Review: Evolution (dir. Ivan Reitman, 2001)

It’s clear from the trailers and posters for Evolution that director Ivan Reitman wanted to recapture some of the magic that made Ghostbusters, one of his earlier films, one of the most successful comedies of all time. The heroes in his new film do battle with alien lifeforms, rather than supernatural spooks, but otherwise, the mix of carefree humour and oversized special effects, combined with an outrageous product placement at the film’s climax, has a familiar feel. Dan Aykroyd even appears in a small role. But there’s one major problem with Evolution — it isn’t funny.

In fact, it’s pretty bland, so much so that one gets the impression the filmmakers wanted to avoid making contact with the audience’s collective funny bone. The film’s main appeal is that it stars David Duchovny as Ira Kane, a biology professor with a secret past who investigates the many bizarre creatures that evolve in the Arizona desert after a meteor strikes. With this character, the former X-Files star gets a chance to spoof his most famous role, and he clearly relishes the opportunity. When a friend suggests notifying the authorities, Ira replies, “No government! I know those people. Absolutely not!” Although Duchovny fans will be happy to know that he bares his bottom and presses it up against a windshield, all in the service of mooning an arrogant general, he never quite figures out this film’s sense of humour. His droll asides are fine on TV, but what’s needed here is something looser, especially in the scenes where he tries, unsuccessfully, to strike romantic sparks with Julianne Moore, who plays a klutzy government agent. Alas, like Duchovny, Moore doesn’t have an instinct for this brand of comedy, and her attempts at slapstick humour — walking into doors, tripping on steps — fall utterly flat.

In other scenes, Evolution pulls its punches for no good reason. The movie begins late at night in the desert, mere moments before the meteor strikes, as Wayne Green (Seann William Scott), an amateur firefighter in his early 20s, puts a blow-up doll inside a shack, sets the structure on fire, then runs inside to rescue the plastic damsel in distress. Is Wayne acting out some peculiar sexual fantasy? One might think so, given that Scott is best known for playing horny teens and post-adolescents in movies like Road Trip and American Pie. But no, it turns out he was probably just preparing for his firefighter’s exam. And when, later on, a grumpy Wayne tends bar at a golf and country club and his boss asks him for a drink, you expect him to put something rude in the beverage, but he doesn’t. Perhaps it’s a good thing the film doesn’t always go for the cheap joke, but still, cheap jokes would be better than no jokes at all.

The only member of the cast who shows much of a flair for the kind of humour Evolution tries to achieve is Orlando Jones, who plays geologist Harry Block. But so many of his punchlines rely on the colour of his black skin, you begin to feel a tad guilty for laughing at them. What does it say about a film when its most consistently funny jokes are the ones about race? And what does it say about a film when it mocks racial stereotypes, and then indulges in them anyway? When Ira asks Harry to grab a specimen and put it in a jar, Harry replies, “No way, I’ve seen this movie; the black dude dies first!” But when an alien insect penetrates one of the humans’ environmental suits and burrows under his skin, leading to the inevitably humiliating anal probe in an operating room, who do you think the victim is?

In the end, the humour, such as it is, is overwhelmed by the special effects, especially when all the alien creatures are merged together in a giant blob of an organism which seems to exist for no other reason than to give us the largest anus ever seen on the silver screen. Like the X-wing fighter pilots in Star Wars, Ira, Harry and company can defeat the alien menace only by penetrating this, ahem, thermal exhaust port. But before they are absorbed by this super-alien, some of the creatures we see are actually somewhat interesting, even if many of them are disgusting. Included in this menagerie are flying lizards and leaping monkeys, as though the makers of Evolution wanted to steal a little thunder from the upcoming Jurassic Park and Planet of the Apes movies. But Evolution is such a dull and ultimately forgettable flick, the makers of those other films needn’t worry.

– A version of this review was first published in the Vancouver Courier.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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