When he was in his thirties, Ivan Reitman made comedies like a young man. His early movies, among them Stripes and Meatballs and Ghostbusters, were messy, cocky, charming, daffy and restless; they did anything for a laugh, even if that meant dousing John Candy in mud or Bill Murray in green slime. Those films sprinted toward their finish lines, but when they stumbled along the way, when they got lost in the woods of summer camp or a POW hideaway, Murray was always there to catch them. He was Reitman's safety net, a comedy epileptic who could cajole a laugh out of a dead spot.
But it's been 17 years since Reitman directed anything more than a serviceable sitcom masquerading as feature-film entertainment; he hasn't elicited more than a chuckle since the president-swapping Dave in 1993, released when he was 46. A quick glance at his filmography as director and producer reveals him not as a comedic genius but as a pusher of high-concept, middle-brow product best seen in airplanes, where it's hard (but not impossible) to walk out on them: Legal Eagles, Junior, Twins, Feds, Casual Sex?, Kindergarten Cop, the Beethoven films (dogs, indeed), Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot, Private Parts, Fathers' Day and Six Days, Seven Nights. Perhaps comic directors, like athletes, lose a step or a hundred past a certain age; Reitman hasn't been a loose or limber filmmaker for years. He used to know funny, till the two had an apparent falling-out and parted company.
This, no doubt, is what drove him to doll up Ghostbusters in alien's clothing and release it under the moniker Evolution. The title should be considered an ironic one: This is, at best, a giant step backward -- a remake (or re-remake, after the woeful Ghostbusters II) intended to allow Reitman to get back in touch with the inner lunatic that unleashed a giant marshmallow man on the streets of Manhattan and reduced it to a goo downpour. But this time, the best Reitman and his handful of screenwriters could offer for a finale is an enormous computer-generated flatulating blob that threatens the Arizona desert and a few suburban homes. Watching Evolution is not a little like being haunted by an old ghost, only to discover it's just a half-crazy uncle wandering around in a white sheet.
Put simply (like everything else about Evolution), the film plays like a cross between Ghostbusters and The X-Files (not the funny episodes, sadly): An asteroid crashes to earth, bringing with it alien microbes that multiply and evolve at tremendous rates of speed (200 million years in a matter of hours, give or take), and it's up to four accidental heroes (David Duchovny, 7UP pitchman Orlando Jones, Julianne Moore and Seann William Scott as a wanna-be fireman) to save the world from imminent invasion and destruction. Dan Aykroyd even shows up as the governor of Arizona, and his frantic what-do-we- do-now? scenes are almost note-for- note redos of those with David Margulies, as New York City mayor, in Ghostbusters. The entire affair reeks of a cross-country trip down Amnesia Lane: We've been here before, but who forgot to pack the laughs?
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According to the media notes, when Reitman first stumbled across the screenplay, written by Don Jakoby, it was intended to play as full-scale, big-budget sci-fi drama -- aliens evolve, then invade as entirely new species of garishly colored bugs, lizards and, eventually, bipedal primates (merely men in monkey suits). Apparently the script received little tweaking; it's so bereft of comedy it muted a theater full of amped-up, preview-screening filmgoers primed to roar at concession-stand promos. It's hard to wring laughs out of a script that has Duchovny -- as Ira Kane, a disgraced government researcher-turned-community college chemistry professor -- uttering such lines as "This is the greatest scientific discovery of our time," "These are organisms from another world -- these are aliens!" and "Look, selenium could be the answer." Yes, if you pour it over popcorn.
And when Jones, as geologist Harry Block, suggests calling in the feds, Duchovny resists: "No government -- I know those people." Even that line -- the film's most knowing, and one that plays well in the trailer -- crashes with an asteroid's thud. It's of no help that Duchovny, usually deft at deadpan humor, delivers his lines like a man in need of time off. But the screenplay betrays him at every turn: Early on, we discover that Ira, when in the employ of the government, created an experimental anthrax vaccination that induced paralysis and madness in some 140,000 soldiers. In an instant, he becomes rather dislikable, a megalomaniac who confuses smarm for charm.
At least the Actor Formerly Known as Fox Mulder need not spend the entirety of the film convincing his colleagues that aliens do indeed walk and fly and crawl among us; there's no way to cover up an infestation that within days spreads from a crater to a country-club water hazard to a shopping mall, where the alienbusters destroy one flying lizard with shotguns. The invasion is treated almost matter-of-factly: The citizens of Glen Canyon, Arizona, don't fuss or panic even when their own are being bitten and, finally, devoured. (The film climaxes with the wholesale slaughter of soldiers -- played for laughs, allegedly.) Landscapes are strewn with what appear to be pterodactyl corpses, and reporters cover the event as though such things happen every day. They do: in the movies.
Reitman used to make movies that reveled in the rambunctious; Evolution is merely stale, sterile and, worst of all, safe. It's a hodgepodge of undercooked notions and overused plots -- a greatest hits, made up entirely of misses. How is one supposed to feel good about watching a movie that reduces Moore, as an epidemiologist working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to a sight gag? Every time she enters a room or gets out of a car, she trips and falls on her face; she might as well not be in the film at all. And pity Jones, who spends one scene lying on his stomach on a gurney, having an alien insect extracted from his colon with a pair of medieval forceps. It's rather appropriate, actually: The whole films looks to have been pulled out of someone's ass.