Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Director Report Card: Ivan Reitman (2001)

13. Evolution

It’s surprising that Ivan Reitman hasn’t tried to re-capture the success of “Ghostbusters” more often. Not only is it the biggest hit of his career, it’s also remains one of the most beloved comedies of all time. If you’re being cynical, it’s the only really good movie the director has ever made. Despite all of this, aside from the immediate sequel, Reitman never attempted to replicate that film’s winning formula. That is until “Evolution” arrived. Originally written as a serious alien invasion horror film by Don Jakoby, when Reitman came onto the project, he converted it into a science fiction farce. The film did not replicate “Ghostbusters’” blockbuster success, only breaking even at the box office. More importantly, it’s also the shittiest movie Reitman had made in decades.

Ira Kane is a former prominent biologist who, following a serious gaff with the military, is now stuck working at a crappy community college. Along with his colleague Harry Block and a would-be fireman named Wayne Grey, Kane makes a startling discovery in the desert. A meteor has brought alien organisms to Earth. Within days, the one-cell organisms have evolved into complex lifeforms. The evolution from plant life to insects to aquatic creatures and beyond happens in hours. Though the military tries to keep a lid on it, only Ira and his friends realize how big of a threat these creatures pose to mankind.

Reitman may have waited years to make a spiritual successor to “Ghostbusters.” But when he did, he was shameless about it. “Evolution” follows three quirky scientists and one blue collar working man. Their expertise come in handy when a bizarre, unexpected threat emerges. Said threat is composed of weird looking monsters and creatures. The government tries to shut our heroes down and nearly succeeds. However, their wit and wackiness perseveres, saving the day. In both films, the gang poses for a TV commercial. In both films, the final form the threat takes is something giant. In both films, the dick head authority figure is bath in an oozy substance after said threat explodes. “Evolution” was even accompanied by a Saturday morning cartoon show and line of toys, making the comparison inescapable. Patterning a movie so closely after one of the most popular comedies ever probably isn’t a great idea. When the final product is as mediocre as “Evolution,” the movie is really not doing itself any favors.

The truth is “Evolution” is startling in its lack of laughs. The movie banks on the cheapest, lamest gags imaginable. There are gags about black guys dying first in horror movies, dumb-ass college fratboys, ambiguities of the word “cell,” and internet porn. The movie thinks an off-key rendition of a popular song classifies as a trailer worthy joke. An extended sequence involves a monster being pulled out of someone’s anus. One moment, that makes Duchovny’s character seem like a total asshole, has him harassing an ex-girlfriend in a dinner. The climax of the movie involves an enormous fart joke. There’s none of the unforgettable one-liners or hilarious sight gags from “Ghostbusters.” “Evolution” instead struggles to get chuckles with broad, incredibly lazy jokes. The film’s complete contempt of the audience is clear, if it thinks shitty gags like that will make us laugh.

Of course, a big reason why “Ghostbusters” was so entertaining was its fantastic cast. At the top of their games, Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, or Harold Raimis could make most anything funny. “Evolution” doesn’t come close to assembling a primary cast equal to that one. For the most glaring example of how miscalculated “Evolution’s” cast is, look no further than its leading man. David Duchovny plays a snarky college professor, whose smart-ass wit is his biggest weapon. Once again, drawing a comparison between Duchovny’s Ira Kane and Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman is unavoidable. Sadly, David Duchovny is no Bill Murray. He has no investment in his dialogue, unable to disguise how shitty he thinks the script is. He sleepwalks through the scenes, bored and mildly annoyed. The film even hassles Duchovny’s character with a lame redemption arc, trying to atone for past mistakes. Duchovny does not give a compelling performance nor creates a memorable character.

“Evolution” was made during the brief time period when Hollywood was trying to make Sean William Scott a thing. Though Scott would occasionally play a lovable side kick, too many of his performances verge on the loud and dumb. Here, he plays Wayne, a complete buffoon. The character is introduced setting a building on fire and rushing inside to save a doll. After his car is exploded by the meteor, he continues to drive the wreck around. Later, he grunts and grumbles at a party. Scott mugs terribly, desperate to wring anything of interest out of this script. He does not succeed. Not only are the character and performer annoying, Wayne doesn’t even interact with the main cast for long stretches of the movie.

Of all the performers in the film, only Orlando Jones tries to rise above the material. Better known at the time as the “7 Up Yours!” guy, Jones is given some increasingly dire material. His is the anus the mosquito monster is removed from. He is the black guy fearful of dying first in the horror movie. After trying on a sterile containment suit, he dances for no reason.He makes some pretty sexist comments about the film’s female characters. Despite being stuck with some of the dumbest jokes in the movie – which is no small task – Jones does his best to generate actual humor. A brief line about ice cream produce a chuckle. So did some of his more absurd facial expressions. It’s not a lot. For that matter, it’s still pretty bad. But at least Jones is trying to make the best of a lousy situation, instead of just suffering through it in the name of a paycheck.

The cast in “Evolution” is pretty weak sauce but there’s at least one great performer in the movie. Julianne Moore has given some phenomenal performances but she tends to do her worst work in genre films. “Evolution” gives her little to work with, Moore struggling to make something out of a nothing part. Like Emma Thompson in “Junior,” despite her character being an intelligent scientist, she’s still needlessly clumsy. Moore has an uninspired romance with Duchovny’s characters. Despite having nothing in common, the two are tossed together. The film’s attempts at sexual tension are pathetic. A crop of other notable actors appear in the film. Ted Levine does fine as a condescending authority figure. Dan Akyroyd has a mildly entertaining extended cameo as the town’s mayor. Ethan Sluppe is embarrassing as Duchovny’s dumbest student.

“Evolution” is a monster movie and I generally enjoy those, even crappy ones. The creature effects in “Evolution,” supervised by effects veteran Phil Tippet, are generally quite good. Using a clever combination of practical and CGI effects, they are cartoony but in a way that’s likable. The creature designer strived to make truly alien looking monsters and environments. The cavern where the meteor lands is full of a thin mist and strange beings. The quadrupedal creatures that waddles out of a closest has a secondary mouth inside its jaws. The reptilian creature is a cool example of a dragon. The ape-like monsters that appear in the last act are maybe the best creatures in the movie, looking like zombie versions of the apes from “Congo.” Sadly, the giant amoeba that appears at the climax is the least inspired of the film’s creature. The monster effects in “Evolution” are solid and deserved a better movie.

The monsters look cool but the film has no idea how to deploy them. While “Ghostbusters” had moments that were scary or thrilling, in addition to being funny, “Evolution” struggles to get the audience invested. A monster leaping from a lake to attack a man is broadcast too broadly, downplaying the horror of the situation. The dragon grabs a shopper before flying through the mall. Yet the woman never seems to be in danger and the dragon never seems like a real threat. When the zombie-gorillas are leaping around, attacking people, none of the main characters are endangered. Pointedly, most of the monster attacks occur on unimportant, random cast members tossed into the movie. As lacking in laughs as “Evolution” is, it fails to produce any other strong emotion in the audience either.

One of the reasons I hate “Evolution” so much is how many little, dumb things are in the film. The script has this annoying habit of calling its monsters mundane things. A squat, four-legged creature is referred to as a dog, despite not resembling a dog at all. One creature is obviously a dragon. It has green scales, reptilian features, claws, and wings extending from its back. Despite that, the characters keep calling it a “bird.” That’s not a bird, goddamn it. Nobody notices a field full of dead monsters before the main characters do. The organism have a weakness, which the heroes deduce with some extremely shaky science. What is that weakness? Head and Shoulders shampoo. Aside from being disgustingly blatant product placement, it’s also an exceedingly lame attempt at a gag.

One of the reasons “Evolution” has so much trouble generating anything but the fakest of laughs is its soundtrack. John Powell’s score is peppered with ridiculous, clownish sound effects. The aforementioned field of dead monsters could’ve been a startling sight. Instead, the movie’s goofy score prevents any moment from being taken seriously. Reitman continues to utilize pop songs in his movie. Most of the choices are not inspired, including such bro-tastic choices as Buckcherry and Powerman 5000. However, one energetic sequence is set to “Play That Funky Music, White Boy.” It’s just a scene of the cast driving down a road but it’s the only time the movie rises above bored malaise.

I first saw “Evolution” on VHS, rented from our local video store. At the time, I was somewhat hyped, knowing this was another sci-f/horror/comedy from the director of “Ghostbusters.” Even as a kid, I hated the movie. I couldn’t express the reasons why but I was immensely disappointed in what Reitman and his team created. My opinion hasn’t changed very much in the years since. Ivan Reitman has made some kind-of-crappy movies over the years but “Evolution” is, undoubtedly, the kind-of-crappiest. [Grade: D-]

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