After nearly suffering a heat stroke whilst mowing the lawn, I decided to take in the movie EVOLUTION with my daughter, Peyton. To avoid the crowds, I chose the 2:30 p.m. matinee. It being Thursday, I figured we'd have the movie house all to ourselves. I was right.
But to my chagrin I learned you can hear the soundtracks of other movies in the adjacent cinemas, a distraction usually concealed when the room's full of giggling half-stoned teenagers making love to their popcorn bags (or whatever all that rattling is). Nevermind. Let's get on with the review, shall we?
The popcorn munching moviegoer side of me enjoyed EVOLUTION immensely, even if the critic side (watching on the closed circuit system in the back room) jotted notes on cerebral paper. We'll let the popcorn eater talk first.
The movie begins, as this kind of movie always does, in outer space. A gigantic meteor is spinning - no, whooshing, through the vast, star-studded blackness.
Meanwhile, on earth . . .
An aspiring fireman named Wayne Green (Seann William Scott: FINAL DESTINATION) practices his exam routines in the Arizona desert. His enthusiasm and the desire to succeed are apparent in his efforts to save a first-aid dummy from a burning shed. While administering CPR, the meteor (yes, the same one in the opening credits) suddenly appears in the night sky. The young man flees, barely escaping the meteor, which plunges into the ground, leaving a smoking, ominous crater.
That's the set up, folks. Nice and simple, yet always a reliable stand by. All that remained now was to sit back and wait for the little green men to trundle out of the hole and zap people with ray guns. But wait! It seems Darwin had to get a word in edgewise.
The movie stars David Duchovny (X-FILES) and Orlando Jones (FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 3), the human characters, and a flock of CGI alien characters. I'm proud to say that human actors are in no danger of being forced out of work by computers. On the whole, Duchovny and Jones steal the show from the special effects. We'll take more about the special effects later.
Duchovny is Ira Kane, professor at the local community college in the fictitious town of Glenn Canyon, Arizona. Jones plays Harry Block, teacher of geology, card-carrying member of the United States Geological Society, and coach for the girls volleyball team. Together, they discover the meteor, embedded in a canyon below the ground's surface. They take samples of the rock, along with some strange oozing goo ("a rock that bleeds") back to the lab. There, Kane discovers single celled organisms writhing under the microscope. Realizing he's looking at extraterrestrial life, he rushes to tell Block, who is busy coaching a volley ball game. The two think they are on their way to full tenure, perhaps a Nobel or two, but then the cells begin to divide, and divide again, evolving from single celled to multi celled organisms in a trillionth of the time it took life on Earth to accomplish the same feat. Remember how in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS the aliens grew in pods and duplicated humans? And remember how in MEN IN BLACK, the aliens were cockroaches? And in STARMAN, the alien was just an ethereal light?
In EVOLUTION the aliens don't limit themselves to one Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, or Species (I remember this from the mnemonic "King Phil Came Over For Gene's Special").
In no time the organisms from the goo begin evolving spontaneously into a multitude of amphibious, flying, and terrestrial animals, all bizarre variations of Earth's own evolutionary crop. The meteor even terraforms the interior of the cavern, creating its own atmosphere. Then the government takes over. Don't they always?
Unfortunately for Kane and Block, they are refused admittance back onto the site ("But we were sent here by the USGS"). It seems Kane's old nemesis, General Woodman (Ted Levine: THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) of the US Army, and a Dr. Allison Reed (Julianne Moore THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK 2, HANNIBAL, THE FORGOTTEN) want to take over the research, promising to keep them "in the loop".
This is a reliable situation in that it allows screw-ups to occur because of human dissension. Soon, aliens are wreaking havoc in Glen Canyon, and it's up to our heroes to save the day.
Now Mr. Critic can come out of the back room and talk for a while.
Because this is a film directed by Ivan Reitman (RABID, GHOSTBUSTERS, GHOSTBUSTERS II) the movie is unmistakably a comedy, with a MEN IN BLACK feel to it. It's funny, with kooky but neat science, but never seems to take itself too seriously.
I've always liked Duchovny, ever reliable in this kind of role, from his X-FILES gig. Like Dan Akroyd's character in GHOSTBUSTERS, Kane is a scientist relegated to campus life, excited by not only the scientific ramifications of the discovery but those that might change his station in life as well. Duchovny expands his acting range the tiniest bit (but it's perfect for the role) as a college professor who seems a bit more than he appears to be.
"No! Don't call the government," he warns Block early on, perhaps in a nod to his alter ego on the X-FILES, "I know those guys."
What surprised me was how much I liked Orlando Jones. 'Till EVOLUTION, I'd only seen Jones in the "7-Up Yours!" commercials and found the routine too heavy handed. But as Harry Block, he was the perfect compliment to Duchovny's Kane. He plays the character as a guy who's much smarter than he lets on, who knows he's wasting his time at Glen Canyon Community College. Jones also finds just the right note when uttering his wise cracking "jive" lines. I expected these scenes to be overplayed, overdone like the 7-Up thing but that was not the case at all.
With Duchovny's character as the straight man, the two will be remembered much like Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in MEN IN BLACK and other classic white dude/black dude teams. The strength of that combo, and the fact that Orlando Jones and Duchovny are big names, but not HUGE names, tells me this movie will spawn a sequel. Can't wait to see how that evolves (sorry, couldn't resist. -- yes you could, you're just a sick, sick individual -feo).
There are other characters in the movie worth mentioning. Ted Levine, as Woodman, was great for two reasons. One, he's totally convincing as a hardnosed asshole military figure. Something about his mustache and the facial expressions, had me chuckling every time he was on screen, particularly when he is given permission to use deadly force. It's like a law - all movie Army generals love to blow things up. Second, he does all this so well that you forget the scenes in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS when he paraded naked about the subterranean chambers.
Julianne Moore is reliable but not as well developed (not that it's really needed in a popcorn movie, but this IS a review). For example, she's always falling down or bumping into everything. If there were a reason for this, or a payoff, her being a klutz might make sense, or be funny. All by itself, it gets tiresome. Roger Ebert has written time and again that for comedy in a movie to be funny it requires some form of context, especially with physical or sight gag humor. Isolated from context, the quirk, or the dog shit, or whatever, never rise above the level of mere amusement. So Moore's character is clumsy just because that's what the screenplay stated.
Now for the special effects
I'm afraid the CGI creations are the weakest characters. The technology is amazing, but, in my mind, the human actors and the CGI creatures never truly seem to occupy the same physical place. I think the problem lies in knowing when to refrain from using CGI.
Just as you would never use every font available to you on the word processor, not every creature requires CGI. In one scene, a cute alien resembling a land manatee is unable to breathe oxygen and falls over and dies. It's CGI every second of the way, even when the creature hits the ground and its CGI flesh ripples unconvincingly. That would have been the perfect time to switch the CGI manatee with a more old-fashioned "skin and bones" animatronic creature.
The human eye, incredible thing that it is, knows it's seeing something solid, tangible, and occupying real physical space (without the right conditions of shadow and light, CGI can't fool the eye). Think of THE HOWLING and the makeup effects Rob Bottin employed to transform people into werewolves or the body contorting effects in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON or THE FLY by Rick Baker (incidentally, a protégé of Bottin's). People will agree, horror buffs among them, that CGI shouldn't completely replace latex rubber and makeup. I'm sure David Naughton's transformation in a wolf would have looked fantastic with CGI but would have lacked something vital. Hell, just look at AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS and you'll believe that CGI bleeds the life right out of a monster if the filmmakers aren't careful. CGI is a wonderful tool, but its ease (and I do believe that it's becoming easier and more accessible to filmmakers) and slickness may be dangerous to the quality of an otherwise good movie.
Screenwriters David Diamond and Don Jakoby (VAMPIRES, INVADERS FROM MARS) are unknowns to me. Of their previous efforts, I've only seen Jakoby's VAMPIRES (recommended) and INVADERS FROM MARS (take it or leave it). Tongue firmly in cheek, they collaborated on Don Jakoby's story to write the screenplay for EVOLUTION.
As a Science Fiction jaunt, it makes a much better comedy. However, what is the scatological preoccupation in movies these days? Not that I'm complaining. The screenplay contains a scene concerning an emergency removal of an alien from a character's rectum. In lesser hands, the scene might never have evolved (sorry again. -- You LIE! You are NOT sorry! Stop it! -feo) beyond uncomfortable chuckles. But it's played fast and furious with doctors and nurses barking lines never heard on ER ("Get the lubricant!" "Doctor, there's no TIME for lubricant!"), Duchovny coaching the patient ("Don't clench!"), and the patient screaming ("There's ALWAYS time for lubricant!"). As a result, the scene is one of those rare comedy treats where the laughs keep piling on faster than you can get the laughs out so that you are still laughing long after the scene is over.
Like most Reitman movies, there are lots of quirky characters in the periphery of the action. Some are genuinely funny, like Seann William Scott as the failed fireman who is forced to work at the local country club until the next firemen's exam. The abuse he suffers at the club is reminiscent of how the caddies were treated by Ted Knight in CADDYSHACK but with a heck of good pay off somewhere around the middle of the film.
I mean: Us.
Continued at SCIENCE MOMENT: Evolution
Is the movie scary? Probably not to anyone over the age of 9, but then we're horror fans and thus, possess slightly thicker skins than, say, Father Leo on his first movie outing in 25 years. Nothing is truly intended to horrify, though. Think GHOSTBUSTERS and you'll understand perfectly the level of frights in EVOLUTION. The flora and fauna of the evolving life forms made for wonderful visuals, if rendered somewhat lifeless by CGI here and there. I did notice that bugs and other exoskeleton animals looked the best, while fleshy creatures, like the dinosaurs, looked like JURASSIC PARK rip offs. Dinosaurs are a dime a dozen these days. Peyton, who's 8, didn't seem bothered.
The method by which the heroes defeat the evolving alien seems a little too far off base for me personally, but then, what do I know? Like Seann William Scott says, in a scene in which characters are introducing themselves and listing credentials:
"I'm Wayne Green. I, uh, took some chemistry in high school!"
So I'm recommending EVOLUTION, even with the muted sounds of car crashes, gun-shots from the cinema to our left and symphonic surges and screams from the wall on our right. But you might not have that problem!
During one of the early quiet scenes in EVOLUTION, the sounds of racing cars and loud music emanated from the left wall. My daughter Peyton was prompted to ask, "Dad, what are those weird noises? Does that mean something's about to happen?" I leaned over and whispered, "No babe, it's coming from another movie."
To myself I thought, man, hurry up with the special feature laden DVD (which I'll probably purchase), this theater crap is fer the birds! Nonetheless, it was still a fine way to beat the heat on a Thursday afternoon in Atlanta.
Peyton wanted to sit and watch it again a second time!
Oh yeah! I'm giving it 3 Shriek Girls.
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