Apple TV’s Alien Thriller ‘Invasion’ Lacks Two Things: Thrills and Aliens

You’ll be praying for an actual alien invasion while watching this $200-million would-be spectacular, while ‘La Brea’ is the next wannabe ‘Lost’

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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Sam Neill playing a grizzled small-town sheriff in "Invasion," on Apple TV+.
Sam Neill playing a grizzled small-town sheriff in "Invasion," on Apple TV+.Credit: Apple TV+
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

Roy vey! It’s been a week since I watched 27 episodes of “Succession” back-to-back, and it’s no exaggeration to say I’ve thought about Jesse Armstrong’s show and its characters every subsequent day.

For instance, over morning coffee, I suddenly found alternative names for this most Shakespearean of series popping into my head: “King Learjet.” “The Comedy of Swearers.” “All’s Yell That Ends Yell.” “Wealth Night.”

This newfound obsession was not aided, of course, by the fact that “Succession” memes are everywhere on social media right now; it’s probably only a matter of time before Roman Roy starts offering silly money for them as NFTs.

It was always going to be a thankless task for whichever series succeeded “Succession” – somewhat akin to being the painting next to the “Mona Lisa” or the next book you read after “The Grapes of Wrath.”

There are plenty of shows I’ve been meaning to write about in recent weeks: “Maid” on Netflix, Hulu’s Oxycontin drama “Dopesick” and FX’s “Impeachment: American Crime Story,” to name but three. But it didn’t seem fair to watch these relatively serious-minded shows in the looming shadow of the Roys.

So, after a palate cleanser in the form of Todd Haynes’ brilliant music documentary about the Velvet Underground – featuring the classic line “You need physics to describe that band at its height,” and where the film’s eponymous title is the only conventional thing about it – I opted for a couple of high-concept, high-budget series that few would ever label highbrow: “Invasion” on Apple TV+ and NBC’s “La Brea.”

‘Invasion’

“What aren’t you telling me?” a character demands midway through this 10-part, would-be spectacular that speaks more of Apple’s incredible resources than any artistic merit – “Invasion” is a show that seems to value mundanity above all.

That’s why, despite the audience being suckered in by the premise of an alien invasion thriller, and all the bells and whistles which should come with that, the “A-word” isn’t actually uttered until the end of the fifth episode of this turgid misfire.

True, you have to admire the chutzpah of any show whose opening credits try to artistically place it in the same sphere as “The Leftovers.” But that’s where the comparisons with Damon Lindelof’s majestic show end, alas.

Lindelof, of course, was a co-creator (along with J.J. Abrams) of the ABC hit “Lost,” a series that has itself cast a shadow over network television long after its last episode aired in 2010.

There have been plenty of attempts to give us the next “Lost” – perhaps most blatantly “Manifest” (whose fourth and final season has just been commissioned by Netflix, after NBC dropped the show earlier this year), but also plenty of other big-swinging “event” series such as “The Event” (zero points for subtlety, but cheesy fun while it lasted), “Terra Nova” and “Revolution.” Eleven years on, though, a big “Lost”-shaped hole exists in our hearts, and it’s safe to say neither “Invasion” nor the other show I review below, “La Brea,” will be filling it.

I normally try to avoid writing about series that suck, preferring instead to evangelize about those more deserving of your attention. But when something reportedly costs $200 million, as one of its stars claimed earlier this year, well, it’s impossible not to be more than a little curious.

For a show whose first episode alone features the world under attack, infidelities, secret love affairs and mysterious disappearances, it’s almost an achievement to make “Invasion” quite as tedious as it is.

It’s as if co-creators Simon Kinberg and David Weil – the latter previously gave us the Nazi thriller “Hunters,” which looks like one for the ages compared to this – got together and wondered what it would look like if the Dardenne brothers or Mike Leigh decided to made a series about aliens reaching Earth.

“Inertia” or “Inversion” would have been apter titles than “Invasion,” whose marketing sets us up for some H.G. Wells-esque thrills, but then pulls an Orson Welles-esque prank on us and removes all of the drama and tension.

Shioli Kutsuna, right, as a Japanese space communications worker in "Invasion."Credit: Apple TV+

Say hi to Rick Grimes’ dad

“Invasion” is set in five different places: Idabel, Oklahoma; Tokyo; Long Island; England; and a U.S. combat post in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan (which probably seemed a logical choice when production began two years ago). However, for far too long, the main concerns of our characters are drearily down to earth.

Sam Neill, for instance, plays a small-town sheriff approaching retirement with the enthusiasm of a piggy headed to market. Acting as if he were told to play Rick “Walking Dead” Grimes’ growly father, Neill’s Sheriff Tyson is a miserable son of a gun who sucks the life out of every scene. And this guy’s meant to be the star attraction.

All five settings have a randomness about them that suggests the creators saw this project as some form of alien arabesque that would build to a magnificent denouement, no doubt celebrating the best of humanity. That may have been their aim, but it’s hard to imagine many viewers sticking around for the ride.

There are so many strange artistic choices here, but I’ll highlight my two biggest issues. The Long Island scenes feature a couple who really picked the wrong week for their relationship to crash and burn. Kudos to the actors playing the warring parents (Golshifteh Farahani and Israeli actor Firas Nassar) for at least keeping a straight face while delivering lines such as “You had to get a Tesla!” and “Is it so evil to want someone to actually … love me?” But this storyline feels like some script pages flew into the writers’ room from an adjacent daytime TV soap opera, and no one noticed until it was too late.

Still, their storyline brought a rare moment of joy for me when, with their neighborhood ablaze following an unexplained attack and everyone panicking in the streets, someone inexplicably screams: “The Rothkrugs are leaving! Do we need to leave?”

Golshifteh Farahani as Aneesha Malik in "Invasion." Credit: Apple TV+

People, this is exactly how conspiracy theories about Jewish cabals start.

The other particularly weird choice was the English angle, which sees a group of London students going on a school trip to somewhere remote, before quickly descending into “Lord of the Flies” territory when their bus flies into a quarry after falling satellites blow up a road.

With its various global locations, the show clearly has international audiences in mind. But I would love to know what Japanese or Midwestern viewers make of choice English dialogue like “Holy balls, mate. Alfie saw some tit!” “Even if it’s, like, a 100 miles to the nearest Tesco, we have to get help!” Or, my personal favorite: “Yeah, grown-ups suck and our parents are trying to kill us. But we can’t just sit here and have a wank about it, so let’s go home. Nom some Quavers!”

Related note to the screenwriters: Sticking “innit” at the end of every other sentence does not make your characters sound like plausible English teenagers.

The only scenario I found remotely interesting revolved around a rebellious Japanese space communications expert (“rebel status” signified by her bleached hair), though I’m sure Japanese critics are currently listing all the ridiculous things about those Tokyo-set scenes.

Look, I get it, it’s hard to breathe new life into such a well-worn genre. After all, in the last few years alone we’ve had two different TV adaptations of the aforementioned Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” (one starring Gabriel Byrne, the other Rafe Spall), while “Colony” and “Fallen Skies” dealt with resistance efforts against our alien overlords and were both far superior to “Invasion.”

Billy Barratt as British schoolkid Casper Morrow in "Invasion."Credit: Apple TV+

And we’re never more than about six months away from yet another remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” the 1956 original of which remains the pinnacle of the genre as it’s about so much more than mere aliens.

Yet Denis Villeneuve showed it is possible to create a smart alien invasion movie with “Arrival” in 2016, while John Krasinski scared the bejesus out of audiences with his two “Quiet Place” films (even achieving the hitherto impossible feat of forcing Israeli audiences to be silent in a movie theater).

I applaud the creators for trying something different by focusing on the confusion of everyday folk while an alien invasion unfolds. It’s also laudable to not focus solely on America. After all, it’s not just the White House that aliens want to blow up, though the U.S. president – best described as Amy Klobuchar-esque – is the only world leader who gets to address the planet. It’s just a shame that this series is such an unworldly mess.

Honestly, if “Invasion” gets recommissioned for a second season, I’ll be left with no choice other than to assume it’s got something to do with the Rothkrugs.

‘La Brea’

As Shakespeare himself doubtless meant to write: to ‘Brea’ or not to ‘Brea’ – that is the question.

If I’m not actually reviewing a series, I’m increasingly loath to start watching “for fun” until I know it’s not going to be dropped after a few episodes or one season, just after time has been invested in getting to know and care about the characters. Yes, ABC, I’m looking at you for canceling “Stumptown” just as I was starting to enjoy it.

For instance, is it worth watching the first season of FX’s “Y: The Last Man” now with the knowledge that the cabler has already pulled the plug on it? And then there’s something like “La Brea,” which, let’s be honest, had “Canceled after two episodes” written all over it when it started airing on NBC last month.

Except the show has actually been the fall’s most-watched new series, audiences drawn in by the mouthwatering prospect of seeing half of Los Angeles disappear down a sinkhole.

And in the same way “Invasion” offers an unlikely Israeli angle in the form of Firas Nassar, the Israeli angle in “La Brea” takes the form of co-producer Keshet Studios – whose previous U.S. network shows included “The Baker and the Beauty” and “Lincoln Rhyme: Hunt for the Bone Collector,” neither of which made it past the first season.

The enticing premise of “La Brea” sees a group of commuters fall into the earth at the La Brea Tar Pits (Fox News is probably blaming Gov. Gavin Newsom for the incident) and emerging in a primeval world full of wild creatures that have long been thought extinct – and, no, I don’t mean fans of Dave Chappelle.

The Australian stoner character who’s there to provide comic relief does have the good grace to admit that it all feels like an episode of “Lost,” but that’s not really accurate. The thing about “Lost” was that, even at it most nonsensical (“We’ve got to go back, Kate!!”), from the get-go it made you care about all of the characters – OK, everyone apart from Boone and Shannon.

The characters in “La Brea” are far less interesting, though they do grow on you a little – from the mom and son trapped in the strange land to the father and daughter trying to rescue them.

Veronica St. Clair and Natalie Zea in "La Brea."Credit: NBC

The special effects are decent and it’s easy to watch as a “guilty pleasure,” but the mystery itself is much smaller than the one created in “Lost.” I can’t imagine “La Brea” going on to build a mythology like that forged by Abrams and Lindelof, but I can see it spawning a second season. But please, don’t set it in England among a group of teenagers, innit.

“Invasion” is on Apple TV+, with new episodes dropping every Friday, which is also where you can find “The Velvet Underground.” “La Brea” is on NBC in America on Tuesdays.

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