Dreamworks // PG-13 // $26.99 // December 26, 2001
Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 18, 2001
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Recipe for disaster: first, take Ghostbusters as a model. Knead vigorously, and carefully trim out any trace of lingering humor. Strip out all chemistry between the leads, and make sure any remnant of the sort of romantic tension between Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray has been fully excised. Add in a series of bland actors, and generously sprinkle with the most hackneyed, by-the-numbers dialogue conceivable. Remove the Academy Award winning optical effects, and finally, litter every other frame with CGI aliens. Ta-da! With just a few simple steps, Ivan Reitman has hopped down several rungs on the evolutionary ladder from one of the most memorable films of the past twenty years to a movie that is easily among 2001's biggest disappointments. With Evolution, Reitman makes a half-hearted attempt to pump some life into his lagging career and recapture the magic of one of the top-grossing films of all time. Despite the surface similarities and the presence of Dan Ackroyd, Evolution is not Ghostbusters. Evolution isn't even Ghostbusters II. Heck, forget the inevitable Ghostbusters comparisons; Evolution barely stands up next to the like of Troll II. Maybe Extreme Ghostbusters, though...

While hapless firefighter-in-training Wayne Green (Seann William Scott) prepares for his final exam, a meteor hurtling from the outer reaches of spaces tosses his car a couple hundred feet in the air as it crashes into a barren stretch of Arizona desert. The event attracts the attention of two professors from a nearby community college, disgraced scientist Ira Kane (David Duchovny) and geologist/Arizona's most successful women's volleyball coach, Harry Block (Orlando Jones). Upon collecting a sample from the meteor, the pair notices that the rock bleeds when struck. After close examination of that electric blue liquid, Ira excitedly informs Harry that they've stumbled upon single-celled life from another planet. As Harry takes a gander at the slide to verify, it appears that their sample has evolved at a nearly exponential rate to become multicelled organisms in the space of a few minutes. After a trip back to the site to sieze the meteor and wrap up their Nobel Prize, the area is teeming with otherworldly mushrooms and flatworms. The government predictably intervenes, led by General Russell Woodman and Dr. Allison Reed (Ted Levine and Julianne Moore, respectively). While Harry and Ira fumble through bureaucratic red tape to reclaim their discovery, aliens are evolving at alarming speed, eventually assaulting a local shopping mall and threatening a stranglehold over the United States in a matter of week. As is usually the case in these sorts of movies, no one takes the recommendations of our plucky leads with any degree of seriousness, and of course, it's left up to that small, ragtag team to save the day.

At one time, it was a virtual guarantee that a movie starring a recently-departed Saturday Night Live cast member would be unbearable. Perhaps the same holds true for Mad TV, as three of its alumni -- Orlando Jones, Pat Kilbane, and Andrew Bowen -- appear in roles of varying prominence in Evolution. Much like Fox's late night sketch comedy series, what passes for humor falls entirely flat, leaving yet another check under the burgeoning "didn't crack a smile" column. I seem to vaguely recall chuckling a couple of times during the theatrical trailer; it would seem as if all of Evolution's highlights can comfortably fit into a two-minute package. A few of the gags might seem funny on paper, perhaps. When the secret weapon against the alien menace was revealed, I mentally recognized that the solution was somewhat clever and funny, yet the pain of the past 85 minutes was such that I couldn't possibly bring myself to laugh. A good 37% of the gags revolve around the rectum, so if ass jokes are your thing, disregard this review and wait impatiently outside your local Best Buy until 10 AM on December 26th. The remainder of the dialogue is excruciatingly bad as well, littered with the sort of mindless filler as Return of the Jedi and seems incapable of going more than a couple of lines without weak innuendo. Phil Tippett's creations are, for the most part, far too similar to real Earth creatures rather than seeming alien or in any way fantastic. Perhaps this similarity is by design, but why bother? Even after countless viewings of Ghostbusters, a few of the jump scares still hold up after all these years, and the action sequences are all reasonably well executed. The formulaic Evolution, on the other hand, is entirely predictable, and it becomes so blatantly obvious when a nasty creature's going to jump out that there are no shocks or surprises whatsoever. Individual attack scenes have a tendency to meander, and aliens rarely attack or are attacked in groups.

The lead characters are so dull that referring to them as one-dimensional would be a stretch. At best, they're 5/8-dimensional, their very presence warping the face of the space/time continuum. Orlando Jones' character is the poorest attempt at a comedic sidekick since Leon in Bats, and in case you happen to divert your attention from the screen for more than a few fleeting seconds, Harry takes every possible opportunity to remind viewers that he's black. I've noticed this sort of bizarre behavior in several other movies recently, particularly Rush Hour 2 and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Hopefully this trend is soon to run its course. David Duchovny is nearly somnambulistic as Ira, lacking the faintest trace of chemistry with co-star Julianne Moore. I can't say that I've ever been too big a fan of Moore, but she comes off as sorely miscast here. There are constant references to her as some sort of gorgeous sexpot throughout the movie, leaving me wondering if the role was written with someone half her age in mind. Seann William Scott's character is thoroughly useless, despite the build-up in the first half of the movie that seemed to point that he'd later be of some remote significance. Not only are the four lead characters annoying individually, but as a group, they are an entirely random combination, unlike the infinitely more cohesive Ghostbusters. Though I had somehow duped myself beforehand into thinking I'd enjoy this movie, Evolution is unoriginal, unengaging, and uninteresting. Steer clear.

Video: Reviews of Dreamworks DVDs invariably come with the loosely-thrown-around phrase "reference quality" attached in some form, and their impressive catalog had left me fully expecting to follow suit with Evolution. To my amazement, this disc boasts what is by a considerable margin the worst Dreamworks transfer to date and hopefully is not indicative of what consumers can expect throughout 2002. The image ranges from 'spectacular' to 'decidedly mediocre', leaning precariously towards the less impressive end of the spectrum. Quite a number of shots are riddled with grain, though its presence varies wildly. I tossed my notepad aside after fifteen minutes or so of jotting down particularly grainy portions, but two such scenes that stand out in my mind are the initial descent into the depths of the cavern and the rather unpleasant removal of Harry's fly. Noise, perhaps due to overcompression to compensate for the space-intensive DTS track, becomes an intermittent concern. Two quick examples from the early moments of the film are Wayne's car in its first appearance and the portion of the chalkboard to Ira's right during the end of a lecture. Other shots are noticeably soft, nearly to the point of seeming out of focus. These are terribly infrequent, but one of the more glaring instances is when Wayne first begins running away from the crashing meteor. Shadow detail is often on this side of murky, and haloing around high contrast objects is visible from time to time. Evolution is also the first new release from a major studio where I've spotted more than a couple of flecks on screen. I could probably count the number of times I noticed black specks on both hands, but I've become so spoiled by the phenomenal quality of recent releases that even this paltry amount seems excessive. On the upside, colors are generally fairly strong, particularly with regard to the cartoonish CGI creatures. Maybe this is all representative of the intended look of the film, which I admittedly did not see theatrically, but this DVD release of Evolution certainly doesn't look like an $80 million project.

Audio: There are no fewer than four 5.1 audio tracks on this disc, most notably mixes in English Dolby Digital and DTS. The music, particularly the score from frequent Dreamworks composer John Powell, is the true standout, making extensive use of all channels and offering a tight, rich low-end punch. Other elements of the mix aren't quite as aggressive, largely anchored towards the front for the duration of the film. Despite the constant crashing leaps and soaring of Evolution's alien creatures, the little buggers don't provide much in the way of heavy bass until the amorphous blob at the movie's climax. The audio really comes alive in the handful of battle sequences, particularly those that involve military helicopters and winged beasts. Split surround effects aren't nearly as commonplace as I was expecting, with rears dedicated almost entirely to music and isolated ambiance. No single component of the soundtrack is overwhelmed by any other, and dialogue isn't hopelessly immersed by the score or various effects. Other audio options include an English stereo surround track and 6-channel Dolby Digital mixes in Spanish and French. There are no real problems worth noting with the Dolby Digital audio, but Evolution doesn't offer the grandiose, expansive feel generally associated with summer blockbusters.

Supplements: The apparent lack of a commentary track struck me as a surprise, but sure enough, a feature-length commentary is masked under the curiously-titled A Conversation With Ivan Reitman, David Duchovny, Orlando Jones, and Seann William Scott. I'm hesitant to say that Reitman dominated the track, though he seemed to make a conscious effort to keep the discussion from falling into the sort of rampant fun so often present on Kevin Smith's DVDs. The three actors mostly hide in the background, making the occasional comment or quip. Duchovny in particular displays a quick wit, and I'm looking forward to hearing him unrestrained on a commentary in the not-too-distant future. The discussion puts a heavier emphasis on characters and the plot than technical details, and production anecdotes are infrequent. As it is, this is a moderately entertaining commentary track, but certainly not one where I'd wear out my voice screaming its praises from the rafters.

It's always a pleasure to see supplemental material presented in anamorphic widescreen, and all six of the deleted scenes are enhanced for 16x9-capable televisions. Each piece of footage begins with obligatory brief audio introductions from Reitman, which might be bothersome to those who abhor these sorts of mildly intrusive comments. There are few surprises to be found, and although the alternate ending is mildly interesting, the removal of all of these scenes is entirely justified. Offering a respite from continual button-mashing every couple of minutes, all fifteen minutes of deleted scenes can be viewed continuously.

There are two featurettes included on the disc. One is the thrice-damned HBO: First Look with its usual extended trailer + insubstantial interviews format. The second is a ten minute visual effects featurette that seems truncated, offering a behind-the-scenes peek at the creation of the creatures in both the physical and digital realms. DVD buffs ravenous for storyboards should take note, as there are well over twenty minutes of that material here, viewable individually or picture-in-picture style. Along those same lines is an incredibly comprehensive still gallery, offering a score of conceptual art of the critters seen throughout Evolution. Rounding out the supplements are the standard production notes and cast/crew bios, though a theatrical trailer is noticeably absent.

Conclusion: Evolution tries to juggle the precarious balancing act of being both a light-hearted adventure as well as a comedy. Ivan Reitman may have successfully kept the pins from dropping in Ghostbusters, but Evolution fails in every way possible. Devoid of humor or any engaging action, Evolution is at best rental material. It's not unwatchable, but far too many have taken the same ideas and put together vastly superior movies to bother. Rent it.

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