There is something about movies which try to reaffirm humanity’s potential to be great that rings hollow once you step outside the film’s world. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (best known for Pulse and Tokyo Sonata) echoes a similar sentiment by the time his latest film, Before We Vanish, reaches its conclusion. Yet throughout its entire runtime it sabotages itself by mirroring our reality, then leaving us with little reason to justify a potential solution to our own wanton behavior. Amidst an alien invasion, Kurosawa merely highlights our own failures, while staying far too focused on a singular relationship to transfer itself to anything meaningful.
It is extremely apt that Before We Vanish opens with an alien murdering a human and then proceeding to taste the blood of its victim. Quickly we realize that these creatures are preparing to invade Earth, but have sent three of their “comrades” (the closest word they can find to describe their relationship to one another) ahead of the invasion in order to take peoples’ conceptions. So, a lot of the movie is about watching these aliens inhabit human bodies, walk around clueless as to how humans communicate, and then run into other humans and take their conceptions of “love,” “family,” “work,” etc. This leaves the human void of that concept, forever unable to grasp what it means.
The comparisons to Invasion of the Body Snatchers are easy, or really any science fiction film from the cold-war era that involved aliens coming to Earth. Where Before We Vanish shines is in the relationships that the aliens have with humanity. Each alien takes on a human vessel and then subsequently looks for a human guide who will help them understand humanity. The first alien we’re introduced to takes the body of Akira Tachibana (Yuri Tsunematsu), a schoolgirl who doesn’t really get a guide because she has a difficult time interacting with humans. That opening scene vividly portrays her violent entrance to Earth, and leaves many of her interactions with a violent outcome. Meanwhile, Shinji Kase (Ryuhei Matsuda) is inhabited by an alien and finds a guide in his human’s wife, Narumi (Masami Nagasawa). Their relationship and interactions act as the prime example of how humanity can be good. And then there’s Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa), who looks into the disappearance of Akira and stumbles upon Amano (Mahiro Takasugi), another alien who then takes Sakurai as his guide.
The acting is just kind of there and no one really stands out. Unfortunately, this is a case of the script not really demanding much. Nagasawa distinguishes herself the most as Narumi because of her struggle to understand and ideally reclaim her husband from the alien host. Their relationship stands as the most interesting one because a lot of Shinji’s actions early on don’t mesh well with the other aliens. He never seeks them out like Amano and Akira do, and he comes across as someone who doesn’t really want to partake in any invasion. It’s not because he values humanity, but because he isn’t quite sure why Earth needs to be wiped out. All of the aliens have their outlooks on humanity ultimately shaped by the interactions they have with humans, and the only one who has a positive relationship is Shinji.
I like the way Shinji’s arc unfolds, but I also take umbrage with Kurosawa’s way of ending the film. The finale concludes in a way that serves as epilogue to the story, not really realizing that the message had been delivered. Not only were the themes of the film explored, but the character arcs had already been excavated. What is worse is that the epilogue is where my issues with the final message of the film are mostly introduced and cemented. There’s an idea that humanity can be good that is seeded throughout the film, but as mentioned, it manifests solely in Shinji’s arc; there aren’t even hints of good humans outside of it. At one point, someone is hit by a car and we just see bystanders not really reacting. Before We Vanish’s ending feels insincere because it paints too finely on one image and forgets about the broader strokes.
Before We Vanish is worth it for how it approaches the things we value most — it just doesn’t come off as exciting enough to justify being 130-minutes long. The movie only further harms itself when its disingenuous conclusion leaves things feeling like much of the story was in opposition to the film’s message. It’s all a shame, because despite its lengthy runtime, the film delves into interesting territory. It feels a lot like 2016’s Arrival in its themes, and made me realize that perhaps now is the best time to bring alien invasion films back to the forefront of pop culture. Humanity seems to be in a constant state of unease right now, and alien invasion films help explore that in compelling ways.