Third time is not the charm for Apple TV Plus, which expands its lineup of sci-fi dramas with the bland Invasion. Created by Simon Kinberg and David Weil, the series aims for the grand scope of For All Mankind and Foundation, but fails to fill in its massive framework with compelling details or characters.
The visuals can be impressive, which is good, since the large ensemble cast spends most of the time staring in shock, awe, or horror at something in the distance. But Invasion prefers to focus on reaction shots of bewildered earthlings rather than allow viewers to survey the destruction or threats they face. The series is determined to tell, not show—relying on shots of people fleeing in terror or gaping at something offscreen, and waiting until the midseason mark to provide the first glimpse at what has everyone on the run.
Instead of building suspense, this act of withholding only creates frustration, especially since there’s very little else to grab on to here. The majority of the dozen or so characters are driven solely by plot, their most constant and palpable emotion being fear. This would make sense if the series dropped us right into the middle of the action, but the first half of the season creeps at an ponderous pace. It’s the probable end of the world, but you wouldn’t know it from everyone’s blinkered responses and the lack of discernible danger.
Further weighing down the show is a surplus of storylines, which move from a small town in Oklahoma, where Sheriff John Bell Tyson (Sam Neill) is staring down retirement, to mission control in Tokyo, where the Japanese space agency prepares for an historic launch. In Long Island, Aneesha Malik (Golshifteh Farahani) is already struggling to keep her family together before the first attacks hit. Meanwhile, U.S. Army officer Trevante Cole (Shamier Anderson) is ambivalent about returning home after spending two years in Afghanistan. Middle schoolers in London, including put-upon Caspar (Billy Barratt), set out on a class trip that’s rife with detours.
The focus shifts in an almost preset pattern, plodding from country to country and city to city, except when it abandons a character that seemed poised for a much bigger role in the show. A few of these characters do manage to escape Invasion’s inertia. Mitsuki (Shiori Kutsuna, who gives a nuanced performance), a communications officer in Japan’s space program, wrestles with grief and hope as she tries to piece together what’s happening. In Mitsuki’s story, Invasion finds the balance between global and personal stakes, and the momentum needed to keep its sci-fi drama going.
But its sprawling structure means Invasion has to quickly jump to another location and plot line, even if none of the others holds up as well as Mitsuki’s. Farahani does her best as Aneesha Malik, a married mother of two, whose thwarted ambitions come to light at the same time as her husband’s selfishness. Here, the balance of the show’s more intimate ideas with its massive scale is off, as Aneesha’s one-note family conflicts threaten to overshadow the looming extinction-level event.
If apocalyptic dramas like The Walking Dead—not to mention, the last, oh, two to five years of real life—have taught us anything, it’s that people don’t automatically “come together” when faced with catastrophe. Bigotry, pettiness, jealousy, and selfishness all continue to exist in times of great peril. Invasion firmly acknowledges this reality, but does so in the most prosaic ways, sometimes by having a character espouse its big ideas in dialogue. The show’s themes converge on the Malik family, as they’re treated suspiciously by neighbors and military officials, all of whom initially assume that the events are terrorist attacks. But Aneesha, Ahmed (Firas Nassar), and their children are the biggest victims of the heavy-handed plotting, taking turns behaving unaccountably to advance the story.
The approach is clear: to follow ordinary people as they grapple with extraordinary circumstances. Rather than develop that premise organically, Invasion nods to more successful outings like The Leftovers and Arrival. It even boasts a sumptuous score from composer Max Richter, whose work on Arrival pointed to the importance of sound in that film, a device that may or may not carry through to Kinberg and Weil’s series.
Invasion’s allusions outnumber its original ideas, which can only lead to less than favorable comparisons with its predecessors. And yet, without all those references to War Of The Worlds, Independence Day, and even Attack The Block, among others, it would be almost impossible to tell where this story is going. The diffused focus keeps us from learning much about, let alone investing in, most of these characters, and playing coy with the extraterrestrials in a story about an extraterrestrial invasion leaves the series without much of a hook for more than half of its first season.
What we have after 10 episodes amounts to little more than setup, which proved fatal to Jupiter’s Legacy, the purported Big Bang of Netflix’s Mark Millar universe. There isn’t quite as much riding on Invasion, as Apple TV Plus has garnered greater recognition for its comedies, and For All Mankind and Foundation are both holding strong. But the unremarkable Invasion isn’t going to take over the TV landscape.