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Remembering 'Evolution,' the time Ghostbusters' Ivan Reitman traded comedy-horror for comedy-sci-fi
The late director is celebrated Ghostbusters, one of the best genre mashups of all time, but that's not the only time he tried his hand at genre fare.
Ivan Reitman died on Sunday at age 75, leaving behind a treasure trove of classic and beloved comedy. Although he was best known for creating and directing Ghostbusters (and the sequel Ghostbusters II), Reitman also mixed his comedy with sci-fi in addition to his comedy-horror masterpiece. His 2001 film Evolution, while not in the same league as Ghostbusters or Animal House, which he produced, is a quaint, clever film that has quietly and deservedly taken on cult status.
Evolution wasn’t supposed to be a comedy, not at first. The man who wrote the script, Don Jakoby, originally penned a more serious, horror-leaning story about an alien lifeform that threatens humanity not with some grand invasion plan or goal but simply the natural process of evolution. Reitman, though, had other ideas. He liked the script but thought it had potential as a comedy rather than as a nail-biting thriller. Jakoby acquiesced to the genre shift, and Reitman set about making the spiritual sequel to Ghostbusters.
Evolution stars David Duchovny, which no doubt helped inflect the film with some X-Files vibes in addition to its ghost-busting heritage. Duchovny’s Dr. Ira Kane and his friend and colleague Professor Harry Phineas Block (Orlando Jones) are teaching science at a college in Arizona when they stumble upon a meteor that crash-landed in the desert. The meteor, which buried itself in an underground cavern, is covered with microscopic life — but it doesn’t stay that way. Millions of years worth of evolution take place in a matter of hours, and before long those flatworms and fungi are dinosaur-like monsters that threaten the locals. With the help of CDC doctor Allison Reed (Julianne Moore) and aspiring firefighter Wayne Grey (Seann William Scott), the motley crew needs to find a way to stop this out-of-control evolution before it makes humanity go extinct. The U.S. Army’s response (spearheaded by Ted Levine’s General Russell Woodman) and an anxious governor (played by Ray Stantz himself, Dan Akroyd) might just accidentally make things much, much worse.
It’s a nifty spin on the classic alien invasion tale, as bones of Jakoby’s original story are still there even if the final tone is very different. Evolution’s ever-changing aliens have aspects of The Andromeda Strain in that they’re more like a spreading virus than anything that could say “take me to your leader,” yet because they mutate and evolve so frequently there are lots of cool creatures. (Without spoiling the ending for those who haven’t seen it too much, Evolution also features a pretty innovative climax and one of the most unusual methods for defeating aliens ever seen in fiction. The common cold? H.G. Wells wishes he had the dandruff-stopping power of Head & Shoulders shampoo.)
Duchovny, who can be quite funny despite being typically cast as a handsome, serious straight-man (or perhaps that’s his exact comedy niche) is having fun with the material, as is Jones, who delivers a much broader performance. In perhaps Evolution’s signature scene, an insect-like alien burrows into Jones’ flesh. When doctors suggest they may need to amputate the leg, he screams no… until they realize it’s turned around and is headed for his crotch. Then his tune changes pretty quickly.
The movie is very much an early-’00s comedy, full of jokes and tropes that are just slightly corny and a little familiar. It’s comforting and balanced out by the intrigued sci-fi setup. Reitman was an acclaimed comedy director — and rightfully so — but Evolution is further proof that the man could do genre, even if he put his own spin on it. It’s often said that people with comedy chops tend to be very good at horror (See: Jordan Peele.) It makes sense. Although they’re two seemingly opposite genres, both are about knowing how to control and guide the audience through big emotional responses. With Ghostbusters — and Evolution — Reitman showed that he could engage his viewers with a well-told genre story and make ‘em laugh.
Evolution wasn’t the next, uh, evolution of Reitman’s career, but heck — sharks and crocodiles have barely changed over the past tens of millions of years. When you get something right in Ghostbusters, there’s no shame in doing it again.
Evolution premiered to mixed reviews at best, and it didn’t go on to have nearly the legacy of Ghostbusters. (Reitman’s son, Jason, just directed the fourth Ghostbusters movie last year. Evolution only ever got a short-lived, extremely-of-the-era animated series called Alienators: Evolution Continues.) In the years since, though, it has gained a small cult following — and for those missing Reitman or craving some more Ghostbusters-style genre-comedy, Evolution is a comforting, entertaining watch. Have a nice end of the world.