Wednesday, June 13, 2001

Evolution

Posted By on Wed, Jun 13, 2001 at 12:00 AM

Of all the tidbits about evolutionary theory scattered through this science-fiction comedy, one is the most telling: When it comes to the survival of the fittest, the simpler the organism, the easier it is to adapt. That applies to cinematic survival as well. The more basic the plotline, the more often it will be recycled.

In the case of Evolution, whose story was fashioned by screenwriter Don Jakoby (Vampires, Arachnophobia) as a pastiche of stock sci-fi situations, director Ivan Reitman uses the comedic blueprint he worked so well in Ghostbusters. Take some scientists exiled to obscurity, create a phenomenon which only they can effectively deal with, add an oddball love story, spice the whole thing with liberal doses of absurdist humor, then fashion a climactic encounter when the enemy can be blown up, leaving only a viscous goo in its wake.

When a meteor hits the Arizona desert, it nearly obliterates Wayne (Seann William Scott), who just happens to be there preparing for his firefighter’s exam. The impact sends Wayne’s muscle car spinning into the air and crashing spectacularly. This little sequence is the template for everything to come in Evolution.

Reitman is very adept at incorporating special effects into his comedic story (although he doesn’t quite achieve the fluidity of Barry Sonnenfeld in Men in Black), and nearly every scene has a showy payoff laced with humor. Yet as scary as this end of the world scenario is supposed to be — alien life forms from that meteor are multiplying and evolving at a remarkable rate, threatening to biologically colonize Earth — events are always played for their comedic potential.

Wayne’s auto trouble is also the first of innumerable references to the previous performances of this cast. Scott was one of the dim bulbs of the disposable comedy Dude, Where’s My Car? and every recognizable actor’s past is mined for references. When David Duchovny intones that you shouldn’t trust the government because they routinely lie and cover up important scientific findings, the audience isn’t thinking about the career of his Evolution character, Dr. Ira Kane, but of Fox “Spooky” Mulder, the FBI agent he played in “The X-Files.”

Evolution commits the worst sin of this type of film: It fails to effectively create its own world. The fictitious town of Glen Canyon and its residents are so generic that what happens to them has little impact. Think of how effectively Tremors used the same basic premise (bizarre creatures living under the desert and threatening to wreak havoc on the world above) to create a fun, shock-filled thrill ride. There’s nothing really thrilling about this polished but shallow offering from Reitman, who has done some great high (Dave) and low (Stripes) comedies and successfully mixed genres in the past.

The very talented Julianne Moore is wasted here as an ultracompetent epidemiologist from the Centers for Disease Control who’s inexplicably prone to pratfalls. Orlando Jones, as a geology instructor-women’s volleyball coach who works at a community college with Duchovny’s biology professor, is similarly conflicted. One minute he’s supremely goofy, engaging in extreme physical comedy; the next he’s utterly serious as he recites scientific observations. He’s supposed to embody both attributes, but ends up doing neither convincingly. (Duchovny’s brand of sardonic line readings and dry humor helps him to walk that fine line.)

This film’s major comic riff involves the posterior of humans and extraterrestrials alike. Maybe it’s derived from all that conjecture about alien probes, but the end result is that Evolution is just one extended Uranus joke, and that stopped being really funny in grade school.

Click here to visit the official Evolution Web site.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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