My first New York Film Festival screening for this year (yes, second published review) was of a Japanese film called “Before we Vanish.” Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the film follows the journey of three aliens who invade human bodies. These aliens are laying the groundwork for an invasion set to wipe out humanity. Although the film may have interesting ideas at its core, it fails to execute them in ways that are compelling.

Rather than really focusing on the invasion or possible end of humanity, “Before we Vanish” is much more concerned with how these aliens go about their intelligence gathering. Although they’ve stolen bodies and have a grasp of language, they don’t have a full understanding of concepts like family and property and love. So, in order to gain these ideas, they have another individual visualize them and then pluck the concept from this other person’s head. While this does allow the aliens to understand the idea, it also has the effect of removing it entirely from the head of the human who was picturing it.

See? Absolutely fascinating concept. And Kurosawa goes a little ways down the road of contemplating how people might change if they didn’t know family or didn’t get the distinction between yours and mine.

However, this potentially exciting examination never becomes the full thrust of the film. Instead, the movie spends the majority of its time looking at the aliens, their relationships to one another, and the relationships they form with their “guides.” These guides are human who agree to help the aliens navigate Earth during this preparatory period.

In one case the audience is able to sympathize with the decision of the guide to stay with the alien – the guide, Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) is married to the person, Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda), whose body the alien is inhabiting.  The other guide is a journalist, Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa). He is shepherding one of the other aliens, Amano (Mahiro Takasugi), and has no personal connection to him whatsoever. He simply meets Amano while working on a story about the third alien, Akira (Yuri Tsunematsu).

Sakurai doesn’t come off as a reporter dying for fame and fortune except in this desire to stay with the aliens and see what happens.  Perhaps it is his innate journalistic sensibilities which cause him to make the decision, but those are then poorly established in the film overall. No, it feels as though Sakurai does what he does mostly because the film needs him to be present in order for those of us in the audience to understand the aliens and their actions.

Although Sakurai’s decision-making process is, perhaps, questionable, the real weakness in the film is that it only ever deals with the lofty questions about humanity on a very surface level. It is happy to establish the questions but not to delve into them, at least not to delve into the them for the vast majority of the film’s runtime. It is almost as though, like the aliens, “Before we Vanish” is aware that it wants to probe an issue but doesn’t quite grasp how to get at it. The result is a repeated, elongated, scratching of the surface, a two-plus hour movie without an exploration that fills the time.

The most interesting element that “Before we Vanish” has going for it is the Narumi-Shinji relationship. Their marriage was rocky prior to the alien abduction, and watching Narumi navigate this new Shinji is engrossing. While she knows her husband is different, she is initially unaware of the alien presence and even when she does know about it, she still must parse what this means for her life and this important, if strained, relationship. Clearly this aspect of the film ties back into the desire for understanding concepts which make up the aliens’ quest, but it is still something the movie is never quite able to get at.

“Before we Vanish” is one of those films which has this great fundamental concept but which is never able to carry it out in a way that makes entire film feel worthwhile. It is a movie that is momentarily interesting, that is regularly about to hit these lofty concepts, but doesn’t ever quite get there.

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photo credit: Wild Bunch/Neon