Apple TV+ Sci-fi Epic ‘Invasion’ is Stylish and Stagnant

The series looks and sounds great, but its thin characters can't sustain the story at hand.
Invasion Sam Neill

Welcome to Up Next, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, we review the big-budget Apple TV+ series Invasion.

When Apple TV+ launched in November 2019, days ahead of Disney+ and some months before HBO Max, we wondered what the new dawn of streamers would mean. Would any of these services — aside from tried and true Netflix — be able to compete with traditional television? Nearly two years later, Apple TV+ is premiering one of its most ambitious projects to date.

Invasion is a sci-fi series with a reported $200 million budget. And if it proves anything, it’s that Apple TV+ can deliver the kind of emotionally hollow event television that was once a hallmark of major networks.

Co-creators Simon Kinberg (the X-Men films) and David Weil (Hunters) have a sense of cinematic scale that works well with the global alien invasion premise. The special effects, portraying not only spikey-black alien creatures but also sonic-booming forces, gaping extraterrestrial maws, and space debris falling from the sky, are undoubtedly excellent. The cinematography, when focused on earth and its inhabitants, is equally striking. If this were a film, it’d be the kind hyped by trailers a full year in advance.

It takes a while, though, to realize that beyond the technical elements Invasion isn’t great. Like a savvy alien species, the series initially weasels its way onto our good side by disguising itself as something familiar.

Much of its ingratiation depends upon Invasion‘s stellar music. The soundtrack is composed by Max Richter, whose work has memorably appeared in The Leftovers and Arrival. His piercing arrangements have a long-standing one-way ticket to the heartstrings. They’re employed beautifully in the series’ visually striking opening credits, which feature mostly foggy, lonely monuments. The theme song cultivates immediate emotional engagement, calling to mind the most resonant moments of those other, more impactful apocalyptic works.

Then the series itself begins to unfold. Invasion follows several people around the world as they experience the first days following sudden, hostile contact from an extraterrestrial presence. There’s a soldier in Afghanistan (Shamier Anderson), a bullied boy in the UK (Billy Barratt), a cop in Oklahoma (Sam Neill), and an unhappy family, led by a doctor-turned-mother (Rahavard Farahani), in New York.

These are mostly just regular people. The only character who possesses an immediate connection to the invasion is Mitsuki (Shioli Kutsuna), a Japanese communications specialist working closely on a historic space station mission. Otherwise, the series takes an approach that’s similar to that of The Walking Dead: portraits of seemingly average people surviving the unthinkable, one moment at a time.

Unfortunately, Invasion also borrows The Walking Dead’s molasses-like pace, without any of the payoff or precise characterization. The first season builds to a climax, sure, but it’s a story that lacks depth throughout. Instead of using these crucial moments to make meaning, the characters mostly spend time trying to get from point A to point B. In fact, the only character who seeks a profound purpose is thwarted, pointedly and hilariously, in the first act.

Mostly, the characters spend large swaths of the season acting like animatronic figures on a gloomy amusement park ride. They repeat simple actions that vaguely signify who they are, with little variation.

Look to your left, and you’ll see the frustrated wife, distracted by her husband’s affair even as the world is unraveling. To your right, there’s the soldier in the desert, pointing a gun at someone he doesn’t understand. Up ahead, that kid is getting bullied again. Some characters in Invasion aren’t entirely static, but the brunt of their growth is crammed into split-second decisions made during climactic moments. Long-haul characterization is the show’s weakest element.

As the series trudges on, growing vaster but never deeper, Mitsuki’s plot outshines the rest. Kutsuna is compelling as a closeted woman who is working to piece together an alien transmission, all while grieving a loved one in secret. There’s an aching quiet to her scenes, as she lies alone in an apartment that until recently held two matching souls.

Invasion seems to want to take a page from the works of Damon Lindelof — the beloved, scrappy ensemble of Lost, the mass dread and confusion of The Leftovers — but it rarely pulls off more than a pale imitation. Moments like the ones with Mitsuki come closest to capturing something similar. But they slip away quickly, like water cupped in hands.

In the end, Invasion is more like one of the dozens of big-budget, high-concept knock-off shows that came after Lost. It has dazzling moments, but in the end, there’s little more than an idea in the place where its heart should be.

Invasion premieres on Apple TV+ on October 22nd.

Valerie Ettenhofer: Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)