Saturday, 20 September 2014

Review: BBC America's INTRUDERS • frustrating, beguiling sci-fi thriller

Saturday, 20 September 2014


Based a 2007 novel by British author Michael Marshall Smith, this paranormal mystery thriller has been developed by Glen Morgan; a writer best-known for his '90s partnership with James Wong, where they worked on The X-Files and Millennium. They're pursuing solo projects right now (Wong writes for American Horror Story), but INTRUDERS definitely feels like a throwback to the mid-'90s shows M&W were associated with—bleak, weird, unsettling, and set in the rainy Pacific Northwest.

The UK's own John Simm (Life on Mars) takes the lead as ex-LAPD cop John Whelan, whose wife Amy (Mira Sorvino) starts acting strangely before vanishing one day. Whelan investigates her disappearance, finding himself drawn into a bizarre mystery, which brings him to the attention of a ghoulish assassin called Richard Shepherd (James Frain), masquerading as a FBI agent to cover up the activities of an ancient society. Elsewhere, a nine-year-old girl called Madison (Millie Brown) appears to be possessed by a crotchety old man, and runs away from her confused parents after Shepherd fails to eliminate her.

I've seen four episodes of Intruders, and it's both entertainingly oblique and frustratingly confusing. I was perhaps lucky to start watching the show knowing it concerned a secret society of people who have found a way to become immortal, by 'bodysnatching', because without that knowledge I'm not sure I would have made it this far. All good mysteries need to be cagy, especially in the early going, but there were definitely times when Intruders just felt obstinately unwilling to make things clearer. Perhaps that's because it's a thin idea, when you cut through the writing's miasma, and definitely feels like someone watched the explanation of Being John Malkovich and wanted to do a different version. Bodysnatching is nothing knew in sci-fi, but the tone, aesthetic and pacing of Intruders really does remind me of Spike Jonze's Malkovich—minus the dry humour and angle of attack.

There are also several things that feel a bit dated and ridiculous; like stupid catchphrase "what goes around comes around" (designed to chill your bones, but actually dumb ostentation), the existence of pirate radio DJs trying to enlighten the world about the bodysnatching (during the internet era?), or how lots of characters carry a card emblazoned with the number 9.

Still, the idea behind Intruders is certainly fresher than BBC America's Orphan Black (which is for the 5% of people who still find clones an outlandish idea), and I don't have any clear idea where the story's heading. Right now, it's just a bit frustrating Whelan's not on the same page as the audience, who are ready for the bodysnatching reveal to be made explicit and just get on with matters. The tentativeness to take that step has me wondering if Intruders doesn't have anywhere else to go, once the initial mystery's lifted, but we'll find out soon enough. I hear that Glen Morgan has promises definitive, big answers in the first season, so that's a bonus. (If true, because showrunners have lied in the past, just to keep viewers tuning in.)

Overall, Intruders is a difficult show to get into, unless you already know what its general ambition is—which then, ironically, makes a lot of these early episodes a slog to get through. But it does benefit from having the likeable Simm as a lead (his American accent doesn't even bother me too much), and a very impressive child actor in Millie Brown—who switches from sweet kid to belligerent, foul-mouthed grownup at the drop of a hat. Plus the details of the mythology are intriguing to chew on: who gets to be immortal? Do they possess newborn babies, children, or adults? Is Shephard killing those who don't want to move on, after what appears to be a nine-year lease? Are the "passengers" aware of everything their host is doing in their life, or do they just takeover the body occasionally for their own purposes?

Lots of questions; hope we get all the answers. But more than that, I hope Intruders starts realising a constant air of mystery can get a little suffocating… and audiences need to feel like tangible progress is being made, before boredom and frustration becomes too much to handle.

23 & 30 August, 6 & 13 September 2014