Shot in Mississippi but standing in for generic fly-over small-town U.S.A., the indie sci-fi horror Assimilate grooves along on an Invasion of the Body Snatchers high.
Body Snatchers, the oft-remade and adapted story about ordinary people (usually white Americans if I’m being kinda real – the original was set during the “red scare” after all) having their physical forms cloned and lives replicated by an unknown but possibly alien force, delivers in a premise most creepy; fighting your double. As a fraternal twin myself, I can relate to a degree in this anxiety about one’s life not being sacred or fulfilled or under control. Indeed, few things are actually “under control,” so the idea of doppelgangers showing up in near sync is deeply unnerving. Assimilate does justice to this theme of underlying existential dread and zombie-like terror, but not with the finesse one would like to see.
In Assimilate, we follow two best friends who are producing a web series on their boring small town. They clip cameras to their shirts and record everything, data upon data being used and sent to their personal hard drives. Soon, they begin to notice strange occurrences, like an animal biting a woman and the local Pastor acting off. It doesn’t take long for almost everyone in town to be “off”, freaking out the buddies and one of their love interests. Even sooner, they are running for their lives, hoping to find a wifi signal of some sort to upload these incidents for the world to see. It would/could be shrugged off as all too silly, and yes it is awfully silly but should Assimilate be oh so dusted off of our shoulders?
Director John Murlowski, with a fair share of cleverness, finds a way to weave in found footage genre without having to be confined by its conventions. The hand cam first person shots, the webcam recordings, etc are all incorporated nicely into a well made, if ho-hum, modern narrative. Jump scares are used within the smartphone digital video bits and are telegraphed grossly, but it’s all for genuine fun. Murlowski and cast/crew don’t seem to be oh so cynical about what they’re making, or even making fun of. Assimilate, for better or worse, is happy to be around. Is glad to be watched. Is fortunate to be allowed in our eyes. It’s very much a humble film, and that’s rare.
Speaking on technical craft some more, I was surprised many times by the beyond textbook and clear cut cinemaphotography and editing, wonderfully moving its composition with purpose and suspense and action, outshining some schlocky acting here and there (not from the teen leads or the cloned humans – those performances gave me joy). I suspect that Assimilate is almost a proof of ability kind of film, where Murlowski and his team made something to show off their talent from. A similar in that speculated vein movie, Skyline, tried this many years prior and failed critically. In that case, the special effects were nice but everything else was and remains miserable. Assimilate may not have the budget for spectacular graphics, but what it lacks in the virtual it makes up for in the reel real.
Heart. It has plenty of heart.
Admittedly, I was disappointed that local actor Michael Martin’s role was cut from the movie. If ever there was a performer to play in a pseudo-remake of an ultimate Cold War-era sci-fi flick, it’s Michael. Alas, Assimilate stands as watchable and worth a VOD rental, but do temper your expectations. You’ll laugh, you’ll be impressed, and you’ll laugh again. It’s no comedy, but come on: The concept and follow-through does make for a slap-happy smile.
RATING: 2.5 / 5
Assimilate is now playing in select theaters and on demand through iTunes.
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved.