Evolution: Ivan Reitman’s Slight Comedy Starring David Duchovny

The shadow of Ghostbusters and Men in Black looms large over Evolution, an extremely slight comedy that’s too pleased with itself in twisting the conventions of 1950s’ sci-fi-thrillers.

Ivan Reitman’s goofy comedy is graced by a likeable cast, headed by X-Files’ David Duchovny and Mad TV’s Orlando Jones, as community college teachers, who grasp the opportunity of their careers when a meteor hits the earth, carrying alien life forms that give new meaning to the term “survival of the fittest.”

Marked by a rudimentary narrative (basically a one-idea picture), sporadic humor that lacks real wit, and cheesy special effects, DreamWorks comedy should do well with undiscriminating teenagers who’re unacquainted with the movie’s superior models and may think they’re watching a Men in Black kind of movie, but it will disappoint older, more sophisticated viewers.

When a director begins to pay homage to his own work, it’s a sign that his creative juices are drying up. Such is indeed the case of Reitman, king of 1970s and 1980s whimsical comedies (National Lampoon’s Animal House, Meatballs, Ghostbusters) all spectacular hits. Reitman has always demonstrated a keen instinct for commercially viable, if not always tasteful, material, evident in the highly profitable Schwarzenegger comedies (Twins, Kindergarten Cop, Junior).

At present, he may be one of the few practitioners of the high-concept picture that reigned supreme in the 1980s, with comedies about frat houses and haunted houses, boot camps and summer camps, mismatched twins and presidential twins. Like George Lucas and other directors of their generation, Reitman pays tribute to the sci-fi movies he saw as a kid on Saturday matinees: It Came from Outer Space, War of the Worlds, Invaders from Mars. In his new movie, Reitman has reportedly added a layer of comedy to Don Jakoby’s original story, which was written as a serious sci-fi thriller. The end result is a half-baked, half-absorbing, half-pleasing picture.

In Evolution, Arizona replaces the Manhattan of the Ghostbusters movies as the angriest place on earth, “about to blow, like a frog on a hot plate.” Its central hypothesis, which is known as panspermia, is that life travels from one planetary system to another by way of meteors that crash into a previously lifeless planet. These “scientific” theories are twisted and exaggerated by Reitman in Evolution, a film that walks a very narrow line between the fantastic and the absurd.

Duchovny stars as Dr. Ira Kane, the first man to discover the meteor’s alien stowaways and the first to understand the significance of their rapid development. A former government scientist, Kane has fallen into disgrace and wound up as a teacher at Glen Canyon Community College. His friend and partner is Harry Block (Jones), a college geology professor, who doubles as the women’s volleyball coach, and initially shows more interest in female buddies than in scholastic projects.

Like the movie’s multiplying creatures, the central duo evolves into a trio and then into a quartet of characters, united in their fight against the alien forces. First, the couple acquires the help of Wayne (Scott), a hapless fireman wannabe, who comes close to being pulverized by the meteor in the pre-credits sequence, which depicts a momentous crash into the Arizona desert. To a country bumpkin like Wayne, the alien invasion gives his dream a shot at putting out the ultimate fire.

Rounding out the quartet is a female scientist, Allison (Moore), a cold, all-business epidemiologist from the CDC (Center for Disease Control), who shows contempt for Kane upon learning about his checkered past. Initially teased and reviled as a “humorless ice-queen,” she later reveals unexpected courage, when she decides to desert her government position and join forces with the civilian force, realizing they’re the only people to stand between the aliens and world domination.

Slight humor stems from the portraiture of four misfits, each impaired by a physical or psychological traits. Allison, for example, is a klutz who trips over herself. The chief pair, endlessly bickering and needling each other, is very much in the manner of other movieish white-black teams (Kevin Kline and Will Smith in Men in Black, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon). They’re by turns smart and silly, mature and childish, brave and coward. In one of the film’s funniest moments, a bird crawls under Block’s skin and enters into his butt, rushing him and his comrades to the hospital for an emergency operation. As often in such pictures, the military and government types are scripted and acted as caricatures, particularly Dan Aykroyd as Arizona’s Governor.

With the exception of the Capraesque fable, Dave, all of Reitman’s movies are imbued with the same teenage sensibility. This also applies to Evolution, which is based on calculated sloveness and commonplace comic invention. Unlike the Farrelly brothers, Reitman doesn’t wish to shock viewers or put them down, but pander to them by fulfilling their expectations.

Like Ghostbusters, Evolution flaunts a lazy, unforced rhythm, but, unlike that film, instead of genuine surprises and wit, the new comedy offers special effects. Unfortunately, the effects aren’t as striking as they should be, even though they are the products of Phil Tippett, who worked on the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and the giant aliens in Starship Troopers. This could be a result of a rushed post-production to achieve the digital-effects shots, with a second FX house brought in to expedite the process.