that ethnic background? Well, yes. Orientalism is exhausting, guys! And while I can acknowledge that Invasion has at least done the bare minimum by casting actors with the appropriate ethnic backgrounds in these roles and can respect that the series is trying something with a narrative that juxtaposes everyday racism and microaggressions with larger-scale supernatural distrust, I’m still wary. Golshifteh Farahani is unparalleled, but please, Invasion, do not do her dirty!
The “Last Day” title immediately clues us into what kind of plot we’re going to get in this premiere episode, which explicitly sets up its various locations and main characters while it plays coy with its villains, who they are, and what they want. That obfuscation will do for now as Invasion gets going. This isn’t really the calm before the storm, but the period after — when the clouds are getting dark, the wind is picking up, something bad is already in the air, and Ben Foster slinks into your town in a dirty, bloody parka to warn you, “That cold ain’t the weather. That’s death approaching.” (30 Days of Night is a good spooky season rewatch, you guys!) And so “Last Day” begins with an attack and then a disappearance. In a desert somewhere, something falls from the sky, burrows into the sand, and travels quickly toward the lone “Bedouin Man” (Ahmed Hammoud) who saw its arrival. When it appears, it’s first invisible and then takes form into a mutating, transforming mass — it looks like a volcanic black rock covered in marbles—and it emits sound waves that propel this man backward. That is one inexplicable thing, and another is Sam Neill’s very questionable Oklahoman accent. (I’m sorry! I love Dr. Alan Grant very much, but that was a mess, right?)
Neill plays Sheriff John Bell Tyson, who is finally retiring after 45 years on the job in Idabel, Oklahoma. In a real Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men move, Tyson wonders whether he’s made any difference in this small town, which is now plagued by petty crime and drug use. His second-in-command Grady (DeWanda Wise) doesn’t have a lot of patience for his existential musing, though, because there is weird stuff happening in Idabel. Two people are missing. A crop circle — that, for some reason, no one calls a crop circle — appears overnight in a cornfield where those two people went missing. Birds swarm upon the crop circle while millions of locusts travel toward it and then seem to die as they reach it. What strangeness is descending upon little ol’ Idabel?
Hundreds of miles away in Long Island, the problems plaguing housewife and mother Aneesha Malik (Farahani) are more depressingly recognizable. Here is a brilliant, gorgeous woman who went to Harvard Medical School and then seemingly abandoned her career to marry Ahmed Malik (Firas Nassar), who also goes by the Westernized nickname “Manny,” and raise their children Luke (Azhy Robertson) and Sarah (Tara Moayedi). Aneesha is an attentive, loving mother and wife, and when a schoolwide nosebleed affects everyone at her children’s elementary school but Luke, Aneesha is the one to rush to their side. And while Ahmed is sleeping with his white mistress, Aneesha is comforting their children about that traumatic nosebleed incident and trying to figure out how her life went so awry. Aneesha and Ahmed’s big fight scene was a little forced, and although Farahani is a solid actress, even she could not sell the superficiality of the accusatory “‘Cause she’s blond? ‘Cause she’s fit? ‘Cause she has perfect tits?” Still, I have faith in Farahani and hope that Aneesha uses this potential alien invasion to leave Ahmed behind. Maybe after the Maliks figure out why every house in their neighborhood is partially destroyed and on fire after that electricity-cutting, house-shaking, TV-static-causing attack — but not their own.
Is all of this random or coordinated? That question is complicated by the episode’s third subplot, which begins in Japan, where Captain Murai (Rinko Kikuchi) is one of three Japanese astronauts traveling to the International Space Station for a yearlong stay. It’s a prestigious honor and a major step forward in space exploration and space travel. But Captain Murai has a secret: Her romantic relationship with JASA communications specialist Mitsuki Yamato (Shioli Kutsuna), whose ring she takes with her into space. And when that ring spins out of Murai’s destroyed space shuttle after what I assume is one of these invading aliens slamming into their vessel, ripping a huge hole out, and killing all three astronauts on board? That was devastating! There were demoralizing moments in “Last Day” (the dissolution of Aneesha’s marriage) and shocking moments in “Last Day” (that alien-scorpion-tail thing stinging/attacking Tyson in the episode’s final moments), but Murai’s death was the most agonizing. I wanted more Rinko Kikuchi, dammit, and thinking of that glowing sticky star is making me a little teary.
So by the end of its 56 minutes, “Last Day” sets up a series of seemingly unconnected events that we know are related: the attack on that Bedouin man, the attack on Tyson, the attack on Long Island, and the attack on the JASA shuttle. How long until the characters in Invasion reach the interconnected awareness we already have? And what can they actually do about it? “It ain’t the end, darling,” Tyson’s wife says to him, but, well. Sort of seems like the end of humanity to me!
We’re Talking Here About Your Future
• What is Luke’s deal? I will entertain any and all theories.
• Why is Apple TV+ so inconsistent in how they promote their TV series? This Twitch partnership does not sound like it went well.
• Other spooky season movie picks, inspired by Sam Neill’s filmography: Possession and Event Horizon are both good.
• If those location identifiers mention “Earth” every time we get a scene on this planet, does that imply we eventually get scenes off this planet?
• That crop circle looks like a gigantic eye, which might be of narrative significance. Or I am overthinking a very simple geometric shape. Either is possible!
• Farahani’s line delivery of “Harvard. You?” was perfectly self-effacing, and I hope that Aneesha never limits herself like that ever again.
• Median home value in Great Neck, New York: $1.36 million. Kitchen influencing must be nice!
• Related: People who get naked in fully lit homes in front of unencumbered windows … why, though?
• I don’t love Tyson’s belief that “God is giving me something bigger” coupled with whatever happens to him after that alien bite/sting thing. Midnight Mass already proved to us that religious zealotry paired with supernatural/otherworldly motivations are game over, man!
• Does the series just use JASA because it is recognizably similar to NASA or because they didn’t get permission from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA? Not going to lie, JAXA is a pretty metal acronym.
• Ahmed’s “Better than the stuff you usually make. More flavor” should have earned him a slap right in the face.