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Evolution

Director: Ivan Reitman
Cast: David Duchovny, Orlando Jones, Julianne Moore, Seann William Scott

(Dreamworks; US theatrical: 31 Dec 1969; 2001)

Who You Gonna Call?

Imagine you’re a winged dinosaur-ish alien, woozy from being just upchucked into the Glen Canyon, Arizona desert by your now-dead mom. Imagine further that you’ve staggered to your feet and gulped down a bit of the dry, hot atmosphere, so that you’re feeling a little disoriented. With all this going on, where’s the first place you’d think to fly off to? Why, to the mall of course.


If you’re not going to blow up the White House a la ID4, I suppose the next best thing is to send a marauding alien soaring through that most sacred of public spaces, the mall. It’s this kind of uninspired high concept that pops up again and again in Evolution, Ivan Reitman’s second DreamWorks project (the first was Road Trip, which he executive produced). You can almost imagine the pitch session for this movie: “Let’s send *Jurassic Park* to the mall, but without those scary R-rated assaults on little kids.” Or maybe, “Let’s do Dawn of the Dead without those creepy corpses.” Either way, the result is a collision of the mundane and the spectacular, torpid comedy and oozy effects. Visual effects honcho Phil Tippett, PDI/DreamWorks, and a few other out-of-house companies do a bang-up job on those effects, but they could use some bolstering by, say, a non-retread plot.


But, as the great Buckaroo Banzai once said, wherever you go, there you are. And so, the dinosaur crash-lands through the big front window, scatters ladies’ accessories and perfumes across the floor, then spends some minutes swooping wildly through the fluorescence-enhanced air. All the while, sundry mall extras are making gaspy faces, looking up at the ceiling and pointing as if in awe at the gigantic creature, at one point carrying a screaming girl in its talons. But the best part is that these regular folks, aside from the occasional duck and point, actually appear quite undeterred by all the commotion. Dinosaur be damned, they’ve got shopping to do.


How this dinosaur comes into being provides a rudimentary framework on which Evolution hangs its protagonists, a motley crew hastily assembled to do good work: community college biology professor Ira Kane (David Duchovny), his pal, geology prof/women’s volleyball coach Harry (Orlando Jones), and aspiring fireman Wayne (Seann William Scott). Wayne is actually the first character to have contact with the dinosaur . . . or more accurately, the dinosaur’s ancestors. Wayne’s out practicing for his fireman’s exam one night in the desert (literally, tossing a female dummy into a burning shack and rushing in to “save” her), when a meteor burns through the atmosphere and lands on his car. Though the car is totaled, this meteor ends up producing a blue goo that quickly turns into single-celled organisms, then little reptilian-thingies, then larger human-eating creatures, he and his new pals — the college profs — are nonplussed, to say the least. But then they figure out that the aliens are in the throes of a super-speeded-up evolutionary process, owing to the fact that they have ten DNA base pairs (as opposed to the earthlings’ measly four). You know how it is — when humans don’t measure up, they tend to fret.


Ira and Harry think they might keep all this a secret (imagining Nobel Prizes and such), but they soon learn that it’s not their decision to make. As soon as they achieve mobility and a proper bone-champing size, the creatures start turning up on golf courses, in laundry rooms and malls, attacking unsuspecting victims in Bermuda shorts. Panic is pretty much unavoidable.


The grimness this circumstance might pose in another movie is reduced by way of perky soundtrack accompaniment and the attitude adopted by our heroes, that is, laconic and laced with one-liners. These elements aren’t the only ones that make this movie feel familiar (the slimy goo is another). As the marketing for Evolution incessantly reminds you, it’s made by the man who came up with Ghostbusters, whose basic set up and plot the film follows closely. This isn’t to say that Evolution matches the first film’s fortuitously brilliant mix of elements, though Dan Aykroyd makes a brief appearance as the anxious and none-too-bright Arizona governor. In fact, the new movie, written by Don Jakoby, David Diamond, and David Weissman (the last two responsible for The Family Man), doesn’t come close to Reitman’s glory days.


It’s not for lack of talent or effort, though it’s disappointing that so much of that effort shows. Duchovny and Jones are surely personable performers who share an easy on-screen partnership, and Scott (who may forever be identified with his breakout role as American Pie‘s Stifler), provides decent physical humor when he’s not reduced to being knocked in the balls by a his fire-hose (I mean the literal one off the truck, which he mishandles during another go at his exam). And they have foils who speak human language, most visibly, an appropriately stodgy posse of federal authorities, comprising an Army Research unit headed by the odiously named General Woodman (Ted Levine), with whom Ira has a gone-sour employment history: this would be the film’s primary in-joke, as most everyone on the planet knows that Duchovny has recently declared his departure from The X-Files for once and for all.


The government also supplies the girl, here a CDC epidemiologist named Allison Reed (Julianne Moore), who is soon enticed into service with the good guys, when she recognizes their rudimentary insight as opposed to the military’s blatant idiocy. If Allison doesn’t have quite the schizophrenic range of Sigourney Weaver’s Dana/Zuul split, she does reveal another peculiarity: for all her scientific brilliance and all-business affect (Ira not-very-imaginatively calls her an “Ice Queen”), Allison spends much of her screen time flat on her face, usually after tripping over her own feet or falling up stairs. While such hijinks are endearing, and highlight Moore’s good sportsmanship (much like Weaver’s writhing all over Rick Moranis), they’re also getting old by the second splat. But then, that probably fits with the film’s general sense of fatigue and boredom: by the scene where Ira actually says it’s time to “save the world,” echoing the Ghostbusters’ very own tagline, it’s clear that there’s not much here that you haven’t seen before.


Well, there’s one thing . . . it’s not exactly new, but it is instructive. Harry, as you’ve seen in the trailers for the film, is quite aware that he’s the “black dude” in a science fiction movie, and so, the most likely to suffer a terrible fate. And so, for the most part, he takes great care when approaching the sharp-toothed creatures. And then he’s made the patsy for a really yucky stunt that rivals any under-the-skin-crawly bit in The X Files — a mini-scorpio-bug-reptiley-gizmo gets under his skin, then starts racing around his body so that you see the bump moving all under his skin.


I needn’t underline here the perversity of this gimmick, the alien now within rather than without, and the invaded body predictably the black man’s, which then must be excavated using an anal probe, with “no time for lubricant!” Ernie Hudson must be thanking his lucky stars that he got out in time. Such antics (and this is only one of many) have two related effects: first, they exemplify the creativity suckage suffered by Ghostbusters-Animal House-style comedies since the good old days (John Belushi belching and toga-dancing looks almost refined now), and second, they point to the political nihilism of Farrelly-brothers-era bodily-abuse comedies.


And yet, the most alarming aspect of Evolution may have very little to do with the past. Instead, it may be a sign of a nasty future, namely, DreamWorks’ world domination. The studio won the last couple of years’ major Oscars with American Beauty and Gladiator, has recently taken hyper-profitable aim at easy target Disney (in Shrek) and has the next Woody Allen project (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion) under its distribution wing. The Ghostbusters concept was never singular, of course, but it did have a screwy peculiarity, born of its weird science of personalities, script, and historical moment (1984). In this incarnation, the idea is much less cleverly designed to critique its own “crass commercialism.” It feels like a chain industry has bought up a neighborhood institution. It’s inevitable, but it is also, like the mall that looms so prominently in Evolution‘s imaginative realm, routine and uninspired.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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