Before We Vanish is not your typical alien invasion movie. Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (The Cure, Pulse), the Japanese sci-fi thriller is more interested in the human component of the alien invasion story than that of the otherworldly intruders, which makes for a deeper character study of those dealing with the crisis.
Like a modern-day Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the alien intruders here are insidious — they occupy members of society seemingly at random, and take over their bodies and minds. In the striking opening, a young Japanese schoolgirl suddenly turns violent, murdering an elderly woman before wandering aimlessly down a highway covered in blood, causing even more destruction in her wake.
As we quickly learn, the aliens are laying the groundwork for a full-scale invasion, but a few of them have first been tasked with learning as much as they can about the human condition. They do this by literally plucking out elements of the human understanding of various concepts from the minds of their victims (“love,” “work”) who then lose any understanding of that concept, leaving them in various stages of mental decay.
The bulk of the story is set on one couple dealing with the crisis — Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda) suddenly returns home acting incredibly strange and confused, unsure of even the basic tenants of his day-to-day life. His estranged wife Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) tries to help him out of loyalty, and quickly becomes intertwined in Shinji’s increasingly out-of-control condition.
Tabloid journalist Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa) gets caught up in the alien plot when he is tasked with being the “guide” to an alien inhabiting the body of a pushy young man. He begrudgingly accepts at first, hoping for a lead on a story, but quickly becomes a mouthpiece trying to spread the word of the upcoming invasion to a very skeptical public.
A 70’s-style conspiracy thriller mixed with an apocalyptic sci-fi blockbuster by way of a domestic comedy, Before We Vanish is a slow-paced, allegorical look at the human condition and the ways in which we interact with those closest to us. Based on a stage play by Tomohiro Maekawa, the film still feels like a closed-in experience. Even with its potentially large scope (this is a planetary invasion after all), the story remains focused on only on few characters and their experiences, and sticks to only a handful of locales for most of its 2-hour plus running time.
Juggling multiple genres at once often gives Before We Vanish a bit of a schizophrenic feel, and may be hard for many audiences to fully sink their teeth into. The final act of the film turns into the straight-up sci-fi action blowout that the trailer and poster hint at, but by that point the action seems incongruous with the domestic drama that has been playing out, and feels like an entirely different movie has suddenly been tacked on.
With moving performances and a unique take on how an alien invasion might play out, Before We Vanish is definitely worth a look once it becomes widely available, even if it’s a pretty disorienting experience overall.