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‘Invasion’ Review: Meandering Apple Sci-Fi Drama Is Rarely More than a Survival Story Checklist

Co-written and co-created by Simon Kinberg, this alien attack story with threads all over the world has little that isn't cobbled together from other, better stories of its kind.

Invasion Apple Golshifteh Farahani

“Invasion”

Macall Polay

There’s a well-worn idea in disaster stories that calamity strikes right when a character is at their lowest. The giant flood or the massive accident or some global crisis just happens to arrive at some rock-bottom revelation or in the wake of some life-changing moment.

Invasion” has a few of those, one of the first clues that this newest Apple TV+ series, created by Simon Kinberg and David Weil, isn’t doing much more than rearranging a box full of previously-used ideas. Sheriff John Bell Tyson (Sam Neill) is serving his final day as a sheriff in an Oklahoma town. Aneesha Malik (Golshifteh Farahani) is in the midst of a crisis that could crumble her family’s suburban Long Island happiness. Mitsuki Yamato (Shioli Kutsuna) sits in the command center for a historic launch from the Japanese space program.

As the title of the show implies, what follows is less an act of god than an act of a visiting species, whose arrival quickly upends technological and social order in the various regions around the globe where the handful of main characters happen to be. That worldwide approach is something of a misleading promise that “Invasion” makes at the outset. Throw in a group of middle-school-age Londoners on a class field trip and a Navy Seal (Shamier Anderson) stationed in Kandahar and the show presents the idea that this will be a kaleidoscopic look at how different people respond to a world about to change.

Yet, in the anthology-ish way that “Invasion” plays out, time spent isn’t necessarily time learned. Instead of taking advantage of these threaded narrative strands, “Invasion” always feels like it’s using each far-flung story as a checklist. A tragic love story here, a kid with metaphysical gifts there, all intercut with characters learning to trust each other in the face of tragedy. So at the end of its 10-episode season, “Invasion” plays out less like a series than syllabus, a flatter-by-the-hour roundup of themes and tropes explored and subverted in much more sure-handed projects.

Invasion Apple Mitsuki Shioli Kutsuna

“Invasion”

Macall Polay

It’s not that any of these ideas on their own, if given an entire season’s worth of runway, would necessarily be a more constructive use of time. There are precious few pieces of “Invasion” that don’t feel like they’re already riffing on pre-established genre ideas. It’s that all of these storylines, when added together, make up a whole that’s almost completely devoid of any emotional anchor.

That’s partly due to the overall pace, which isn’t so much patient as it is meandering. A series about an alien invasion rarely gets this much time to really sit with each character as they have to parse through how much their lives will change going forward. But “Invasion” gets swallowed by a vast emptiness. Most of these threads have a single idea — betrayal, loneliness, regret — that get hammered home, hour after hour. The result is a collection of thin, hazy metaphors where the massive, overarching inciting event almost feels incidental.

The closest that “Invasion” comes to infusing some life into a paint-by-numbers execution is a midseason episode that focuses on one storyline, relatively confined to a single location. Living with those characters for that extended period of time does help build a sense of dread that’s absent from most of the season. (Notably, this is the one episode to that point that doesn’t list Kinberg as a credited writer.) Rather than dwell on a personal tragedy that the show obscures for one reason or another, people have to actually confront the danger in front of them. It’s a jolt to “Invasion” that quickly dissipates, one that hints at where a sharper, more adventurous take on this premise might lead.

Given little to latch onto, this cast does manage to fill in the vacuum left by a lack of imagination. Anderson brings a different tenor than your usual on-screen soldier, something that pays off when the character’s instinct takes over. (After last year’s “Soulmates,” this is yet another listless anthology-adjacent series where he’s a rare reason to keep watching.) As the person in “Invasion” who most deals with up-close horrors, Farahani’s primal reactions to each new nightmare layer eventually give way to a weariness that gives the show most of its emotional weight. Kutsuna (along with Shingo Usami as her boss) rescues their scenes from being a complete retread of similar command center setups in other space stories.

Invasion Apple Shamier Anderson Trevante

“Invasion”

Jason LaVeris

It doesn’t help that so many of the fundamental things the show is striving for — a prismatic view at a civilization in crisis, people looking for meaning in disaster, a formal break with linear sci-fi storytelling convention — were all done better on a show that’s still releasing new episodes only a few clicks away on the Apple TV+ homepage. “Foundation” is set in a fictional galaxy and spans centuries, yet it feels exponentially more attuned to the swirling, immediate “society on the brink” anxieties of 2021.

To its credit, “Invasion” does resist the temptation to use this antagonistic force as a story device to heal all wounds. If the series feel adrift, it’s because nearly all of its characters are, too. It’s at least partly by design that — whether to protect their family, to get across vast arid deserts, or reconnect with a distant loved one — these individuals are veering into wildly unfamiliar territory and often feel lost because of it. Even if “Invasion” has too much broad appeal on its mind to really lean into the bleakness of the situation, it doesn’t fall prey to too many artificial happy endings.

Even in that, though, there’s the constant feeling that “Invasion” is always on the verge of something. Some new detail about the creatures hovering in orbit may give some meaning to why they’ve come, some fresh biographical detail (usually withheld arbitrarily) may unlock the reason for spending so much time wading through uncertainty with these people. If “Invasion” seems purposely vague, it’s that there wasn’t all that much here to discover.

Grade: C-

The first three episodes of “Invasion” are now available to stream on Apple TV+. New episodes will be available every Friday.

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