Since Jack Finney published his science fiction novel, The Body Snatchers in 1954, Hollywood has adapted it, in one way or another, several times. To date, four direct adaptations have been produced between 1956 and 2007. Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the 1978 remake are considered science-fiction classics. Moreover, Finney’s themes of paranoia and conformity have become genre staples. Netflix’s latest sci-fi thriller, Assimilate, clearly has some Body Snatchers’ DNA in its story. Can this YA thriller add some contemporary appeal to a classic concept for younger audiences?
In a small Midwest American town, lifelong friends, Zach and Randy, pass the time making a documentary for their YouTube channel. But as they film the daily doldrums of their dustbowl home, the boys inadvertently discover strange happenings. People aren’t quite themselves. In fact, Zach and Randy begin to suspect that their family, friends, and neighbours have been replaced by clever duplicates. As each day passes, more townsfolk begin acting differently and no one believes the boys. Cut off from the outside world, the boys must find a way to warn others before this strange ‘infection’ spreads.
Assimilate Takes Body Snatchers’ Plot of ‘Copying’ Literally
If Assimilate sounds familiar, it should. Writer and director John Murlowski doesn’t do much to tweak Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ story. Aside from some contemporary updates, like smartphones, Murlowski follows the blueprint to the letter. Sure, there’s no pods, but the insect-like parasites fall to Earth in spores just like the 1978 version. And the alien clones make a spooky ‘warning’ sound, albeit not as scary as its predecessor and undermined by ‘middle-of-the road’ special effects. In fact, the extent to which Assimilate mirrors Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a little scarier than the movie itself. Maybe Murlowski took the premise of the movie a little too seriously.
… the extent to which Assimilate mirrors Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a little scarier than the movie itself.
Certainly, Finney’s story has enough subtext to warrant a new twist every decade or so. But one can’t help but feel like Assimilate misses a big opportunity. Phillip Kaufman’s 1978 remake fit the premise to the time period’s political climate, much like Don Siegel did with his 1956 adaptation. in 2019, Finney’s original story is ripe for a translation in our current divisive political climate. Unfortunately, Murlowski is content to recycle what’s worked in the past. There’s little to nothing in the way of subtext. Even its shocking ending is just a variation of Kaufman’s 1976 finale.
Occasional Suspense and Decent Pacing Keep Sci-Fi Thriller
Kaufman’s 1978 remake was a methodically paced thriller that built to an almost unbearable level of urgency. No, Assimilate never generates that kind of tension with the material. Nonetheless, Murlowski capably crafts enough suspenseful scenes to keep audience’s engaged, though not likely on the edge of their seat. Assimilate’s cold opening, for instance, packs a few jolts and has you looking in the corner of the screen. It also sets up a little mystery that, as described above, the movie fails to capitalize on. Still, Murlowski sets a pace that never lingers too long on any one moment, partially obscuring some of the thriller’s repetitiveness. Though scenes of his characters navigating their strange new world never quite ratchet up the tension as much as one might hope, Assimilate at least feels like it’s trying.
Likable Cast Makes The Most of the Material
In spite of its unambitious storytelling, a likable cast distinguishes Assimilate from many of the generic thrillers on Netflix. Specifically, Assimilate’s three principal leads deliver believable, charismatic performances. As lifelong friends, Joel Courtney (Zach) and Calum Worthy (Randy) share the kind of chemistry their roles demand. In particular, Worthy exudes a natural affability that makes identifying with his character feel natural.
Halloween’s Andi Malichak also shines, particularly when the screenplay gives her more to do than just be the obligatory ‘love interest’. She perfectly occupies her role as a typical midwestern teen caught up in extraordinary circumstances. When Assimilate gives her chances to step up, she’s more than up for the task. In addition, all three characters have more depth than commonly found in this sort of thriller. As a result, Assimilate sparks more suspense than its unimaginative story probably deserves because you find yourself caring about these characters.
Assimilate Does Enough With Familiar Story To Entertain
No one is going to accuse Assimilate of being original. Nor is anyone likely to add this to their ‘Best of List’ for 2019. But decent production values, a few well-crafted moments of suspense, and likeable performances make it entertaining enough to pass an evening. Certainly, there’s more here to like than in other recent Netflix misfires like Eli or The Silence. Like its premise, Assimilate adequately copies better movies while lacking their emotional resonance.