It never rains but it pours as we like to say in weather-obsessed Britain, and that’s certainly true of Invasion Planet Earth.
Not literally. This isn’t Geostorm. But our planet, already on the brink of a world war, is faced with an alien invasion.
Simon Cox’s feature (he directed, produced and co-wrote the screenplay) has been nearly two decades in the making, and was eventually part-financed through crowdfunding. And I’ll say this for him, you can’t fault his ambition. It doesn’t always work – this is a very uneven movie that often tries to do too much, and not just in its special effects – but when it does work, it’s impressive.
For ’80s kids like me, the initial flashbacks to hero Tom’s childhood will prick their own memories, from his obsession with TV show superhero Kaleidescope Man to the vinyl album propped up alongside the boxy TV. (It’s a Duran Duran album, and as a teenage Duranie I’m hoping it’s there as a nod to their first single Planet Earth.)
Cox has big ideas and he’s painting them on a huge canvas. The action moves from London streets to Manhattan to space, and it’s a complicated story. The first third is taken up with the lead up to the alien invasion.
The adult Tom is now a doctor, but he’s lost his faith in god and everything else since the death of his and wife Mandy’s young daughter Rebecca. He’s working in a health care facility for adults with mental health issues (Toyah Willcox, who also performs the closing track, plays his colleague Claire) when something starts having strange effects on his patients and the wider population.
These effects mostly take the form of terrifying hallucinations and strange dreams, sometimes personal to an individual but also shared with others. Meanwhile news programmes talk of rapidly-building tensions between the main superpowers and a warmongering general.
The middle section covers those hallucinations and it’s very confusing – there’s no clear narrative or explanation. They seem to be a mixture of forewarnings, childhood flashbacks and collective nightmares, but I often wasn’t sure.
What is real and what isn’t is an interesting idea – later, Tom’s three patients cope better than most in this new world, because their realities are different to most people’s. But while Tom and his friends and colleagues are in the dark, I could have done with a bit more explanation myself. There are zombie attacks, nuclear explosions and shootings; people are teleported by the alien spacecraft into coffin-like cocoons on the mothership, but then find themselves back on Earth.
It’s also unclear what Tom’s role is, apart from finally living up to his childhood dreams of heroism. He ends up on the newly-arrived mothership with his three patients: Floyd (Danny Steele) who has schizophrenia, Harriet (Julie Hoult) who has a personality disorder, and Samantha (an excellent Sophie Anderson) who has depression.
These three are the most interesting characters, once we move away from those dream sequences. The alien invasion turns out to be a chance for them – they’re finally needed rather than simply a problem to be treated. For once, the way they’ve seen the world is how the world might actually be, and all three are more open to the shocking changes because they’re not held back by what is considered “normal”. There’s a freedom in their new lives, despite its dangers and uncertainties, and a feeling that they’re part of a team rather than a problem.
The biggest theme in the film is hope, something that Tom repeats several times, though his patients’ experiences and responses are more compelling.
The final third is less confused, and feels more confidently directed (and written). There’s more humour (often important in very low budget movies, particularly British ones where deadpan gags can take the edge off an earnest script or delivery). And while there’s definitely a “why” hanging in the air regarding the alien invasion, some straightforward action scenes, which are well done, take over from the perplexing visions.
The acting is variable: Hoult, Anderson and Steele are the most convincing, partly as their characters are more engaging and thought-provoking. Willcox is always good value, and I liked the three space station astronauts (though they’re not in it for long) – they’re observers for us, watching from a distance, but they’re effective.
The special effects vary hugely in believability, through when they work they belie the low budget. Some look old-fashioned, and it’s hard to tell if this is deliberate – whether Cox is leaning into his low budget and aiming for a look that references ’80s British science fiction TV shows (at one point Tom looks like he’s been superimposed on to the outside of one of the alien craft).
Often it feels very Doctor Who-like (both the original run and the reboot), particularly the shining tunnel which took me right back to watching the opening credits on Saturday nights. There’s also a dash of Torchwood thrown in as Londoners struggle to cope with their new reality. Movie-wise, its reference point is presumably War Of The Worlds, though the end brought to mind 2001: A Space Odyssey, partly because of the soundtrack.
I loved the alien spacecraft. Bug-like with their pincers, they weave in and out of twisted pillars in a (very impressive) vast orange and red hellscape within the mothership. It resembles one of those microscope worlds that vacuum cleaner companies like to show us to ram home the horrors of tiny mites and creepy crawlies, photographs blown up to enormous size with monster bugs surrounded by what turns out to be tufts of carpet.
Kidnapped humans are placed in cocoon-like pods within the ship. The set-up seem to be referencing both classic 1950s bug-alien movies, and sci fi stories about miniaturised people struggling to survive in their now-enormous world.
Tom is fine as an everyman, though often the dialogue means he comes across as over-earnest, talking again about hope while the dramatic tension slips away. Luckily the chaos in London, once the aliens arrive, plays out very convincingly (and is more successful than the dream sequences).
Overall, it’s not so much that Invasion Planet Earth is messy, as that there’s just too much going on, without enough explanation. Some clarity during the middle section would have made it more immersive and more entertaining. Invasions are by their nature chaotic, and while as a viewer I envied the ISS astronauts, observing from afar, I felt like one of the Londoners down below, desperately battling mayhem and confusion.
Watch the trailer for Invasion Planet Earth and scroll down for images from the film: