Assimilate (2019)

Assimilate first published as an audio contribution to The Grimm Exchange

John Murlowski’s sci-fi horror Assimilate opens with a close-up of tiny ant-like creatures swarming on a large leaf. In a single fluid motion, the camera pans left to reveal a well-lit suburban middle-class home at night. We cut to inside, and a young, panicked teenager with a bleeding arm is on the phone to her mother. “I don’t know what to do about this bite,” she says – and already a causal association has been suggested between those bugs outside, and the girl’s bandaged cut. In a moment there is something else outside – something that is human or at least looks that way – trying violently to infiltrate the house’s interiors. “What?” says the girl, confused as she sees her assailant through the glass door – and the scene ends as the naked female figure outside bursts in. What this prologue reveals is just how vulnerable to infection, invasion and attack are supposedly secure homes and bourgeois values in America. It also reveals, in retrospect, how frightened we are of ourselves.

As high-school seniors Zach Henderson (Joel Courtney) and Randy Foster (Calum Worthy, Bodied) use “sweet little Blutooth cameras” to document small-town life in sleepy Molton, Missouri for their vlog ‘Welcome to Oblivion’, they uncover much more than they expect. For, with help from their increasingly alarmed friend Kayla Shepard (Andi Matichak), they capture on camera a rapid alien takeover in which the townsfolk are substituted, one after the other, by pod-born clones. In other words, this is an Invasion of the Body Snatchers scenario – and the premise is established early enough in Murlowski’s fast-moving film that outlining it here hardly constitutes a spoiler. 

If this sounds like something unoriginal, something that has been seen countless times before, then both the film’s working title Replicate and its official title Assimilate, not to mention the bodysnatching business of its plot, all foreground this idea of copying, appropriation and unoriginality. And Invasion of the Body Snatchers lends itself, precisely, to duplication: it was first made by Don Siegel in 1956 adapting Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, and then remade by Philip Kaufman in 1978, by Abel Ferrara in 1993 and by Oliver Hirschbiegel in 2007, and even reimagined by Bryan Forbes’ The Stepford Wives (1975), John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty (1998) and Sean Ellis’ The Brøken (2008). This story type, transforming Capgras delusion into the stuff of paranoid science fiction, is a modern myth which plays on anxieties about identity, otherness and societal change. Don Siegel’s original Invasion of the Body Snatchers was clearly staging contemporary Cold War fears of ‘reds under the bed’ and communist takeover – and with Assimilate, it is not hard to imagine what Murlowski, co-writing with Steven Palmer Peterson, was allegorising. For it was made in the middle of the Trump era, a time when, no matter what your political persuasion, at least half the polarised country’s populace appeared to have been replaced by sinister dead-eyed aliens, and neither neighbours nor family members could be trusted anymore.

Assimilate sets itself up to be found footage horror, but in fact from the start it freely interweaves Zach and Randy’s video with more conventional camerawork, so that we get a mixture of ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ views. The boys’ footage, though, constitutes evidence of what is going on, and as events progress, they realise that they have a responsibility to record, upload and report to the rest of the world. There is an irony here: for the internet is also the space where we all freely adopt virtual identities, communicate remotely, retrieve memory and reinvent ourselves, even as we spread ideas virally to others. So in Assimilate, it is not just that the invaders assume the form of those they are colonising, but the resistance also ends up looking and acting remarkably like the invaders. Here, everyone assimilates.

strap: John Murlowski’s found-footage sci-fi visits small-town America with body-snatching aliens set on taking over

© Anton Bitel