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Apple TV's Invasion is a Thrilling Show About People, Not Aliens

Maybe it’s the effect of the Roland Emmerich blockbuster, but it doesn’t feel outlandish to say that modern disaster stories have lost the focus on humanity amidst the spectacle. It's become far more about the destruction than the people running from it, even though characters are our lifelines into these experiences. (When “Greenland” pushed back on this recently and treated its disaster with complex characters, audiences positively responded.) “Invasion,” a new series that concerns a sudden alien invasion but is much more about the people, is a refreshing and often thrilling juggling of plot-threads that involve incredibly flawed or hurtful decisions made in the name of survival. The world is under attack, but this series from co-creators Simon Kinberg and David Weil is more interested in using its scope and ensemble for claustrophobic moral choices. Much of what is thrilling about this show comes down to how such an extreme situation brings out the true selves of its characters. 

Everyone is having the worst week of their lives in this series, their spirits challenged by ruthless conditions. But a special honor of nightmarish scenarios goes to Aneesha, played by Golshifteh Farahani, in a role that proves Farahani should be as big a star as she wants to, given the massive weight she carries in scenes that can be heartbreaking and/or scary throughout "Invasion." Her family of four is in Long Island when the attack happens, devastating the neighbor’s properties. But before that beat, she learns something equally devastating—her husband and loving father to their two children has been cheating on her with an Instagram foodie model, a projection of the perfection that Aneesha has tried to achieve in her own life decisions, down to how she intricately prepares the kids’ lunches. Even worse, her husband Ahmed (Firas Nassar) is a coward about it, and still remains a coward in jaw-dropping but recognizable ways as the family tries to escape. Aneesha is shell-shocked, again and again by the choices he makes, and we ache for her—which makes it even more powerful when she makes certain desperate choices of her own, to save her family. 

Elsewhere in London, a bus full of teenagers has crashed into a massive quarry, driven off the road after fireballs of *something* attacked them on an otherwise quiet, cloudy day. It’s a total “Lord of the Flies” moment, and it becomes rich enough with the story’s interest in intricate empathy, but this time with the power of school bullies. The kids cannot agree on what to do, but they have a dough-faced tyrant named Monty (Paddy Holland) trying to control the entire situation and intimidate those who get in his way. Casper (Billy Barratt), our hero in part because we’re introduced to him with headphones playing Nirvana’s “Drain You,” has visions of strange things that he doodles after having epileptic seizures, and is the specific target of this sadistic bully. One of Casper's few supporters is Jamila (India Brown), who is also desperate to get back home, and becomes a necessary mediator among her classmates. 

In Japan, there’s a more immediate connection to what is happening in space, with its focus on two women in the space program. Hinata (Rinko Kikuchi) is an astronaut who has just traveled to the international space station; her partner Mitsuki (Shioli Kutsuna), their relationship a secret to many, sits in mission control and is a wizard with communications. But when Hinata’s feed goes dark, Mitsuki tries to figure out what happened, against the space administration’s desire to cover it up, or to lock her out. This story provides some formidable emotional impact—the only loving couple in the series, and they deal with the societal shame of being two women in love—but it’s more that this thread feels more drawn out than others, with repeated notes of Mitsuki going against her bosses, trying to understand what happened, and later wondering what contact can still be made. 

“Invasion” sucks you in most when its playing with the morality of its imperfect characters, and magnifying the tension that they have with their environment and the people around them. Shamier Anderson’s Trevante embodies this in particular as an American soldier in Afghanistan, who witnesses first-hand some of the bizarre alien activity but is also at odds against many locals who associate Americans with invaders themselves. Trevante does little to push against that; he’s stubborn and hostile in his own way of survival mode, pointing his rifle at civilians who end up tossing him water or food anyway. Anderson’s incredible performance shows the soldier’s physical wear during this moment, but it’s how he plays him so coldly that’s most effective, slowly developing a sense of humanity that isn’t bigger than his sense of being in control because he is American, and he has the gun. A lot about this character and his context is ugly, and "Invasion" keeps it that way. 

But because the show's focus is so close-up on what a character is doing and how they treat others, there are certain crashing waves of hope that come in place of despair. One of the series’ best scenes involves a moment with an Afghan man in the desert who offers to help Trevante find his way to a location, despite the two not speaking the language. The two men point at the stars above them, a peaceful bit of sky in the midst of an alien invasion, and they do not communicate, but they do hear each other. The scene is bliss, and it shows “Invasion” achieving its loftier emotional ambitions while also keeping its many pieces in motion, with unpredictable action of the human variety. 

The aliens prove to be the least fascinating dramatic force in the series, which is a compliment to the show’s other efforts. It’s not that the extra-terrestrials aren’t conceived with care—they have a freaky physical presence, creating both curiosity and unease when they come face-to-spiky-oil-black-mouth with doomed people in scenes that often end with bloodshed. They're further enlivened by rich sound design, with mega digital stomach growls as they move around, creating the sense of a language but not in any earthly sense. Much of this comes together in an electric sixth episode, “Home Invasion,” which takes on major “A Quiet Place” energy with Farahani at the center, tip-toeing and then screaming through some tightly executed thrills. 

Instead, it’s that the show's later goals of answering to the alien stuff that brings out the extra wide stretches within the plotting, related to Casper’s convenient premonitions, or for Mitsuki's emotional saga to turn into tear-yanking in between the world's interest in attacking back. Much of this takes up the space of episodes seven, eight, and nine, and these parts turn “Invasion” into more of a typical alien story without its more exciting thrust of uncomfortable morality. This is more of a warning, given that the show can hook you for many episodes in a row, but then it settles into ordinary, if not a little safe. The questions it leaves the viewer with at the end of episode ten are also not as gripping as the series’ coy development might hope. 

I haven't even mentioned yet that Sam Neill is in the first episode, lumbering through an especially awkward performance as some generic sheriff who notices strange things in a cornfield the same week he’s given a key to the city for his service and impending retirement. The series does not return to this plotline after episode one, perhaps because it’s a fluke of melodrama (and uninspired acting) that advertises a far more typical experience; even the Max Richter score, which has a few gems spread throughout the season, seems like it’s pulling from a stockpile in this first episode. But “Invasion” proves to be far more intuitive and special as it lets humans take the foreground. The show fully embraces how humanity is its own mystery, something we need to work on more before we even start worrying about whether or not we’re alone. 

All of season one screened for review. The first three episodes of "Invasion" premiere today, October 22nd. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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