Before We Vanish (2017)

Directed by
Interesting concept but rather sterile execution
Reviewed by Simon on 2021-03-06

Three aliens arrive on earth to check the place out in preparation for an invasion. As non-physical beings they first have to take over some human bodies to explore in, and then start collecting ideas - when they don't understand what somebody is talking about they steal the concept from their mind, leaving the person without that concept themselves in the process.

As high concept sci-fi BEFORE WE VANISH has an interesting premise, exploring the idea that some concepts which seem natural to humans might be non-universal, and how society might be different if our conceptions changed. The treatment of this idea in the film is pretty superficial though, with a brief subplot where Shinnosuke Mitsushima loses the concept of "my property" being one of the few parts that really make a case that there are some ideas we'd be better off without. The flow is more often in the opposite direction, with the aliens becoming more complete as they acquire human concepts. This seems like a rather parochial view of the universe.

The three aliens all have very different attitudes to the human population, and since it's implied that their own species is a hive mind they presumably acquired these differences from the hosts they found themselves in, but the film doesn't really explore this. Mahiro Takasugi and Yuri Tsunematsu seem to be quite fully developed
personalities from the beginning of the film, whereas Ryuhei Matsuda is an almost completely blank slate, incapable of even basic functions without the assistance of his estranged wife.

The development of Matsuda's character through his interactions with Masami Nagasawa forms the primary arc of the film, so perhaps the other aliens' development was skipped over to focus the lens more sharply on that story. Ryuhei Matsuda still exudes that enigmatic "otherness" that he brought to films like Blue Spring and 9 SOULS in his youth, making him a perfect choice for the most inscrutable of the aliens.

The other main arc is that of a journalist who first sees an opportunity for a big scoop when he learns of the impending invasion, but then has to question where his loyalties lie and how they should compel him to act. This was probably the more interesting story for me, as it isn't played how it almost certainly would be in a Hollywood remake.

Finally I think I found the ideas raised by the film more interesting than the film itself, which poses some interesting questions but didn't particularly engage me on an emotional level. I think the intellectual detachment of the film is deliberate though, it definitely doesn't want to be an INDEPENDENCE DAY sort of alien invasion, we're not supposed to be cheering for the heroes to triumph in the face of overwhelming odds or anything like that. It's more like a mirror held up to give us a new perspective on ourselves.

I guess it's not even trying to hold a mirror up to society, really, which is perhaps why that angle seemed underdeveloped. It's perhaps just nudging us to take a look at how we live our lives on a personal level, how we engage with others and what our values are, whether we are the best version of ourselves that we could be.