By Lisa Schwarzbaum
June 15, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

Posters promoting Evolution feature the familiar yellow smiley face of the 1970s altered by the addition of a third eye, and jocular tag lines alluding to an amusing apocalypse: ”Have a nice end of the world” and ”Coming to wipe that silly grin off your planet.” The ironic, retro bite of the ad campaign is sassy — smileys are so out that they’re in again, at least among those who didn’t own the decals the first time around — but the ad campaign has relatively little in common with the tone of this shaggy, smiley comedy about a couple of low-level academics who stumble upon a virulently adaptive (and hostile) alien life-form that, having hitched a ride on a meteor and crash-landed on Earth, threatens to take over the world, beginning with Glen Canyon, Ariz.

There’s more than a blob of broad, Ghostbusters-style inventive mayhem to this soft-laugh (as opposed to laugh-out-loud) fantasy, which makes sense since Ivan Reitman directed. And I’ll go with the effusiveness of his enthusiasm over the tricked-up emptiness of a music-video guy’s feature caper every time. Actually, in the evolution of Reitman’s resilient directing career — from the peaks of Meatballs, Ghostbusters, and Dave to the valleys of Fathers’ Day and Six Days Seven Nights — I’d label this one a platypus: a comedy dead end from a Darwinian point of view but plenty entertaining nonetheless, with its flapping, waddling, genetic references to E.T., Planet of the Apes, and Ghostbusters itself.

Then again, there’s also a sharp strain of jokily mutant X-Files paranormality to the proceedings, which suits X-Files alumnus and Evolution star David Duchovny well in his most effective and appealing demolition of Mulderhood since he flirted with Garry Shandling on The Larry Sanders Show. (That’s not counting the thespian’s deadpan narration of the soft-core, bedroom-eyes Showtime series Red Shoe Diaries.) Duchovny, it turns out, is strongest when he’s playing off an already established persona, whether it’s Fox Mulder or his own brainiac-frustrated-by- TV-fame reputation. Here, he plays Dr. Ira Kane as a sort of there-but-for-the-grace-of-Scully loser, a variation on the famously dour Mulder DNA. Busted down to community-college teacher for messing up as a government scientist, Kane joins his happy-go-lucky colleague Harry Block (Orlando Jones) to investigate the new meteor site in town, only mildly interested until microscopic analysis reveals a profusion of one-celled organisms that quickly evolve: to flatworms, to swimming and flying things, to fantastical prehistoric creatures, and even, in one leap of big-bang triumph, to a menacing hominid.

Friendly cooperation is not on the agenda. (Some creatures, indeed, sport that fanged head-within-a-head physiology made popular by the genuine, accept-no-substitutes Alien.) Neither is it on the agenda of the officious Army types who quickly move in to manage the site, naturally making things worse in the way authorities do in Reitman comedies. As an epidemiologist who means to be all buttoned-up business but whose klutziness exposes the nifty, sexy gal underneath every time she trips or walks into a door, Julianne Moore throws herself into pratfalls with endearing gusto, the dumb-and-dumber predictability of her gawkiness offset by the novelty of the shtick, a kind of dented Clarice Starling. As a local would-be fireman who joins the alienbusting amigos, Seann William Scott of the geek-freak comedy Dude, Where’s My Car? plays…another dim-ish young man.

Evolution has got too many bugs in its system: The script, written by The Family Man’s David Diamond and David Weissman and Vampires’ Don Jakoby from Jakoby’s original story, is weirdly uneven, and with Reitman’s tendency toward loose pacing, slack punchlines twist all too slowly in the wind. (This really takes its toll on the Dumb Old Army sequences.) On the other hand, the movie is visually witty and even marvelous when it comes to depicting the spectacular creatures evolving at a speed previously known only in the Bible. Going forth and multiplying under the direction of visual effects supervisor Phil Tippett, who previously helped give birth to dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and giant insects in Starship Troopers, the aliens in Evolution are generations more advanced and interesting than the rudimentary goo that was the building block of Ghostbusters, and Reitman’s integration of human and special effects has also progressed since Dan Aykroyd teamed with Bill Murray and Harold Ramis 17 years ago as ”paranormal investigators.”

You remember Aykroyd, don’t you? Large guy, plays the one man in America who sees the Japanese attack coming in Pearl Harbor? In Evolution, he plays the governor of Arizona, an elected official just this side of refreshingly nuts, that side of blithely sane. The gov is an Aykroydal living organism at its most effective, and happily, Ivan Reitman knows better than to fool with Mother Nature. B