You’d be forgiven for having low expectations for Apple TV’s latest original series, Invasion. If it weren’t enough that the show is co-created by Simon Kinberg, whose recent work includes such duds as Dark Phoenix and The Twilight Zone, it’s also saddled with the most generic title imaginable for a sci-fi drama. In conversation with friends, I frequently forgot what the show was called, interchangeably referring to it as Extinction or Annihilation, which isn’t a great sign for its odds of capturing the public’s imagination.
Not only is the title bland as a piece of dry toast but it’s also misleading too, because while Invasion does depict extraterrestrial life arriving on earth, it’s the plot thread given the least amount of attention overall – at least, so far. Instead, this series plays out as a character study of five ordinary people dotted around the world, examining their lives and the problems they face as the invasion plays out in the background. It’s like Kinberg and co-creator David Weil stuck War of the Worlds, Scenes From A Marriage, Lord of the Flies, The Hurt Locker and The Martian in a blender. Strangely enough, it (kind of) works.
Admittedly, there are a couple of drawbacks to Invasion’s unconventional narrative structure. Telling five stories that are completely unconnected does create a somewhat disjointed pace, while the narrow focus on each individual’s experience makes it difficult to judge the scale or damage of the alien attack. Occasional scenes give the impression that society is on the brink of collapse, but others make these close encounters seem more like a localised issue. In either case, there’s not a great sense of urgency or suspense to the proceedings. Additionally, some plot threads are markedly more compelling than others.
Deadpool‘s Shiori Kutsuna is a standout in the role of Mitsuki Yamato, an engineer for Japan’s space agency who finds herself working on a high-profile manned launch, which happens to coincide with the arrival of the mysterious invading force. Besides her natural scientific curiosity, she has a personal interest in unravelling the strange phenomena her crew encounters soon after entering orbit which gives this arc a nice emotional heartbeat. It also benefits from feeling like the most overtly sci-fi storyline in the show, providing the only major development to the eponymous invasion that we get in the opening three episodes.
The rest of the show is more squarely focused on the individual lives of those caught in the chaos, channelling a family drama through its middle-class New York couple Aneesha (Golshifteh Farahani) and Ahmed Malik (Firas Nassar). This thread gets off to a rocky start by presenting a mind-numbing archetype of the perfect family, complete with a cliché scene in which the kids are sent in to wake up their father, who proceeds to playfully wrestle with them on the bed while mother looks on in complete adoration. It’s like an advert for home insurance.
But as anyone who has seen a movie before will be able to predict, there’s more to this marriage than initially meets the eye. The drama that ensues can hardly be described as original, but it does pack some compelling moments, largely thanks to a strong performance from Farahani as a woman hellbent on keeping her children safe – whatever the cost.
Shifting gears completely, we also get a riff on Lord of the Flies as a class of children are stranded in the countryside with no adult supervision after a school camping trip is sent off-course by those pesky aliens. This arc unfolds from the perspective of Casper Morrow (Billy Barratt), a young boy with promising artistic talent, who suffers from seizures and carries trauma from a troubled home life. He’s a highly sympathetic character who easily tugs on the heartstrings as he rations his dwindling supply of medication with little hope of rescue and no sight of civilisation.
The dramatic stakes would be high enough with that frightening prospect alone, but this part of the show ends up being undermined by the writing of its antagonist. No doubt kids can be cruel, but I am fortunate enough to have never encountered one so gleefully evil as school bus bully Monty (Paddy Holland), whose relentless taunting reaches the level of certifiable sociopath. So extreme is his behaviour that it becomes a tad unbelievable, making this seem less like an ordinary secondary school class and more like a cohort from the Academy for Child Super Villains.
Sam Neill does a serviceable job as retiring Sheriff John Bell Tyson, but he’s a fairly broad character who gets the least amount of screen-time overall, so hardly worth tuning in for. By far the weakest part of the show takes us to a US combat outpost in Afghanistan (this show was written in 2019), following American soldier Trevante Ward (Shamier Anderson) and his troop as they investigate a strange occurrence in a nearby town. There’s little to say about this thread except that it somehow manages to be boring despite featuring our closest look yet at the show’s elusive space invaders.
To be fair, it doesn’t help that these are some of the most boring aliens to ever grace the screen. Three episodes in and they are yet to reveal themselves, appearing instead as blurry apparitions that might maintain a slight air of mystery, but certainly don’t lend themselves to cinematic viewing. I had assumed that such an uninspired design had been implemented as a cost-saving measure, but later learned that Apple have splurged a whopping $200 million on this show, so there’s really no excuse.
In addition to lacking visual flair, Invasion’s extraterrestrials have also brought virtually nothing to the narrative in the first three hours, with no indication of their intentions and no definite sign that they’ve actively done anything at all. Sure, there have been power outages and unexplained nose bleeds, but these could merely be unintended side effects of alien technology landing on Earth.
But while not being a particularly exciting slice of sci-fi, nor the best-written drama you’ll find on television this year – or even this month – Invasion is still an oddly watchable show. Its hodgepodge of disparate storylines work better than they have any right to, with these opening episodes establishing a few characters that might compel viewers back for a couple more episodes. But if Invasion stands any chance of keeping people until the very end, it needs to step up the pace and remember what its title is. To be fair, that last part is a challenge.