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Slipping Backwards

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All these years, and this is the best that Ivan Reitman can come up with?

It's hard to figure out whether Evolution, this summer's entry into the special effects-driven comedy sweepstakes, is a capitulation to those special effects or a fairly tepid homage to (or retread of) one of Reitman's truly fun films, 1984's Ghostbusters.

The similarities are almost disturbing: An unlikely team of underachievers that includes community college teachers David Duchovny and Orlando Jones and wannabe fireman Seann William Scott try to save the world from destruction by an unlikely alien force (hence the whistles and bells), but are met with resistance by cynical and incompetent government officials. Along the way, the leader of the pack tries to win the affections of a wary romantic target (Julianne Moore).

And if your memory of Ghostbusters was still foggy, Reitman even throws in a belated appearance by one of the film's stars, Dan Akroyd. What, Harold Ramis was too busy that month? Certainly Bill Murray was too expensive, or too smart. Even the product placement-fueled ending lacks the pizzazz of its predecessor, the Stay Puft marshmallow man.

The comparisons to this comedic nugget by Reitman -- who in his post-Ghostbusters years has done little better than the likeable Dave -- distract from its being judged on its own merit. And even though it doesn't exactly soar on that level either, there's something quite likeable about this silly fluff of a movie. Maybe it's watching Duchovny dance between straight-faced comedy and actually forcing expressions. Maybe it's Jones showing more and more subtle touches as he proves why he's better than all those hysterical 7-Up commercials.

Or maybe because, summer or not, it's kind of fun to watch people go bug-eyed over a bunch of mutating bugs -- courtesy of visual effects supervisor Phil Tippett (Starship Troopers) -- whose fast-forward development from flatworms provides the simple title.

And so, the plot: A comet hits earth carrying said flatworms. Dr. Ira Kane (Duchovny), who's in exile for reasons better left unsaid, teams up with his friend and geology teacher/women's volleyball coach Harry Block (Jones) when the latter's not hitting on his students (Ghostbusters reference Number Infinity) to investigate. While they're doing "real" research, they're cut off by The Government, led by a mean Army officer (Ted Levine) and a researcher with the Centers for Disease Control, Allison (Moore).

The Army officer thinks they can contain the budding life forms to the Arizona cave where they crashed. But Kane and Bullock, and their airheaded comrade think things will get much worse. Soon, Allison joins them in believing that the apocalypse may be upon us if they don't get cracking -- and wise-cracking.

And, besides really fun special effects, that's what films like these films are all about. Hours after the screening, it's next to impossible to remember a truly funny line. Yet Duchovny and Jones do provide a more subtle spin on the whole salt-and-pepper buddy thing that has been all the rage the past 20 years or so. OK, at its wittiest moment, as they return to the cave and see a veritable Jurassic Park of bug life, Ira orders Harry to do the dirty work and investigate a particularly scary creature. "Uh-uh, I've seen that movie, and the black guy always dies," he retorts. Nice reference. Jones' expressiveness as an actor is just as intriguing as Duchovny's straight face, though, and they play well off each other, if not consistently. Still, any time you see a black actor use the bug-eyed expression (particularly during a harrowing surgical procedure), you can't help but think of Step N Fetch It.

Moore, working with virtually nothing, tries to add pratfalls to her repertoire, but after a stumble or two, she seems almost lost.

If anything, Reitman and special-effect whiz Tippett deliver the goods with a realistic bug world that would make your Orkin man sweat. Texture isn't the only thing cool about these critters; Reitman/Tippett shoot many of them in rich technicolor to make them strangely attractive. They even concoct one plump four-legged, Muppetish creature that during an afternoon tea seems like a loveable keeper, but then all hell breaks loose. Same goes for a wild ride of a scene through a mall that includes a shoplifter who gets her just desserts from a pterodactyl-looking menace that responds to, of all things, Joe Cocker.

If the actors succeed at all in this film, it's by convincing the viewer of their fascination with their specimens, and then horror at the realization of what they're up against, which as the title of the film suggests becomes worse by the moment instead of by the millennium.

But is that all there is? Has Reitman not undergone his own evolution as a filmmaker? One would think that after a series of mildly amusing films like the aforementioned Dave or even Kindergarten Cop, he could come up with something better than this. Instead of evolving, it looks like Ivan Reitman is regressing.

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