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Evolution   C

DreamWorks Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Ivan Reitman
Writers: David Diamond, David Weissman, Don Jakoby
Cast: David Duchovny, Julianne Moore, Orlando Jones, Seann William Scott, Ted Levine, Dan Aykroyd.

Review by Rob Vaux

Hey kids -- remember all those great summer movies of the 1980s? Well now you can have them again -- condensed and regurgitated for your convenience! Ivan Reitman and K-Tel music proudly present Evolution, a sterling collection of all your eighties favorites in a single dynamite film! The laughs of Ghostbusters! The thrills of Aliens! The splatter jokes of Gremlins! Yes it's all here, carefully embalmed for that distinct Reagan-era feel. Operators are standing by; order your copy today!

Considering the depths to which recent comedies have sunk, it may be natural to gravitate towards an earlier era in search of respite. Evolution aims less at Farrelly-esque body function gags (though there are a few of those) than the situational humor of director Ivan Reitman's earlier films like Stripes and Ghostbusters. Unfortunately, rather than resurrect those forgotten laughs, it succeeds mainly in reminding us why they were abandoned in the first place. Fifteen years after Reitman's heyday, Evolution is just too shopworn to have much of an impact.

First the good news: leads David Duchovny and Orlando Jones have a lot of charm. As Ira Kane and Harry Block, a pair of community college professors who find a meteor containing life from another world, they display an easy-going sense of humor and a natural comic chemistry. Duchovny is very good at playing fun, smart characters, but it's nice seeing Jones radiate the same kind of intelligence. He's usually relegated to two-dimensional clowns, and makes the most of his chance to do something different here. They get help from leading lady Julianne Moore (who's hard to hate no matter what she does) and Dan Aykroyd (rattling off some vintage humor in a nice cameo), providing a decent foundation of star power upon which to rest the proceedings.

Charm only goes so far, however, and Evolution is saddled with a hopelessly contrived comic premise. The aliens from the meteor have the ability to evolve at a staggering rate, and go from single-celled amoebas to huge fanged reptiles in the course of a few short days. Not only do the lifeforms threaten to overwhelm all life on Earth, but the usual sneering army brigade shows up to take charge of the situation. All our heroes have to depend on to save the world, get the girl, and show up the squares is their own wits and the unflagging assistance of the local frat boys.

The scenario apparently exists (as many of its predecessors did) solely to hang a lot of elaborate special effects on, and its comic pacing suffers from hopeless predictability. Reitman almost seems afraid to try anything new, and marches Evolution lock-step down the same path that dozens of films have followed before it. The film shows its age in scene after scene: trundling out the wise-cracks in carefully measured amounts, parading the polished but uninspired visual effects, and perpetrating a plot that none of the characters seems connected to. At times, it wants to be scary, but the threat never comes across with any conviction. There's an attempt at romance, which feels more like a contractual obligation than a story. Even the anti-authoritarian spin feels oddly conformist, like a rich kid fighting a traffic ticket. Spontaneity is almost impossible in such conditions, destroying any chance to generate real laughs.

If Evolution has any saving grace, it's the relative harmlessness of its endeavor. All that predictability lends it a certain comfort level, and the actors all ensure that things stay pleasant. While you may not thoroughly enjoy yourself, at least you won't be disgusted by its antics. But perhaps that's the problem. Great comedy never plays it safe, and big laughs never come without a certain amount of risk. That doesn't mean you have to push the envelope every time you go out, but Evolution relies too much on the past for its own good. Two decades ago, this would have been a great movie. Now, it's just another round of leftovers.

Post Script Observation: David Duchovny and the Symmetry of Pale Redheads. Duchovny's traditional co-star Gillian Anderson was cast in The X-Files as a "Clarice Starling type." Anderson actually claims to have affected a West Virginia accent during her audition. Now with Evolution, Duchovny is being paired with Julianne Moore... who just finished playing Clarice Starling in Hannibal. Spooky, man.

Review published 06.11.2001.

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