For years mankind has been obsessed with the question of whether or not there’s life to be discovered amongst the stars. Even more pressing is whether extraterrestrials would see humans as equals or enemies. Sometimes that question is played out in the destruction of War of the Worlds and Transformers, sometimes it’s played out in the horrors of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Alien; it can even played for laughs in E.T. Film is fascinated with visitors from another planet, but how many ways can you tell the story of an alien invasion? More specifically, how can you tell when one way doesn’t work?
Before We Vanish has the basic setup: aliens from another planet are planning to invade Earth. As a start, they send three scouts down to possess the bodies of people and observe human behavior. Two of the scouts, one possessing a woman (Yuri Tsunematsu) who uses her perceived innocence to wreak bloody havoc and the other possessing a man (Mahiro Takasugi) who uses a curious magazine reporter (Hiroki Hasegawa) to guide him through metropolitan Japan and contact his superiors. The third scout possesses a husband (Ryûhei Matsuda) and uses him to explore human emotions and intimacy with the human’s wife (Masami Nagasawa).
Based on Tomohiro Maekawa’s stage play, Before We Vanish is the latest kooky sci-fi story from director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse, The Cure, Bright Future). I emphasize the use of the word “kooky” because there’s something about Before We Vanish that just feels….off. It’s nothing to do with the story, mind you, as Before We Vanish does have a lot of interesting ideas that stray from the norm of typical alien invasion movies. The most intimidating thing about these aliens is that they’re not at all interested in being intimidating. They’re casual about their impending invasion and more focused on what humans define as work or family or possession than their defenses or resistance. Kurosawa, who also co-wrote the script with Sachiko Tanaka, sees these aliens more like prepubescent kids exploring their independence for the first time and mocking modern life more than showing malice. That idea in the movie’s narrative keeps it interesting, for the most part.
The pieces are there, but Before We Vanish can’t seem to get them to coalesce into a clear picture. For starters, it feels eons longer than its 129-minute runtime because the movie is so obsessed with its aliens exploring human behavior that it almost forgets about its own purpose. Though well-shot and pleasant to look at, it ultimately feels aimless and unsure of what specifically it wants to be. The movie is a riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers at its base level, but there are moments where it wants to look like Spike Jonze and goof off like Edgar Wright that are somehow distracting and boring at the same time. It’s admirable that the movie is mostly restrained and introspective, but when it tries to have it both ways with sparse action scenes, the choreography is half-assed and the special effects are noticeably cheap.
While its sparseness is initially charming, Before We Vanish eventually reveals itself to be missing something: a kicker. For all of its potential and risk-taking, the movie never really gets itself in gear and doesn’t seem to make a lasting statement. There is clearly something unique amongst the scattered pieces of the movie that sadly ended up lost in the shuffle. It’s fine to ask the questions Before We Vanish is getting at, but someone or something has to give some kind of answer.