A higher form of life

Earthling life forms whose origins lie in spores from outer space — it’s an idea that gave us Mission to Mars, Quatermass and Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods. And it very nearly gave us an ass-kicking action thriller called Evolution, before director-producer Ivan Reitman saw Don Jakoby’s original script and thankfully translated it into a comedy romp in the manner of Reitman’s classic Ghostbusters.

The result is a very entertaining and good-natured film that is pacy and witty, with great effects and a lot of laughs.

Orlando Jones and David Duchovny play two faintly louche science professors at an Arizona community college who become intrigued by a meteor that has just landed in the desert, discovered initially by an excitable pool attendant and would-be fireman (Seann William Scott).
The meteor is secreting a gooey substance that breeds insects. “Is the Nobel Prize paid in instalments?” drawls Orlando.

But there’s a problem: their reproduction and metabolic rates are lightning fast, producing billions of random little, short-lived critters, until one emerges that can breathe our earthling air — and that one breeds any number of terrifying exotic monsters. So this Darwinian natural selection threatens to take over the world. Duchovny, Jones and Scott tool up for the coming apocalypse, a rogue band of amateurs whose efforts and warnings are derided by the official establishment. They are joined by Julianne Moore as a scientist attached to the United States army with an endearingly klutzy way of falling over — who has a thing for Duchovny.

It rattles along nicely and the encounters with the various species of alien are managed with great flair, especially our heroes’ attempt to shoot down the giant pterodactyl-type thing swooping about a shopping mall with a shoplifter in its beak. “Ladies, ladies,” says Duchovny, testing the weight of a pump-action shotgun while his distracted comrades squabble among themselves, “there’s a terrifying alien bird menacing the mall. Can we focus?”

Jones gives a very droll and intelligent comic performance — and compared with the sloppy and overdone work he did in the execrable teen pic Say It Isn’t So, his presence here is a virtual object lesson in how action comedy should be played and how comic actors should be directed. Scott’s ingenuous grin is another big plus. He makes this comedy look deceptively easy and his likeable persona is a kind of signature for the movie’s whole style.

Duchovny is more of a puzzle. We know that he is a bright actor, up for sophisticated self-mockery. Yet there is something weirdly reticent in that blandly handsome face. Less is more, of course, and it’s always good to see someone who realises that humour doesn’t have to be over-sold to the audience. With Duchovny, however, it’s difficult to avoid the occasional worry that the lights are on, but no one’s home. This shouldn’t be a problem, but this film asks us to believe that there’s an instant spark of sexual attraction between him and Moore. And here is a major discrepancy. Moore can ignite a dry leaf at 50 paces with smouldering libido. But Duchovny’s spark plugs are a wee bit damp.

And lastly: those effects. They are as impeccable as you could wish, but it is a measure of how blasé we’ve all become that what made us gasp with astonishment so recently is now taken as read, thoroughly absorbed into the lexicon of movie-making. What is refreshing is that Reitman is not ordering us to admire the effects for their own sake: they are subordinate to the script and the actors. For that alone, Evolution deserves to be considered a higher life form among movies.

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